Today is the anniversary of a short letter that became the opening salvo in a chain of events that changed television history. The letter, dated August 31, 1988, was sent to NBC President Brandon Tartikoff by George Shapiro, agent for comedian Jerry Seinfeld. This brief letter of recommendation led to a meeting between Seinfeld and NBC executives, and an eventual pilot called The Seinfeld Chronicles. That pilot then became one of television’s most successful sitcoms Seinfeld running from 1990 to 1998.
With the popularity and longevity of Seinfeld, you might think success was assured for Jerry Seinfeld, but few people know that he was dropped from an earlier sitcom Benson in 1980 after appearing in three episodes (1).
Looking back at the text of the Shapiro’s letter — only three sentences long — it’s hard to believe it was the spark that set of a powder keg of comedy that dominated American TV ratings from nearly ten years:
Call me a crazy guy, but I feel that Jerry Seinfeld will soon be doing a series on NBC, and I thought you’d like to see this article from the current issue of People Magazine.
Jerry will be appearing in concert in New York City at Town Hall on Saturday, September 10. If any of you will be in New York at that time I’ll be happy to arrange tickets for you and your guests.
When the show ended in 1998, it was still at the top of the ratings, and Jerry Seinfeld made it into The Guinness Book of World Records under the category “Most Money Refused” when he turned down an offer of $5 million dollars per episode to continue the show. In addition to ratings success, the sitcom also made an impact on American vernacular with catchphrases such as “Yada, Yada, Yada.”
Seinfeld’s Agent George Shapiro, who later became one of the show’s executive producers, had the gift for writing a short but strong letter of recommendation for his client (2).
Unlike an email, a short letter is likely to get the attention of your audience. If you want something done or you want an answer to a question, a short letter is a great way to guarantee a response. However, unlike the sitcom Seinfeld you can’t write a letter about nothing; you need a specific subject and purpose for your letter. Below are four important guidelines for a successful letter.
The Four S’s of Business Letters:
Keep it Short
Cut needless words, needless information, stale phrases, and redundant statements.
Keep it Simple
Use familiar words, short sentences and short paragraphs. Keep it simple, and use a conversational style.
Keep it Strong
Answer the reader’s question in the first paragraph, and explain why you’re writing. Use concrete words and examples, and stick to the subject.
Keep it Sincere
Answer promptly, be friendly in tone, and try to write as if you were talking to your reader (3).
Today’s Challenge: Short, Simple, Strong, and Sincere Snail Mail
What is something that you would recommend right now, something that is overlooked or underappreciated? Just as George Shapiro wrote a letter of recommendation for Jerry Seinfeld, your job is to write a short letter of recommendation. Your letter, however, should not recommend a person, rather it should recommend an object or an experience. This idea comes from a weekly feature of The New York Times Magazine called “Letter of Recommendation,” where various writers recommend an object or experience that has been overlooked or underappreciated. Past topics featured have been: egg shakers, summer Fridays, The Oxford English Dictionary, Skiing, Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, and alternative search engines.
Brainstorm a list of ideas. Then, select the topic you feel most passionately about. Your purpose is to share your passion with a general audience, telling and showing them why your object or experience is worth holding in higher esteem. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)
Quotation of the Day: The second button literally makes or breaks the shirt. Look at it. It’s too high. It’s in no-man’s land. You look like you live with your mother. –First line from the first episode of Seinfeld and the last line from the last episode. In both cases Jerry is speaking to George.