August 31: Short Letter Day

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 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 guarentee 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. 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
Write a short letter to a specific person about a specific question or request.

Quote 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.

1- Jerry Seinfeld.

2 – Grunwald, Lisa and Stephan J. Adler (Editors). Letters of the Century: America 1900-1999. New York: The Dial Press, 1999.

3. Business Letter Writing – Business Letter Writing Checklist

August 30: Top Ten Day

Today is the anniversary of the The Late Show with David Letterman which premiered on CBS on August 30, 1993. Letterman had previously spent eleven years as the host of Late Night with David Letterman, but after he was passed over as the host of the The Tonight Show when Johnny Carson retired, he signed a multi-million dollar deal to move to CBS. This put him in direct competition with Jay Leno, who took over for Johnny on The Tonight Show.

Many aspects of Letterman’s show follow the basic pattern of the late night talk show genre, established and perfected by Johnny Carson. Letterman has added a few new wrinkles of his own that have become staples of his show and focus points for his fans.

One of Letterman’s trademarks is “found comedy”: people, places, and things found on the streets of the city that become the subject of Letterman’s ironic wit. These consist of actual items found in the newspaper, viewer mail, “stupid pet and human tricks” performed on the show, esoteric videos, or person on the street interviews (1).

But perhaps Letterman’s best know feature is his nightly Top Ten List. Based on a topic from current events, each list counts down ten hilariously warped responses. The very first list, for example, featured TOP TEN WORDS THAT RHYME WITH “PEAS”:

10. Heats
9. Rice
8. Moss
7. Ties
6. Needs
5. Lens
4. Ice
3. Nurse
2. Leaks
1. Meats

While this was probably not the funniest top ten list, it is interesting to note that the Top Ten began on a poetic note.

Today’s Challenge: TOP TEN TOP TENS
Below are some of the list topics from David Letterman’s first book of Top Ten Lists. Select one of the topics and try your hand at comedy writing. Visit the Top Ten List Archive for inspiration.

1. Top Ten Ways Life Would Be Better If Dogs Ran The World
2. Top Ten Ways To Pronounce “Bologna”
3. Top Ten Unsafe Toys for Christmas
4. Top Ten Prom Themes
5. Top Ten Questions Science Cannot Answer
6. Top Ten Things We As Americans Can Be Proud Of
7. Top Ten Interview Questions Asked Miss America Contestants
8. Top Ten Reasons To Vote
9. Top Ten Reasons Why TV Is Better Than Books
10. Top Ten Rejected Provisions Of The U.S. Constituion

Quote of the Day: Based on what you know about him in history books, what do you think Abraham Lincoln would be doing if he were alive today?
1) Writing his memoirs of the Civil War.
2) Advising the President.
3) Desperately clawing at the inside of his coffin.
–David Letterman


2 – Letterman, David and the “Late Night with David Letterman Writers. The Late Night With David Letterman Book of Top Ten Lists. New York: Pocket Books, 1990.

August 12: Fifty Words Day

On this date in 1960, Green Eggs and Ham was published by Dr. Seuss (pen name of Theodor Seuss Geisel).  One of the most popular children’s books of all time, Green Eggs and Ham was written on a $50 bet between Seuss and his editor, Bennett Cerf.  After Seuss wrote his popular book The Cat in the Hat using a mere 225 words, Cerf challenged Seuss to write a book using only 50 words.

In the 1950s debate swirled concerning early childhood literacy and the lack of liveliness in children’s books, such as the traditional Dick and Jane primers. Seuss’ response was to create books that captivated children as they learned to read. Combining his talent for illustration with his talent for writing, Seuss crafted great stories that brought children back the printed page again and again.

Seuss won his bet, using the following 50 words:

a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you (1).

Today’s Challenge:  One Syllable Story

Can you write with short words?  Try to write your own tale with short, clear words like these.  For an added challenge try some rhyme or alliteration like Dr. Seuss.  Legend has it that before Seuss began writing The Cat in the Hat, he looked at a list of the most common words in English and selected the first two that he saw that rhymed.  You might be able to guess what they were:  cat and hat.  If you need some inspiration, check out a list of the Most Common Words in English.

Quotation of the Day:  When you speak and write, there is no law that says you have to use big words.  Short words are as good as long ones, and short, old words — like “sun” and “grass” and “home” — are best of all.  –Richard Lederer


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