Over the course of nine seasons and 180 episodes, Seinfeld carved out a legacy as one of the greatest sitcoms in television history.
The quirky and hilarious creation of comedians Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, the show remains incredibly relevant today thanks to its unavoidable daily presence on cable television and in syndication, enabling it to continually reach a new, young audience 23 years after its final episode aired.
The show thrived thanks to the combination of a terrific ensemble cast, unforgettable recurring characters and well written scripts which created a unique world for the characters to play in, one complete with now iconic catchphrases, New York City functioning as the perfect backdrop.
From the opening notes of each episode, zany music created by composer Jonathan Wolff drove the plot forward.
Wolff worked on the music of a staggering 75 network series, titles ranging anywhere from Will & Grace to Malcolm & Eddie. But Seinfeld stands out.
In the late 80s and early 90s, TV theme songs functioned as small pieces of poppy, highly melodic, instantly memorable music – but it was quickly becoming formulaic.
With its combination of finger snaps, lip pops and more, the Seinfeld theme broke the mold. The music is now available for online streaming for the first time as part of the Seinfeld (Original Television Soundtrack) album via WaterTower Music, featuring 33 pieces of original music from the show.
“In the late 80s, early 90s, there was a lot of saxophone and silly lyrics… Guilty! I created a lot of that kind of music. I’m not innocent,” said Wolff with a chuckle. “But when Jerry called me, he described to me the problem he was having: the opening and closing credits for this new show were to be Jerry doing stand-up material in front of an audience. He tells jokes, people laugh. And he wanted unique, signature theme music to go with it,” explained the composer. “On that first phone call, I said, ‘Jerry, that sounds like a recipe for an audio conflict. We really need to hear your jokes. How about this? How about if we treat your human voice telling jokes as the melody of the Seinfeld theme? My job will be to accompany you in a way that’s fun and quirky but does not interfere with the audio of your standup routine.’”
Unlike most other sitcoms, the Seinfeld theme music could change each week. Wolff performed the signature basslines himself and created countless themes, each centered around the cadence of Jerry’s spoken word delivery.
“At the time, slap bass had not yet enjoyed celebrity status as a solo instrument. It was an element buried in the mix of funk music,” Wolff said. “But it could start and stop to allow for Jerry to tell his jokes, hit the punchline and I would fill in the blanks – maybe accentuate with that slap bass the end of a joke like a vaudeville rim shot. The frequency range of this bass, in a general way, stayed out of the frequency range of the audio of his voice so as not to compete,” said the composer. “And that was my approach to the Seinfeld theme – to create Lego pieces of music that were modularly manipulable. So that for every monologue, I could create a different recording to compliment the timing and length of each. I really enjoyed that assignment. Because it was weird! It was something from Mars. Nobody recreates the theme for a TV show every week.”
The new Seinfeld (Original Television Soundtrack), available for streaming via Spotify, Apple Music and more, manages to draw on a variety of sounds from throughout the show’s run. From The Muffin Tops episode, there’s “Kramer’s Crappy Banjo.” “Peterman in Burmese Jungle” follows it on the album, building suspense via its utilization of the sitar. From The Trip comes stereotypically cheesy guitar-driven rock via the aptly titled “Rock Music Video.”
In addition to bass during the opening theme, Wolff draws on his jazz training during a trio of “John Jermaine Jazz” songs, as heard within episode The Rye, rounding up session musicians as necessary (legendary session player Tommy Morgan, who added harmonica to The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and can also be heard in hundreds of films, handled harp on “Waiting For the Verdict Blues” from the Seinfeld series finale).
In a standout moment from the series, Wolff accompanied guest vocalist Mel Torme on piano in The Jimmy, an episode which finds Jerry questioning the office antics of dentist Tim Whatley (famously portrayed by guest star Bryan Cranston).
While his involvement with most of the other series that he composed for started and stopped with creating music that captured a certain sentiment or struck a particular chord, Seinfeld utilized him, and his sense of humor, in a whole different way.
“There were times on Seinfeld that I didn’t get on other shows to really be able to be involved in the comedy. For example, those chase scenes – ‘Cable Guy vs Kramer Chase,’ which is on the record,” said Wolff. “They let me be part of that landscape. They would include montage things. With the ‘Finale Suitcase Montage’ and the ‘Waiting For the Verdict’ blues montage, the only audio is me. There’s no dialogue. They’d say, ‘Wolff, you know what to do!’” he said. “I did have a special, warm, fuzzy spot for Seinfeld as it got wackier and wackier and as they wrote more things in the script for me. Elaine gets into Puddy’s car and there’s Christian rock on. I got to do that kind of stuff for Married With Children every week. They got to know me and they would find ways of putting Wolff to work and I did crazy stuff for that show too. But except for Married With Children, Seinfeld was the only show where I really felt part of the comedy.”
Working with actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus resulted in “Himalayan Walking Shoes.” But perhaps the most famous instance in which a cast member became involved in a musical number belongs to actor Jason Alexander who portrayed one of television’s all time great characters: George Costanza.
“Just to clarify, that is the one piece of music on the album that I did not create! That’s the theme song for The Greatest American Hero. And it’s a wonderful song,” said Wolff referencing “Believe it or Not,” a #2 hit for Mike Post and Stephen Geyer in 1981 and one famously used as an outgoing answering machine message by Costanza. “I created the instrumental tracks [used in Seinfeld]. They’re kind of cheesy, karaoke quality – they’re just not great tracks. And we brought Jason into the studio to sing his part on it – Jason of course is brilliant as George Costanza – and he sang it as George Costanza,” he continued. “After Jason left, it was suggested, ‘Is there anything we can do to make the sound worse?’ And I said, ‘Watch this!’ And I detuned my track. I know it was evil to do that to Jason,” Wolff said laughing. “I didn’t write it and I didn’t choose it. But I did create the tracks and record Jason singing it – and then I sabotaged his singing even more by detuning the track. But I’m glad it’s on the record.”
Throughout the Seinfeld run, characters are frequently seen taking in a movie together. For those scenes, writers made up their own films, which left Wolff responsible for creating the music running in the movie theater during fictitious motion pictures like Checkmate, Chunnel and Death Blow, each of which is represented on the new album.
The most often remembered fake flick showcased within the sitcom is Rochelle, Rochelle, one famously described during season four episode The Movie as centering upon “a young girl’s strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk.” By season six, Rochelle, Rochelle had been adapted into a musical featuring Bette Midler.
“Larry David called me and said, ‘We’re gonna do like a Broadway musical of Rochelle, Rochelle. I need you to write the opening song,’” recalled Wolff. “I went, ‘OK… How long should this song be?’ He said, ‘It doesn’t matter. It should be too weepy to get through the first line.’ So that was how ‘Rochelle, Rochelle the Musical’ went and that’s the one that’s on the album. In the show, her shoelace is untied, there’s that Tonya Harding [reference] – but we never hear the rest of the song – the music stops. But, back then, because I was recording a song, I went ahead and recorded a full song. So, on the record, I included the whole piece of music. Just because it’s funny.”
In an era where it’s become difficult to monetize recorded music, songwriters have been hit particularly hard in the streaming era. With a full return to traditional live performance still uncertain amidst pandemic, countless musicians struggle.
For many, placement of songs in film and on television has become a crucial new revenue stream. As a composer, Wolff is quick to point out that a little business savvy goes a long way.
“You need extensive training before you take this on. My training included orchestration and technical sound recording. I played every instrument I could get my hands on. I was conservatory-trained and raised in jazz. It’s important that you have a wide range of technical, musical and business skills to enter this competition,” he said. “As a musician, it’s important that you have a strong working, applicable understanding of intellectual property, copyright, contractual rights, publishing, licensing, royalties. It’s equally as important as your understanding of groove, backbeat, orchestration and odd meter. You need to be able to do all of those things equally skillfully in order to survive in this landscape.”
Nine seasons of Seinfeld afforded Wolff the luxury of retiring in 2005 and today he spends his time lecturing, having spoken at all eight Ivy League schools.
During speaking engagements on the business of music at law schools and conservatories, Wolff prepares students for the sometimes harsh realities that await them outside the classroom.
“I do a lot of anecdotal stuff. I talk about how I approached certain situations and I talk a lot about getting out of the pile. ‘You’re all students now together like a herd and there’s a lot of love. That’s nice. But, at some point, that love morphs into friendly competition and each one of you will need to find a way to distinguish yourself from the rest. It’s not a strict meritocracy out there,’” said the composer. “I have no notes or curriculum. I just start blathering. I do role playing, mock negotiations and stuff like that. And, if it’s a small enough group, we do Q&A. And that’s how I know where to go.”
Looking ahead, Wolff is hopeful for a vinyl release of Seinfeld (Original Television Soundtrack). But, nearly 25 years after the final episode of Seinfeld aired on NBC on May 14, 1998, the composer is grateful for the place his music holds not just in the hearts of Seinfeld fans but in TV history.
“It amazes me and pleases me that when I visit these universities, these 20-something year old students, they recite chapter and verse from Seinfeld episodes. Many of them were not born yet in 1998 when we stopped making them. That is how I appreciate that so many years later it’s still relevant,” he said. “People still know my music. People make mashups of my music – Kendrick Lamar, Limp Bizkit. It’s crazy. It means a lot to me that people still enjoy Seinfeld and that that music has become a sonic brand for something that even young people [enjoy]. A lot of excellent composers end their careers and nobody remembers their music. But I think Seinfeld is gonna go the distance. The show and hopefully the music.”