This past May marked 18 years since the last episode of Seinfeld aired. That means an entire generation of men and women have come of age only experiencing the misadventures of Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer through reruns and poorly done impressions from their weird uncles. Fortunately, the members of the comedy group Bellevue have taken it upon themselves to recreate the classic sitcom, but they're putting their own twist on the original show. In front of a live audience, the team steps into these well-known roles and improvises a completely new episode set in the Seinfeld universe. So as Jerry himself would say, "What is the deal with improvised Seinfeld?"
Beginning as a bit of a joke, Bellevue decided it would be a fun challenge to write and perform a new episode of Seinfeld at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York City. The performance quickly caught on with audiences and soon morphed into a monthly improvised show. But audiences shouldn't expect Bellevue to simply re-enact the most familiar scenes from the original series.
"I think we actually just look at it as having fun. We don't want to pull out favorite moments that people have. We don't want it to feel like it's an end-of-season clip show or relive the greatest moments of the series," says Dru Johnston, who takes on the role of George Costanza. "What we try to do every single time is just use the characters neuroticisms and the character tropes that exist with those four main characters and try to create a brand-new episode."
Aside from the four main characters of the show, members of Bellevue also step into the colorful supporting roles that make up the Seinfeld cast. Since the show is completely made up on the spot, audiences and the performers never know which old favorites from the show will make their return or which new characters will be born.
"In improv, you don't use props. You don't use costumes, and the advantage of not using props and costumes is that you can be anybody and be holding anything and be anywhere because everyone's imagination is at work," says Noah Forman, who plays Jerry. "When you put on costumes and have props, you're suddenly limited to physical things that you have. We mix the two. So the four main characters are actually in costume as those four characters, but then the other members of our cast are wearing normal street clothes being sort of a blank canvas and can become anything they want."
Just like each episode of Seinfeld, every improvised performance begins with a bit of stand-up comedy, but in this case the routines are based on suggestions from the audience. Setting off a chain of events that creates the overall narrative of each show, the Bellevue team is tasked with pushing things as far as they can, while figuring out the best way to wrap it all up at the conclusion of the performance. According to Johnston, there's a well-known expression in the world of structured improv comedy that describes the challenge faced by the performers. They say each show is less like trying to land a plane and more like trying to assemble a plane while it's landing. There's always the risk of crashing and burning in front of an entire audience, but it's this bit of danger that keeps everyone on the edge of their seats. In this way, the improvised format of the show taps into the unpredictable nature of the Seinfeld series that made each episode so special and cemented the series' place in popular culture.
"What's exciting for the audience, especially when it comes to the improv aspect of the show, is essentially the process of how messy can it get and then how nicely can it be cleaned up in the end. In each show, that happens in different ways and into different amounts, but that is the Seinfeld universe," says Forman. "You have multiple storylines. Things go crazier and crazier. Then one of the best parts about Seinfeld as a show is that things connect in the end, and they get cleaned up in unexpected ways. That's our challenge, and that's what is exciting for the audience."
In an incredible coincidence, the real Jerry Seinfeld will be performing at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center while the members of Bellevue are in town. Forman and the rest of the team wish to extend a very special invitation to the stand-up legend to join them on stage to reprise his role from the series or take part in the live show in any way he chooses. We await your response, Mr. Seinfeld.