Shutting down for Seinfeld

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 May, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 May, 1998, 12:00am

DO not bother to call any of your friends, business partners or relatives in the United States on the evening of May 14. They will not answer the phone.

May 14 and 15 may as well be designated national public holidays: on the former everyone will skip off work early to make sure they get home on time; and as for the next day, nothing will get done because everyone will be gathered round the water cooler talking about nothing except what happened the night before.

May 14, if anyone needs reminding, will be Jerry Seinfeld Day - the seminal event when one in three Americans sits down to watch the final-ever episode of the country's best-loved sitcom.

The evening will involve the 170th, and last, episode of the New York-based comedy show, now in its ninth year and known to most non-believers as the one which pays unprecedented amounts of cash to its stars - US$1 million (HK$7.735 million) an episode to the eponymous hero - on the back of huge ratings and sky-high advertising revenues.

Since Seinfeld, a 42-year-old comedian, announced over Christmas that the present season would be the last, the hype machine has gone where no hype has gone before, even in the land where hype is king.

It is by no means the first time America has made a national event out of the finale of a much-loved television show; programmes such as M*A*S*H, the Mary Tyler Moore Show and Cheers all attracted unprecedented audiences and moved the national psyche as much as any moon walk or the Superbowl.

But all precedents look set to be easily outdone by the Seinfeld finale - and not least because the public relations and marketing machines of the entertainment industry have taken their art to new heights of sophistication.

Much of the attention has focused on the huge amounts of cash at stake. NBC has sold most of its 30-second advertising slots for the hour-long finale at US$1.7 million, an unheard-of amount, surpassing the previous record of US$1.3 million for last January's Superbowl (which itself was thought to have been absurdly expensive).

Because the top brand names feel that they cannot risk being absent from Seinfeld Night, they have snapped up commercial slots all evening, pouring an estimated US$60 million into NBC's coffers.

But what is truly gripping America is the speculation over the plot of the final show. Sensing that ratings will be boosted by just this kind of hype, Seinfeld and NBC have gone to extraordinary lengths to make sure the final script is kept more secret than Jerry's own Swiss bank account.

Copies of the script, written by the show's co-founder Larry David, were numbered and kept out of sight even of NBC's head honchos.

At the taping of the show, all the cast members, crew and guests (including Seinfeld's relatives) had to pass through a metal detector (for tape recorders, rather than guns, one presumes) and made to sign a form swearing not to divulge anything.

The paranoia did not stop there. The final scenes were taped secretly at a later date, so that even if the main plot leaks out, the ending will not.

With the inevitable help of the Internet, and spurred by showbiz gossip columnists thrashing around for a scoop, the number of so-called bona fide finale plotlines in circulation probably outnumber the actual number of real-life Seinfeld shows: Jerry and Elaine get married; Jerry lands a TV show; George becomes a TV critic; they all die; they all move to Los Angeles.

All the rumours are wrong, the producers say.

They should know, since word is they have been secretly leaking false plots to put sleuths off the real story.

The forthcoming show has spurred plans for myriad parties all over New York, including a bash at the real-life diner where the Seinfeld characters are portrayed hanging out and uttering some of the show's most famous dialogue.

But plans for a big street party, complete with a huge video screen to air the show, have given Mayor Rudolph Giuliani near heart failure. Fearing crowd control problems, he has already nixed proposals for gatherings in Times Square and nearby Bryant Park - much to the irritation of the prospective sponsor, Fuji film.

Phew, that was close. For a moment we almost thought the American flag was being downsized to only 49 stars.

But you can breathe again: Texas really is part of the United States.

Texans are proud of boasting that the Lone Star State is bigger and better than its neighbours, as well as being semi-independent. But when a Texas separatist group actually filed a lawsuit challenging the state's incorporation into America in 1845, many feared that the bluff would be called.

The so-called Republic of Texas, led by an eccentric lawyer called Richard McLaren, filed the lawsuit last year after McLaren was arrested and jailed for taking part in an armed standoff with police.

McLaren's lawsuit charged that after Texas won independence from Mexico, its subsequent absorption by the US was illegal.

But any fears that you might need a passport to go and watch the Dallas Cowboys play were put to rest when a federal judge last week threw out the lawsuit. He gave surprisingly long shrift to McLaren's historical arguments - and agreed that not all Texans had been enamoured with the union over the years - but said he had no intention of splitting up the country.

Now you know why American lawyers are never unemployed.



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