Friday, August 20, 2004

'Seinfeld' director looks back on series

—Originally published 8.20.04

It stands to reason Tom Cherones would be sick of talking about "Seinfeld" by now.

After all, the series ended six years ago and it's been more than a decade since the veteran television director tried his hand at an episode of "the show about nothing."

Yet the 64-year-old Cherones is as excited as any of the show's millions of fans for the upcoming DVD release.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld announced earlier this month the first three seasons of his history-making sitcom will be released on the digital format Nov. 23 -- just in time to sell zillions of copies for the holidays. The seasons will be combined into one massive gift set that will include salt and pepper shakers from the on-screen gang's favorite hangout, Monk's. (The seasons will also be broken up and available in two separate packs.)

Cherones directed 80 of the series' first 86 episodes, essentially holding down the "Seinfeld" fort from 1989-1994. His resume includes some of the funniest and most famous entries in television history -- including "The Contest" (which provided the ubiquitous catch-phrase, "master of your domain"), "The Bubble Boy," "The Junior Mint" -- the list goes on and on.

Now semi-retired, Cherones spends much of his time relaxing at his lakeside home in Florence, Ore., with his wife, artist/novelist Joyce Keener. But he was pulled back into the "Sein"-fold this past year as production on the DVD sets picked up. He made a trip down to Los Angeles last November where, sitting on the studio's New York street lot, he provided a couple hours of interview footage; he then returned earlier this year to record several episode audio commentaries that will be used in the home videos.

"The quality of the DVD is going to be incredible," Cherones told the Aiken Standard during a phone interview this week. "It's going to be unlike anything you've seen before."

He said the DVD producers cut the footage directly from the original film, which will provide the clearest possible transfer to the digital format. The episodes will be preserved in their original 22 minutes, 30 seconds, not the truncated versions that appear in syndication (which he can't bear to watch).

As for the extras, Cherones doesn't know all the goodies, but he is particularly looking forward to the inclusion of deleted scenes -- many of which were painfully removed for the original run.

"We always shot way too much material," he said, usually about 29 minutes for each episode. "There are a lot of scenes that had to be dropped. I think some of that will be seen now. ... They're planning some surprises, but I don't know what they are. It's going to be kind of a treasure hunt, I'm told."

The director's favorite episodes of the set include "The Chinese Restaurant," seen as the prototype for the "show about nothing" idea, and "The Parking Garage," a variation on that theme. But "I don't think we did a bad show while I was there," he said.

Cherones grew up in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he was good friends with Whit Gibbons, now an ecologist at the Savannah River Ecology Lab. The two visit about once a year and Cherones was in Aiken just two years ago.

Cherones spent several years in public television but "Seinfeld" was his big break. He was brought in to direct the first four regular episodes that aired in the summer of 1990; when the show was picked up for a 13-episode run, Cherones stayed on as the series' primary director and producer. Seinfeld and Cherones parted ways after Season 5 wrapped in the spring of 1994 when the star overhauled his crew to "shake things up a little," the director said.

Cherones landed on his feet, though; after a stint with "Ellen," he moved to "NewsRadio" and directed that hit show for four years until it was canceled after star Phil Hartman was murdered in 1998.

Like most of those who had a part in "Seinfeld" at one point or another, Cherones was invited back to participate in the final episode, which aired May 14, 1998. (He didn't particularly like the finished product because the characters were "too harsh.") Even though NBC was waving millions of dollars in Seinfeld's direction, Cherones believes the comedian made the right choice in ending the show -- even if it was still a ratings champion.

"When we started the show, Jerry said when the writing isn't good anymore, that's when we'll quit. And that's what they did," he said. "Jerry was very committed to stopping when they ran out of good material.

"At that point, it was only about money. ... I think they felt the last season wasn't as good as they wanted it to be."

These days, Cherones only occasionally crosses paths with the "Seinfeld" cast. Last year when Seinfeld was in town, the director sent over a bouquet of cereal boxes on sticks; earlier this summer, he met with Jason Alexander (who played sidekick George Costanza) and discussed the possibility of directing an episode of Alexander's new sitcom, "Listen Up!"

"Seinfeld" will be linked to Cherones forever, though, and he doesn't mind a bit. He has a complete series collection on videotape (soon to be replaced by DVDs) and revisits them often -- typically so he can bring a few episodes with him for public speaking engagements.

"I find people are very interested in (the show) all over the country," he said.

He still retains an agent and is interested in trying his hand at a few episodes of the British comedy "The Office," but otherwise is quite content with his laid-back life of boating and gardening.

"I'm slowing way down on what I do and have the time to do other things," Cherones said. "We have a lot of fun these days."

No comments: