Nerd Guru

Because technical people need good soft skills to get ahead.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Testing Seinfeld's "The Deal"

Here's a common problem: You have some really cool idea that takes some completely different approach to a problem and despite getting your whole team excited about the idea, it gets shot down by management. The suits upstairs are pretty risk averse, as a general rule, but that doesn't mean they're right. I know what you're thinking, "What could this possibly have to do with Seinfeld?"

I went digging for my Seinfeld Seasons 1&2 DVD set the other day so I could prepare a Watch This DVD article on the very interesting bonus footage on the genesis of the series when I instead stumbled upon an unexpectedly good example of the use of testing to prove the merits of an unconventional theory that management doesn't endorse.

What can be easy to forget is that Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David weren't always Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, geniuses behind what many consider to be US TV's greatest comedy. When they first started, they were just two guys who wrote what they thought was funny and the suits at NBC didn't always agree with them. The first volume of the DVD set has both Seasons 1&2 on it because both were extraordinarily short as a result of a full season not being ordered by NBC until it's third year. Conventional wisdom in those early days by the management team was that the series wouldn't make it due to how offbeat it was (which, ironically, ended up being the reason it was popular).

Among the things NBC management thought the show needed was for Jerry and Elaine to be a couple instead of just friends. The thinking was that this confused audiences and that they needed to be together in order for people to connect with the characters. Although Larry David in particular disagreed, he came up with a compromise to placate his bosses in what aired as the finale to Season 2, "The Deal".

As I watched the disk set again, I turned on the audio commentary for each episode and the one for "The Deal" presented a case for testing an unconventional idea. The premise for the episode is that Jerry and Elaine want to remain friends, but become friends who occasionally have sex. As explained in the audio commentary, this is based on an actual relationship Larry David had and "the rules" established in the show in an attempt to keep a "relationship" from developing stemmed from the ones he actually used in real life. As a refresher, they were:

1. No calls the next day
2. Sleeping over is optional
3. No good night kiss

So, NBC executives left the second season thinking that the two characters would have a love interest in Season 3, but then something happened: Jerry Seinfeld toured the country during the hiatus with is stand up act. A regular feature of this act was that he'd take questions from the audience in an attempt to interact with them and what he discovered is that people hated Jerry and Elaine being together despite it being a typical TV formula (again, probably because it was a typical TV formula)

With this anecdotal evidence in hand, the next season began with the two characters as friends with no explanation as to what happened. When the show grew in popularity in that 3rd season, NBC left them alone on a host of control issues, including the Jerry/Elaine dynamic.

While this isn't exactly the kind of formal research, prototype, testing model you'd use in an engineering situation, the conflict between creative staff and management is a familiar one. By coming up with a compromise and then testing the assertions made creativity won out, ultimately in a big, big way.


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posted by Pete Johnson @ 10:01 AM   0 comments

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