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My Day with the Costanzas
By John Follis


Imagine...one day you're watching your favorite show Seinfeld, and the next day you're directing a couple of the cast members. It's an experience that happened to me.

First, I have to say that ever since I saw my first Seinfeld I've been a fan. The acting, writing, casting...it's all brilliant. I also identify with the "TV Jerry". We're both the exact same age, single, thin, neat, and not gay. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) We're both self-employed Manhattanites, living in a one bedroom apartment. Both our places have a bike, computer, blue drinking glasses, oven mitts that look like animals, and a kitchen stocked with eight kinds of cereal. The similarities are almost scary. I've even tried my hand at comedy writing and performed stand-up. Ironically, the real Jerry is now writing AMEX ads.

Recently, I was asked to create a :15 TV spot for a very popular Broadway hotel. My creative strategy was to leverage the great Broadway location. The idea was that choosing a Broadway show is tough -- because there are so many great ones to choose from -- but when it comes to choosing a great Broadway hotel, there's no debate. To have fun and dramatize the point I thought of having a couple bickering about which Broadway show they should see. The payoff read; Thankfully, choosing a great Broadway hotel is much easier.

Now any Seinfeld fan knows that when it comes to bickering couples none compare with George's parents, The Costanza's. So naturally I suggested them for the spot. Of course, I figured the chances of actually getting them (this is while the show was still hot) were about as good as me playing shortstop for the Yankees. Nevertheless, I presented my case:

"Of course, we could just use any New York couple, but imagine
the impact of having the Costanza's. It would be perfect!"

And it would. The spot was scheduled to run heavily during 11 pm Seinfeld reruns. I fantasized; "A Seinfeld spot during Seinfeld...how great would that be."

So, coming up with the idea was one thing. Getting it approved by the client was another. Certainly Jerry Stiller and Estelle Harris would cost many times more than unknown actors. And even if the client was willing, would the actors be? And, would their contracts and schedules even permit it? And if we were lucky enough to overcome those obstacles, could we even afford them? After all, this was 1996 and we were talking about two of the most popular actors on TV.

Well, guess what, the client thought the idea was brilliant, and Jerry and Estelle we're available, and interested, and we friggin' got'em! (I'm still convinced it was a miracle.)

So, days later, waiting in a midtown recording studio, I find myself in a surreal situation. Not only am I about to meet two of my favorite Seinfeld characters, I'm about to direct them. I feel my heart beating faster than usual as I begin to talk to myself;


"OK, act professional, not star struck. You need their respect
and confidence to direct them, even if it is only 20 words."

When I turn around I'm suddenly in the presence of a Goddess...the diminutive, orange-headed, Estelle Harris has just entered the room. Except for her expensive looking fur I can't help but feel I'm about to meet George's mother. The introductions are made, I compliment her acting, and after some chit-chat I suggest we review her lines.

Despite the fact that the spot features the famous couple, we only hear them, not see them. The camera is locked on a snoozing "Pug" dog -- the ideal foil for the background bickering. And, the perfect pooch for a Costanza canine.

Upon reviewing lines with Estelle I discover she hasn't been told much at all about the spot. She's under the impression that she's doing the voice for a dog cartoon character. When I explain, she thinks the spot is cute, but has a suggestion. I brace myself. It has to do with the bickering husband in the script having the last word. "It's not reality", according to Estelle. "The woman always has the last word."

I've rehashed the 8-second script in my mind a million times, and I'm not about to change it, but I can see Estelle feels strongly. To appease her, I figure we can try a variation -- just as an option. When I ask what she's got in mind, she politely defers with, "Hey, you're the writer." I smile reassuringly and realize I haven't the slightest idea. "What would Jerry do?" I think.

Jerry Stiller has now arrived and I must review the script with him. I realize this is Jerry Stiller and not Fred Costanza, yet as we begin to chat I can't help wonder if, at any moment, I'll say something that will trigger him to go totally nuts. Now I'm feeling like George…afraid. It turns out he's fine with the script and ready to go. As they settle into the small soundproof recording room I'm still trying to figure out how to deal with Estelle's suggestion. No more time to ponder, I have to take charge…

"OK, Estelle, let's try a few takes and just say whatever moves you for the last line," I suggest over the studio mike. She nods.

We record the options, they're both great, and everyone in the studio is cracking up as they effortlessly transform into the bickering Costanzas's. After just 5 minutes we're basically done. The spot is going to be great.

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We wrap with everyone in great spirits. It's obvious Jerry and Estelle enjoy working together as they begin reminiscing about old times. How cool it is to hear these talented, veteran actors share memories about the Hollywood productions they'd both been part of.

I listen as Estelle reflects, with great fondness, on one particular memory. It seems that Jerry, however, remembers it a bit differently. Estelle exclaims to Jerry that she's quite clear about her recollection. Jerry is still not convinced. The scene continues for several minutes as the entire crew is doubled over at the totally spontaneous, totally hilarious Costanza-esque display.

As I watch the precious scene in front of me, I think to myself; If this were a Seinfeld episode, Jerry himself couldn't have written a funnier ending.

 

 

John Follis

Copyright © 2005. All rights reserved.

 

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