Slumped on the couch after a long day at the keyboard, I often turn to episodes of Seinfeld to unwind—comfort food from Tom's Diner.
Recently, I re-watched "The Marine Biologist," which features one of the show's most inspired intersections between storylines. In search of amusement, Kramer goes to the beach to hit golf balls into the ocean. Meanwhile, to impress George's high school crush, Jerry tells her that George has become a marine biologist. The lie kindles her interest but backfires when she and George encounter a sick whale on the beach.
"Is anyone here a marine biologist?"
"Save the whale, George," she implores him. "For me."
At the end of the episode, George recounts what happened next:
So I started to walk into the water. I won't lie to you boys. I was terrified. But I pressed on, and as I made my way past the breakers, a strange calm came over me. I don't know if it was divine intervention or the kinship of all living things, but I tell you Jerry, at that moment, I was a marine biologist...The sea was angry that day, my friends, like an old man trying to send back soup at a deli. I got about fifty feet out and suddenly the great beast appeared before me. I tell ya he was ten stories high if he was a foot. As if sensing my presence, he let out great bellow. I said, "Easy, big fella!" And then, as I watched him struggling, I realized that something was obstructing its breathing. From where I was standing I could see directly into the eye of the great fish! (Jerry: Mammal.) Whatever...Then, from out of nowhere, a huge tidal wave lifted me, tossed me like a cork, and I found myself right on top of him, face-to-face with the blowhole. I could barely see from the waves crashing down upon me, but I knew something was there, so I reached my hand in, felt around, and pulled out the obstruction!
George pulls a golf ball out of his pocket—Kramer's golf ball. At that moment, the audience goes wild with laughter. It has to be the biggest laugh of Seinfeld's nine-season run.
By sheer coincidence, I then caught Jason Alexander telling the story of that episode during a podcast interview. As it turns out, the golf ball denouement wasn't in the original script. When the live studio audience didn't respond as strongly to the episode as they'd hoped, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David put their heads together. Only at that point did they come up with the inspired notion of connecting Kramer's ocean golfing with George's sick whale. With the audience growing restless in the bleachers, they dashed off the above monologue and handed it to Alexander to memorize in the space of a few minutes. A consummate pro, he got it in one take.
If you're unfamiliar with the episode, I urge you to watch the performance at the link above. A few minutes to review the text and one take to deliver it, all in front of a live audience. Incredible.
More extraordinary to me, however, is the fact that these two seaside storylines ran parallel without ever intersecting in the original script. No one in the writer's room saw the opportunity. It seems impossible, yet it happens all the time. The pieces of a work snap together like a puzzle without the slightest inkling of conscious intention on the part of the creator. It just works.
Another such dramatic near-miss occurred during the making of Avengers: Endgame. (Spoilers ahead.) It was only during post-production that an editor saw how Tony Stark could counter Thanos's "I am inevitable" with a callback to his first outing: "I am Iron Man." Originally, Stark just snapped his fingers and died. Filming the scene meant bringing Robert Downey, Jr., back on set, back in costume, and back in character for an emotionally trying scene, something the actor strongly resisted. In the end, however, it was the idea that was inevitable.
In both cases, you see what appear to be obvious and deliberate setups with a clear payoff that were crafted without any such payoff in the writer's mind. It seems a haphazard way to operate, of course. In both cases, an extraordinary creative opportunity was nearly missed. But, more often than not, this is how the best work happens.
In fact, it's when we come up with the punchline first and then cling to it too tightly that things go off-course. This is what Quiller-Couch meant when he told us to "murder your darlings." Our "darlings" are the ideas we love too much, the ones we twist and warp our work to steer it where we think it should go.
Far better to write with a light touch and no fixed destination, to let the threads dangle until the last possible minute. Then, as the studio audience cools its heels and the actors wait in the wings, trust your inspiration to sew things up in a delightfully unexpected way.