What Happens When Your 9/11 ‘Seinfeld’ Spec Script Blows Up the Internet
If you’ve spent any time on the internet over the past month, chances are you’ve seen headlines about a spec script called “The Twin Towers” that imagines what an episode of Seinfeld might look like in the days after 9/11. If you haven’t read the script yet, do yourself a favor and read the whole thing here. If you’ve already read it, you might be wondering what it’s been like for writer Billy Domineau, the freelance Weekend Update joke contributor, former Onion News Network writer, and brave soul who decided to tackle such a crazy Seinfeld endeavor. I recently caught up with Domineau to find out how he got the idea for the script, what’s happened since he shared it online, and what he’s learned from the experience.
First off, congratulations! It’s kind of crazy how quickly this script became a hit.
Thank you so much! I mean, it was definitely Splitsider’s article that really tipped the scales to the point of no return. It’s been absolutely absurd.
I read that you came up with the idea while working with a student. What were you working on, and what do you teach?
In terms of my day job right now, I’m a general academic tutor. Usually what I do is SAT/ACT prep, but occasionally I’ll get students who are looking for something a little bit different. I had put down sketch writing as one of my “special skills” with one company, and randomly there was a student who was looking for a sketch tutor. She was taking a sketch class at a comedy theater and was looking for someone who could help her spruce up her work before she actually brought it in to class each week.
So one week we were working on a sketch, and her assignment was to write something in bad taste. I was telling her “Okay, right now this is sort of going halfway. It’s approaching the prompt, but at times it’s sort of stepping back from the line and also apologizing, and if you’re gonna work in bad taste you have to go all the way with it.” I was trying to think of some examples of what that might look like to illustrate it for her, and I eventually said something like “Imagine if there was a 9/11 episode of Seinfeld” and just sort of stopped myself in that moment like “…I wanna talk about that for a moment.” [laughs]
Most of the storylines popped out immediately. Then over the next couple days I refined them a little bit, then over the course of the next couple months, I sat on the idea for a while and really started to fine-tune the outline of it and try to figure out how to actually make these stories come together, what the motivations for each character were, and how to actually take this beyond what was essentially a bit. But eventually I got to a point a little over a month ago where I said to myself “All right, it’s time to actually put pen to paper on this and start writing.” And it happened very very quickly — I only did one draft, made some minor revisions, then put it out to the world.
So how long did it take to actually write the script?
I think around mid July I started writing it and had the first act of it. I wrote that in about a day or two, then I brought that to my writers group, got some initial feedback on it, and then just sat down the next night and pounded out about 30 pages of Act II and the rest of Act I. In terms of actual writing time, probably only about ten hours. In terms of prep time though, a lot, lot longer.
Right, and you need that time to just develop it in your head.
Yeah, a lot of that time was spent thinking back through old episodes in my head, occasionally watching episodes or actually looking at a script on paper and trying to figure out how the beats work and how they pace out scenes. One of the big things of Seinfeld is there’s an ebb and flow of the big group scenes people have in Monk’s or in Jerry’s apartment at which point we’re checking in with all the characters and where they are story-wise, and then they go out on their own individual scenes, which are much shorter, and they take the next step in their plan or hit the next beat in their conflict. So I had to figure out how to keep them hustling back and forth and at the same time try to understand what the story patterns were for similar stories that each of these characters had encountered at different points throughout the series.
What was the biggest challenge of putting it together?
I would say what I definitely spent the most time on, in terms of the actual prep, was figuring out how to actually make these stories come together. Seinfeld has the classic ending where suddenly all four stories are one in the final scene. But even beyond that, while rewatching episodes I realized that they all start separately but they don’t just suddenly merge in the end — they actually start to tie two stories together, usually. So now we’ve got four small stories, then we have two big stories, and then we have the final scene. So it’s about figuring out which stories are two sides of the same coin.
And then on top of that there’s figuring out the tone of the story: Is this a parody in the vein of that Friends spec that was sent around about ten years ago, “The One Where They All Get HIV,” or is it going to be something that has some element of heart to it? Ultimately, rather than overthinking it I decided no, the premise of this is a 9/11 episode where that just happens to be the backdrop. Other than that, it’s pure Seinfeld.
When you took the initial draft to your writers group for feedback, what did they say?
I pitched them the idea just verbally a few months ago, and that was a tepid response. It seemed like people were being very cautious in their words, and it seemed like they were thinking, without saying it, “Oh God, he’s an asshole. Why does he think he can pull this off?” or just that it was in bad taste. I brought in the first 15 pages however many weeks ago now and got very strong laughs, but even then people were saying “Why are you doing this?” One of my friends was saying “Just so you know, this could be a really good thing for you, but if this gets sent around in any way there are going to be some people who are never going to want to work with you.” And I said “That’s absolutely fine.”
Granted, the response I’ve gotten has been incredibly surprising in that it hasn’t been very polarizing. People have been overwhelmingly positive about it, but I was much more prepared for a negative response critically, and I was totally accepting of that because it’s meant to help people sort of self-screen out of my work if they’re people I might be going to work with: This is me, this is what I do, these are the ideas I have, and I’m always about creating self-screen opportunities so people can understand what I’m about so none of us waste our time. [laughs]
Your script was all over the internet less than 24 hours after you posted it. Can you walk me through what that was like for you?
Yeah! Well, after I posted it, it gradually built up where I had some friends who were retweeting it throughout the day, and it was getting a very steady stream just within my social group and mutual friends, things like that. Then by the end of the day I had some friends who are more established in the entertainment industry retweet it or share it on Facebook, and they reached out to me and said like “Hey, we’re gonna connect you with our representatives” and at that point I was like “Okay, I got what I wanted out of this.”
The second day, on August 3rd, people were reaching out to me for interviews, and like I said, the Splitsider article was really the point of no return where the wider internet became aware and suddenly it shot up on Reddit and things like that. From Wednesday night into Thursday morning, that’s when I started getting a lot of professional emails from management agencies and production companies. So that’s really when it became a whirlwind, and I was stuck on the phone and in meetings for the next week nonstop after that until I happened to leave Los Angeles on vacation.
You’re on vacation right now?
Yeah, I happened to have this scheduled anyway, so it turned out really well. I was able to spend enough time in Los Angeles and lock down representation, so now I’m away seeing some friends in New York and at home in Massachusetts for a little bit, then I’ll go back next week and start to take more of the actual production meetings around town.
What kind of job would you like?
I’m looking into different staffing opportunities as well as the possibility of development, so I’m just gonna see in the coming weeks what the market is throwing at me and what sort of opportunities are available. So I’m definitely open to either of those. In terms of where I hope I land, that’s totally up in the air, but as far as shows I admire or hope to work on now or one day, I’m a huge Rick and Morty fan. What they’re doing not only comedically but story-wise is absolutely brilliant. And shows like The Eric Andre Show that are pushing the boundaries of what even the most seasoned comedy viewers can watch and still, without cringing and totally walking away from the TV, handle. Nathan for You, things like that — I’m totally enthralled with that kind of work. Not necessarily as jobs for right now, but I’d love to find people with voices as ambitious as those.
You mentioned being surprised about how there really wasn’t that much negative blowback. Why do you think there wasn’t?
I think, like I said before, it’s because 9/11 is the backdrop for it but ultimately it’s an episode of Seinfeld. What people seem to be responding to the most is that it reads like an actual episode of Seinfeld — they can hear the characters’ voices in their heads, they can imagine how this would look on the screen — and that’s all I could ever hope for, so that’s been the primary focus. Then the sort of bad taste cherry on top is that at the same time, it’s able to handle 9/11 in a comedic way that’s a little bit cringey but good cringey and not just there to be in bad taste.
I’ve gotten some direct feedback from people who have more direct relationships to the attacks, whether they’re first responders or people who lost friends, and that’s also been overwhelmingly positive with people saying things like “Thank you, I thought this was hilarious.” A couple people even said “I had friends who I lost. They would’ve thought this was hilarious.” I have had one or two people in those close positions who have ranted at me on Twitter. They have every right to do that, I’m not going to judge their response in any way, I certainly knew that was coming, and I’m happy to take it.
Looking back on everything that’s happened, what have you learned?
Well, certainly this was a unique experience in terms of the product and the reaction to it, but it was the best-case scenario for the strategy I was pursuing professionally, which is one that allows me to, like I was describing before, sort of self-screen out my work. I feel like for many years I’d been trying to chase after what seems to be popular in the marketplace by modifying my voice in order to suit it, or by trying to tackle various media that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to my brand of humor. Eventually, about a year ago or so, I said to myself “No more of that. You’re just going to write and perform and create in a manner that you’re most interested in and you’re most comfortable in, and whatever happens, good or ill, that’s fine.” I was getting sick of the feeling of chasing after this thing and not getting results and not enjoying the process, so ultimately, this is the type of project I was happy to take on — not expecting really anything from it with the process being its own reward. And luckily, there’s been a reward on top of that.
Photo credit: Julia Sherman