Welcome to our column Sketch Anatomy, where we ask some of our favorite television writers to choose any sketch — one they personally wrote or one from history they find particularly hilarious, notable, or underappreciated — to learn from a writer's perspective what separates a successful sketch from the rest.
For this week's Sketch Anatomy, we're breaking the rules a little to go behind the scenes of a classic '90s sitcom episode with Andy Cowan, former writer for Cheers and 3rd Rock from the Sun and the mind behind the acclaimed 1994 Seinfeld episode "The Opposite." Ranked at #1 in our own list of every Seinfeld episode, "The Opposite" was a freelance submission by Cowan that went on to become Seinfeld's fifth season finale. I recently chatted with Cowan about how he broke into television writing, what it was like to have his script accepted by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, and his thoughts on the future of the traditional sitcom format.
How did you first break into TV writing?
Well I started writing and performing standup back in Philly. I actually wrote my first spec script back in Philly…oh my God, I don't even want to tell you what show that was for, it really dates me. It was Phyllis with Cloris Leachman in '76 — I was a young pup and had sent it in from back in Philly. The Charles Brothers, who worked on that show, sent me a note on what was good about it and what still needed work. Less than ten years later when I met them at Cheers, I reminded them about my Phyllis submission and they said, "So you’re the one who watched that show." Anyway, I came out here to LA and continued writing standup and some spec scripts for Taxi, which got some nice responses, and then I wound up getting my first sitcom, which was Cheers. I was working at The Merv Griffin Show at the time. That was my first Hollywood gig — that was like showbiz university. I would pre-interview everybody from Orson Welles to Seinfeld coming up, and I performed comedy on the show too, in the '80s.
I had a writing partner at the time, Dave Williger, and we landed a Cheers script through an attorney who acted as our so-called agent. We didn't have any hopes of it being seen. You always hear that you don't send spec scripts to the actual shows, you send it to other shows; all these so-called rules that are — speaking of "The Opposite" — good to follow the opposite of. So six months later we heard that they liked it and we were shocked. We wound up writing three episodes through the Shelley Long era and a fourth story, wrote a freelance episode for another show and were on a writing staff together, then kind of parted ways. Then I had to reinvent myself because those scripts had both of our names on them, and I wound up writing for Diane English's show Double Rush among others, which preceded landing on Seinfeld. 3rd Rock from the Sun followed Seinfeld. All three shows were on the same lot, which was a bit strange. Like camp, where Seinfeld was my favorite bunk.
How did "The Opposite" go from being a pitch to a real Seinfeld episode?
I faxed ideas left and right to Larry David and periodically talked to him. I had a rare entree to him through my manager at the time who knew him. He mostly shied away from sitcom writers because he didn't want to do anything similar to what conventional shows do, so most people who wound up writing over there didn't have a sitcom background per se. So I started pitching ideas to him and got close with a couple — he liked this bra idea of mine about Kramer and George discovering a bra in a dryer, and it was almost like George looking at it as the glass slipper and trying to find the woman it fit. But he said they were doing another bra show that year — my luck. So as a last ditch effort, I just threw out a notion that I had thought of in my own life; I always used to think to myself: What if I had done the complete opposite of what I've done up until now? Would I be any better off? I just threw it at him as a last ditch thing, and I could tell there was kind of a spark there. He took a shine to it and basically told me to work up other stories and we'll see. So I developed four stories involving "the opposite" as the predominant theme, and he wound up giving me the go-ahead to do a freelance script. I wasn't on staff or anything. I was thrilled to get the opportunity to do that.
So I did this episode and finished writing it the morning of the Northridge earthquake. It literally has the date of that quake on the cover. I was up working on the script until 3:00am the night before — had I been up just a couple hours later, I would've been in my office with bookshelves toppling over me. So the date to submit it was obviously postponed, and after they got it they revamped it like they always would — Jerry and Larry always did that — but I wasn't on staff, so I was particularly prone to being rewritten. And it turned into the finale of that season, which had to tie up loose ends that I wasn't privy to, so it wound up incorporating George's job — that's when he first landed the Yankees job. In my original version I had him become a furrier, the complete opposite of a smart career move. There were so many different "opposite" aspects to the first draft, but mine was kind of more like a Rubik's Cube of opposites. So the opposite theme was mine, but basically all the other stories changed in the finale. I still have a soft spot for the first draft. It helped land me a lot of work over the years. In fact I got a rare opportunity a couple years back — a writer's dream — where I hosted a talk show pilot called Another Talk Show! with Andy Cowan, and my lead guest was Jason Alexander. I was so happy to get him, and I got permission from Castle Rock to reenact scenes from my first draft of "The Opposite." I played Jerry and Jason played George — so we got to read lines from a script in front of an audience, and that was a real thrill.
So how did it work as far as the changes made to your original draft?
My first lesson along those lines was when Ted Danson was a guest on The Merv Griffin Show the week that our first Cheers was filming. Talk about an exciting moment. He hands me the script from the dressing room with everybody's signatures on the cover, and then I opened it and saw some of our lines but a lot of it was changed. So that's when I first learned the lesson of how much a freelancer's stuff gets changed. And he said it happens all the time, which is true, so you know, you just learn to live with it.
But yeah, Jerry and Larry were very hands-on. I loved the writing arrangement over there, because I was never a big fan of writing around a table. I'm much better zoning in on the computer and being in my own space as opposed to the dynamics of fraternizing around a table, because there will inevitably be a situation where you connect with some people better than others. To me, I don't think the best writing is necessarily gained from writing out loud — I think it's better to write on paper and really polish it. And at Seinfeld you'd pitch four stories to Larry and Jerry, and when you got the go-ahead you'd go off, write the script on your own, submit it, and then that's it. Later on when Jerry was running it I think they did have a table, if I'm not mistaken.
Was there a particular storyline or moment that stuck the most to your original vision?
Probably the setup in the restaurant where George goes up to the woman. Many of the lines were different, but the way it was established was similar to mine, because I basically had George in the first draft at Monk’s with Jerry, talking about his lot in life…
"I admit it. I am, without a doubt, a complete and utter failure. My system is in desperate need of failure antibodies. I'm jobless. I'm woman-less. I have no future. I don't even have a present. In my wildest dreams, I can't even imagine opening an IRA. At 59 and a half, you know what I'll have to retire on? My parents' inheritance. And believe me… they'll still be around. And I'll be living right there with them. Spending the twilight of my middle age still having to plump up pillows that don't plump. And who do I have to blame? Me. It's all my fault. Every conscious decision I made to get to this time and this place was a blueprint for disaster."
So that's one of the bigger speeches, and Jerry's kind of goading and listening to him, and then George gets to the part where he says:
"My life is the complete opposite of what I want it to be. I should've done… the complete opposite of whatever I've done up till now."
…and then he gets the chicken salad, and walks up to the woman — there was a similarity there. So that scene, out of all of them, reminded me the most of how I was trying to establish how we got into it. In the ultimate script it was more Jerry's suggestion than George's epiphany.
By then, though, were you used to the certainty that your scripts would change a lot, especially to accommodate the bigger arcs of the show?
Oh sure. And with the Yankees and everything else, they had to tie up those loose ends which I didn't even know were even happening. My Elaine story originally involved pretending she knew the meaning of vocabulary her erudite boyfriend used, and Kramer's involved regaining his missing sex drive — which ultimately dovetailed into the opposite in a surprising way at the very end. And Jerry’s involved favoring his left side to this waitress he wound up dating, because she hadn’t remembered him from Monk’s when he’d left her a deservedly lousy tip, and she would have seen his opposite side, what George also claimed happened to be Jerry’s less good side. But I was really pleased with the aired end result. In fact, Larry even said to me — I think he got nominated for an Emmy for some other script that year — and he said that this should've been nominated. He actually said that to me, and I was really honored to hear that.
Are you looking forward to Mulaney on Fox? It's getting lots of Seinfeld comparisons already.
It'll be interesting to check out. And I read that Mulaney's influences growing up were Seinfeld and Cheers; I'm one of only two to have written for both shows.
He also chose to do it the more traditional multi-cam way, which is an interesting move. What are your thoughts on the multi-cam's place today, when single-cams have become so popular?
People have a prejudice against multi-cams. Seinfeld was an interesting hybrid as it continued, because it had so many sets and it had little snippets of outdoor scenes, simulated New York streets, all this other stuff — so it was really the best of both words, in a way, and I think it helped open the doors further to the single-cam world. But we had single-cam shows in the '60s with that obnoxious laugh track, so single-cams are not anything new. Larry David was never concerned as much about the jokes as much as servicing the characters and the story, and the story being fresh — the jokes were the cherry on top. So you got the sense that wow, these people exist, they're like my friends, I want to hang out with them for a half hour every week, I don't really buy that it's a script, I don't hear the familiar rhythms or setup-punch, setup-punch… it's just inherently funny. And a lot of the magic too has to go to the casting. It goes without saying that the leads on Seinfeld were incredible, but every single character just had that idiosyncratic, interesting, human feel to them that didn't seem cookie-cutter, and the characters in and of themselves were funny before they even said a word. So I mean, if all of that is right, I think it can still work in a multi-cam and appeal to multiple demos.
As the writer behind a top ten Seinfeld episode, what's your advice for aspiring television writers?
I think the old adage: If you want to write, write. And writing is the art of rewriting anyway, so it's all about getting something down. Even if you're afraid it's not going to be any good, just get it down there and then sculpt it, shape it, and get an idea of what your sensibility is out there in terms of what's on the air now. And don't try to ape it — just be true to your own voice within the confines of whatever genre you think best services your voice, and then send spec scripts out. Like I said, with Cheers, the old adage was to not send spec scripts to the show — we proved that wrong, but that could've been an anomaly, I don't know. I'm sure it's tougher than ever because staffs are smaller than ever. It's also so much about networking — getting your face in front of people who like you come staffing time, because it's so much about friends hiring friends. No matter how great your script is, if you can't get it through the proper channels or they're not aware of it, it can be really frustrating. But speaking of "The Opposite," slavishly focusing on your dreams leaves you obsessing on the dangling carrot of what you don’t have, and taking for granted, if not ignoring, what you do. Do the opposite. Dream small. Live large.
Andy Cowan is currently writing a book about his days on The Merv Griffin Show called What the Stars Told Me* *Before the Show, which will be available on Amazon next year.