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.
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?
A 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.”
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:
- Elaine thinks she’s a great dancer (no one else sees it that way).
- George suddenly thinks the Board of Directors dislikes him (so he hides a tape recorder in the meeting room to listen to them talk while he’s away) and only after they find the hidden tape recorder do they vocalize that yes, because of this they clearly do dislike him.
- Jerry is seen bringing an axe to Kramer’s new wooden cabinets. Jerry sees this act as a way to save the three Japanese business men who are stuck in there. But Elaine sees it as Jerry being jealous of Kramer’s new wooden cabinets.
Deconstructing the scenes of “The Chicken Roaster”
– = Negative scene charge
+ = Positive scene charge
1 – STREET SHOP
George wants store owners to negotiate more
George decides he will try negotiating
He tried to negotiate and gets kicked out of the store “forever”
Jerry asks if “1 week” is ok? And the store clerk agrees
2 – STREET
Kramer wants to help Newman pick out a turtle neck (he’s excited)
Jerry meets Seth (a friend) on the street and wants to catch up with him
Seth wants to go to his meeting (but decides to blow it off to get lunch with Jerry)
3 – STORE
Elaine wants to buy stuff for her work
Elaine decides to overspend
George wants Elaine to buy her this hat
The attractive store clerk gives signs to George that he looks attractive in the hate
George decides to buy the hat (and ask out the store clerk, which we find out later)
4 – LUNCH
Jerry learns that Seth blew off a VERY important meeting with Citibank
Seth feels bad about this realization
+ / –
5 – PHONE
Elaine gets called out on overcharging the J Peterman credit card by some Dude
Elaine feels bad about this
+ / –
6 – DINER
George walks in with his hat
George has a date with the sales clerk from before
George tells Jerry that after 3 dates he’ll get stuck in girls’ heads (like a TV jingle) and they’ll always come back.
Jerry asks “What if you can’t see them again?)
George describes the “leave behind” as a way to get the 3rd date if he needs to
George decides that he’ll still use this “leave behind” method despite Jerry thinking it’s silly.
7 – HALLWAY
Jerry notices the crazy red light coming from Kramer’s window (from Kenny’s Chicken across the street, a new chicken place)
Jerry shows he wants it to be shut
Kramer tells Jerry that Seth lost his job (because of the meeting he missed)
8 – PETERMAN’S OFFICE
Elaine decides to exaggerate the legitimacy of her business expenses
Elaine wants Dude to understand that all her business expenses are legitimate
Dude believes most of it, but wants to see the hat (George has)
9 – JERRY’S
Seth is upset with Jerry and himself for missing the meeting
Kramer is going nuts with the red light. Kramer wants the lights to stop!
Kramer wants to move in with Jerry
Kramer decides to move in with Jerry
Kramer’s decides to somehow drive Kenny’s Chicken out of business (to stop the red light)
10 – CLERK’S HOUSE
Clerk shows that she doesn’t want to see George again
George tries to drop his keys as a “leave behind” and gets caught
Instead he needs the hat
11 – PETERMAN’S OFFICE
Elaine needs the hat back from George but he doesn’t have it
George calls Clerk to get the hat, she claims to not have the hat
12 – CHICKEN PLACE (Kenny’s Chicken)
Jerry sees that Seth got a job taking out trash at the chicken place
Jerry and Seth see Kramer put out a sign that reads “Bad Chicken” out his window – it’s clear that this sign threatens to put the Kenny’s Chicken out of business
Jerry – “that’s not going to be good for business”
Seth – “that’s not going to be good for anybody”
13 – JERRY’S
Kramer has moved in
Jerry clearly doesn’t want Kramer there (Jerry also doesn’t want Newman there)
Newman is eating the chicken
Kramer tries the chicken (against his will) and shows that he loves it
14 – CLERK’S HOUSE
Elaine shows up with George telling her she wants the hat back
They don’t find the hat
Elaine – “This is an absolute disaster.”
George decides to steal her clock (for no reason)
– / —
15 – JERRY’S
Kramer is at Jerry’s place eating the chicken and it appears like Kramer’s loving it (which as a viewer we realize is trouble since Kramer is supposedly under a boycott of Kenny’s Chicken)
16 – KRAMER’S
Jerry decides to sleep at Kramer’s
Jerry is having trouble sleeping at Kramer’s.
Jerry imagines Kramer’s doll (Mr. Marbles) killing him in his sleep
Jerry is afraid.
17 – JERRY’S (the next day)
Jerry walks into his own place and is acting like Kramer (lots of Kramerisms, sliding in, eating ice cream with an spoon, and with a scheme to get the hat back)
Elaine wants the hat back, and decides to ask Kramer and Jerry’s advice
18 – PETERMAN’S OFFICE
Elaine tries to pass off the hat to Dude
Dude calls her out (saying it’s “rat fur”), and wants her fired
19 – DINER
George talking to Kramer (who is acting like Jerry)
George is excited that Clerk called him.
Jerry is acting rational and it’s funny
20 – CHICKEN PLACE (Kenny’s Chicken)
Jerry is asking Seth to shut the annoying red chicken light (but Seth refuses)
Jerry catches Newman ordering broccoli and calls him out on it.
Jerry forces him to eat it. Newman refuses.
Jerry deduces that Kramer is addicted to the chicken and having Newman buy it for him.
Jerry is not pleased.
21 – JERRY’S
Jerry walks in and accuses Kramer of buying the chicken from Kenny’s Chicken (which is displeasing since they are boycotting the chicken).
Jerry wants his apartment back.
Kramer wants to stay in Jerry’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)
Jerry – “I don’t think you’ll do that.”
Jerry threatens to put the banner up himself, and Kramer breaks down wanting the chicken to stay! (he’s conflicted)
22 – MYANMAR
Elaine decides to go to Myanmar to see J Peterman
It looks like the end scene from Apocalypse Now
Elaine wants J Peterman to sign the expense form for the hat
J Peterman agrees but says “I will have to see this hat”
23 – PARK BENCH
George decides to meet Clerk (thinking she’ll want the clock back)
George shows up to meet Clerk, and he has the clock with him hidden in a bag
Instead Clerk admits that George got stuck in her head (as he predicted in scene 6)
Clerk wants George
Until the bag starts ringing
Clerk doesn’t want George because he stole her clock
+ / –
24 – CHICKEN RESTAURANT (Kenny’s Chicken)
Jerry walks into the chicken restaurant shaking the rat hat (which he is wearing)
Rat fur goes everywhere
Seth – “that’s not going to be good for business”
Jerry – “that’s not going to be good for anybody”
25 – KRAMER’S
Kramer looks happy, he’s made peace with the red light
And then the red light goes out
“Kenny?” – Kramer (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 Kramer 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
Kramer is outside Kramer’s window with a sign that now reads, “Kenny come back”
27 – JERRY’S
Jerry is about to sleep “Home at last” he says
He hears a noise
“Mr Marbles?” – Jerry
And we see a shadow of the doll walk by
28 – MYANMAR
Elaine is showing J Peterman the Urban Sombrero
Elaine says “The horror, the horror”, another allusion to Apocalypse Now
- Two books on screenwriting that I used in writing this article are Robert McKee’s Story and Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid.
- The episode script of The Chicken Roaster is available on Genius
- Seinfeld episodes can be found on Hulu or DVD.