How to Write an Episode of Seinfeld: A Scene by Scene Deconstruction

How many scenes would you say are in an episode of Seinfeld?

Most people seem to guess that there are 8. And by “most people” I mean that I conducted some rough “research” where I polled five writer friends via an email. I was surprised to find that almost all of them thought an episode of Seinfeld contained roughly 6-8 scenes.

Seinfeld, "The Chicken Roaster"

Wrong.

It seems that most episodes of Seinfeld have somewhere between 18 and 22 scenes. I know because I watched six episodes and counted – I actually took detailed notes on each. Down below I’ll break down an episode scene by scene.

So… what’s  scene?

scene is the action in a single location and continuous time.  A scene is also about characters making decisions.

Take “The Chicken Roaster” episode of Seinfeld. In it, a chicken restaurant opens across the street from Jerry and Kramer, causing a gigantic red neon light to beam directly into Kramer’s apartment. Kramer decides to boycott the restaurant, while Jerry decides to move into Kramer’s apartment.  The plot takes us on a journey where we watch Kramer’s emotions for the chicken restaurant go from HATE to LOVE and finally to SADNESS. All that takes place over 28 scenes in this one  23 minute episode.

Here are three lessons I’ve learned deconstructing Seinfeld:

1. Each page should have a new scene

In screenwriting, the rule of thumb is that 1 minute of action on the screen = 1 page of your script.

In the best episodes of Seinfeld there is a new scene (on average) every minute.  Contrast that with the earlier episodes where a scene could be 3 minutes long!  You’ll notice that the longer scenes make the show feel more like an episode of Friends.

So when you’re writing a quick-paced show like Seinfeld  you should think of each page as a new scene.

2. Come up ideas to keep each of the characters engaged, and then somehow have them coverage at the end

Seinfeld writer Peter Mehlman commented on the writing process like this:

First, you come up with an idea — well, you really need to come up with four ideas, or three, because you have to have all of the characters engaged. Coming up with story ideas was absolutely the most important part of your job, which is not true of 90 percent of sitcoms where you’re doing it as a group.

He admits that the process of convergence “never really happened the same way twice.” Sometimes the writers would work backwards, sometimes they’d find a way to mat scenes together, but alas, it was “always a struggle.”

3. Misunderstandings

Seinfeld is not necessarily about “NOTHING”. The episodes are largely about misunderstanding and social faux pas. It’s about how two people can interpret the same event in two totally different ways. For example:

seinfeld the checks japanese cabinets

Deconstructing the scenes of “The Chicken Roaster”

J = Jerry
G = George
E = Elaine
K = Kramer
S = Seth (Jerry’s high school friend who he runs into)
C = The female store clerk (actual name Heather)
D = The dude that works at Peterman’s (I missed his name and just started calling him the dude)
– = Negative scene charge
+ = Positive scene charge

1 – STREET SHOP
G wants store owners to negotiate more
G decides he will try negotiating
He tried to negotiate and gets kicked out of the store “forever”
J asks if “1 week” is ok? And the store clerk agrees (C)
-/+

2 – STREET
K wants to help Newman pick out a turtle neck (he’s excited)
J meets S (a friend) on the street and wants to catch up with him
S wants to go to his meeting (but decides to blow it off to get lunch with Jerry)
+/++

3 – STORE
E wants to buy stuff for her work
E decides to overspend
G wants E to buy her this hat
The attractive store clerk gives signs to G that he looks attractive in the hate
G decides to buy the hat (and ask out the store clerk, which we find out later)
+/++

4 – LUNCH
J learns that S blew off a VERY important meeting with Citibank
S feels bad about this realization
+ / –

5 – PHONE
E gets called out on overcharging the Peterman Credit Card by some dude (D)
E feels bad about this
+ / –

6 – DINER
G walks in with his hat
G has a date with the sales clerk from before
G tells J that after 3 dates he’ll get stuck in girls’ heads (like a TV jingle) and they’ll always come back.
J asks “What if you can’t see them again?)
G describes the “leave behind” as a way to get the 3rd date if he needs to
G decides that he’ll still use this “leave behind” method despite J thinking it’s silly.

7 – HALLWAY
J notices the crazy red light coming from K’s window (from Kenny’s Chicken across the street, a new chicken place)
J shows he wants it to be shut
K tells J that S lost his job (because of the meeting he missed)
+ /-

8 – PETERMAN’S OFFICE
E decides to exaggerate the legitimacy of her business expenses
E wants D to understand that all her business expenses are legitimate
D believes most of it, but wants to see the hat (G has)

9 – JERRY’S
S is upset with J and himself for missing the meeting
K is going nuts with the red light. K wants the lights to stop!
K wants to move in with J
K decides to move in with J
K’s decides to somehow drive Kenny’s Chicken out of business (to stop the red light)
-/+

10 – CLERK’S HOUSE
C shows that she doesn’t want to see G again
G tries to drop his keys as a “leave behind” and gets caught
Instead he needs the hat
-/–

11 – PETERMAN’S OFFICE
E needs the hat back from G but he doesn’t have it
G calls C to get the hat, she claims to not have the hat
-/–

12 – CHICKEN PLACE (Kenny’s Chicken) 
J sees that S got a job taking out trash at the chicken place
J and S see K put out a sign that reads “Bad Chicken” out his window – it’s clear that this sign treatens to put the Kenny’s Chicken out of business
J – “that’s not going to be good for business”
S – “that’s not going to be good for anybody”

13 – JERRY’S
K has moved in
J clearly doesn’t want K there (J also doesn’t want Newman there (N))
N is eating the chicken
K tries the chicken (against his will) and shows that he loves it

14 – CLERK’S HOUSE
E shows up with G telling her she wants the hat back
They don’t find the hat
E – “This is an absolute disaster.”
G decides to steal her clock (for no reason)
– / —

15 – JERRY’S
K is at J’s place eating the chicken and it appears like K’s loving it (which as a viewer we realize is trouble since K is supposedly under a boycott of Kenny’s Chicken)

16 – KRAMER’S
J decides to sleep at K’s
J is having trouble sleeping at K’s.
J imagines K’s doll (Mr. Marbles) killing him in his sleep
J is afraid.
-/–

17 – JERRY’S (the next day)
J walks into his own place and is acting like K (lots of Kramerisms, sliding in, eating ice cream with an spoon, and with a scheme to get the hat back)
E wants the hat back, and decides to ask K and J’s advice

18 – PETERMAN’S OFFICE 
E tries to pass off the hat to D
D calls her out (saying it’s “rat fur”), and wants her fired
+/-

19 – DINER
G talking to K (who is acting like Jerry)
G is excited that C called him.
J is acting rational and it’s funny

20 – CHICKEN PLACE (Kenny’s Chicken)
J is asking S to shut the annoying red chicken light (but S refuses)
J catches N ordering broccoli and calls him out on it.
J forces him to eat it. N refuses.
J deduces that K is addicted to the chicken and having N buy it for him.
J is not pleased.

21 – JERRY’S
J walks in and accuses K of buying the chicken from Kenny’s Chicken (which is displeasing since they are boycotting the chicken).
J wants his apartment back.
K wants to stay in J’s apartment and so threatens to put the sign up that will put Kenny’s Chicken out of business (and thereby S will lose his job again)
J – “I don’t think you’ll do that.”
J threatens to put the banner up himself, and K breaks down wanting the chicken to stay! (he’s conflicted)

22 – MYANMAR
E decides to go to Myanmar to see J Peterman (JP)
It looks like the end scene from Apocalypse Now
E wants JP to sign the expense form for the hat
JP agrees but says “I will have to see this hat”
+/-

23 – PARK BENCH
G decides to meet C (thinking she’ll want the clock back)
G shows up to meet C, and he has the clock with him hidden in a bag
Instead C admits that G got stuck in her head (as he predicted in scene 6)
C wants G
Until the bag starts ringing
C doesn’t want G because he stole her clock
+ / –

24 – CHICKEN RESTAURANT (Kenny’s Chicken)
J walks into the chicken restaurant shaking the rat hat (which he is wearing)
Rat fur goes everywhere
S – “that’s not going to be good for business”
J – “that’s not going to be good for anybody”

25 – KRAMER’S
K looks happy, he’s made peace with the red light
And then the red light goes out
“Kenny?” – K (said sadly referring to the fact that K realizes the chicken place went out of business)
+ / –

Note: The negative charge (-) at the end is funny because, the thing K wanted (the lights going off) was a + the whole time, and now it’s a – because he’ll miss the great chicken.

26 – OUTSIDE THE WINDOW WITH A BIG SIGN
K is outside K’s window with a sign that now reads, “Kenny come back”

27 – JERRY’S
J is about to sleep “Home at last” he says
He hears a noise
“Mr Marbles?” – J
And we see a shadow of the doll walk by

28 – MYANMAR
E is showing JP the Urban Sombrero
E says “The horror, the horror”, another allusion to Apocalypse Now

Citations

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