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Seinfeld and The Beatles and The Beats and such

July 29th, 2014 · 9 Comments · Movies, Music, New York City, Weird Things About Me

Seinfeld-Beatles

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Larry David & Jerry Seinfeld were the Lennon & McCartney of comedy.

That’s the way I see it, anyway.

Larry was a Lennon — mercurial, opinionated, sharp tongued, bull-headed, idea generating, creatively uncompromising, a supremely gifted artist born to his medium, with an enormous elaborate expansive vision.

And Jerry was the McCartney — an equal creative master, but more easy-going, conciliatory, more camera-friendly, certainly more camera-comfortable, and definitely more “pop” and popular.

They each excelled at things the other didn’t — while collaborating in their common passion — and making each other laugh. They found their equal, their sparring partner, their riff mate, their sentence finisher, their line perfecter, their bullshit detector — or as Jerry called it, their “cross filter.”

Like Lennon & McCartney, Larry & Jerry might have ended up having successful individual careers had they not met the other, but the two forces collaborating, bouncing ideas off each other, harmonizing on both the surface and the deepest levels, created something that outshone all their peers around them.

Michael Richards actually makes the comparison here — at 19:57 (the year Lennon & McCartney met!) —

 

And both duos have fans who still argue over which of the pair was better!

Both the band and the TV show lasted 9 years, and the dissolution of each was a major cultural event when it happened.
Here you can hear Jerry citing The Beatles as the reason for ending the show when he did.

 

And they were both Fab Fours — both based on four creative characters, all of whom were masters of their domain. I mean — their instrument.

And it was the senior creative pairings who selected their supporting players, which in both cases were integral to the endeavour’s overall success.

And each one of both pairs went on to acclaimed solo careers, but in this case Larry was more the hit-making McCartney with his Emmy-winning “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and Jerry more the reclusive John with his unannounced small club appearances and out of the mainstream (not on TV) “Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee.”

And in the synchronistic symmetry of it all, both pairings had a fellow creative genius in the booth with the same name as one of the principals — Larry Charles collaborating with Larry David, and George Martin with John, Paul, George and Ringo.

And both tandems were based first and foremost on writing — 2:30 songs or 23 minute episodes. Without the writing, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
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Early in the Seinfeld run, Jerry said, “People always ask me, ‘What show is your show like?’ And I always answer Abbott & Costello.” The rapid-fire banter — or what Jerry calls the “musical math” — runs through the whole series, especially in, say, The Bubble Boy, or the classic Kramer–Newman exchanges in The Ticket when Kramer’s been hit on the head and can’t remember his alibi. Although there was a wide spectrum of colorful characters to employ, the dialog Larry & Jerry were naturally predisposed to write was up-tempo duets.

And in further keeping with their love for Bud & Lou (as they called them) and their other comedic hero duo Laurel and Hardy, they were conscious to have the physical distinctions of the short chubby guy (including Newman) and the tall lanky guy — with the hair that started to stand straight up and make him even taller by season 3.

Larry & Jerry even bequeathed George Costanza the middle name of Louis as an homage to Lou Costello; and as Jerry says, he saw his role as the Bud Abbott straight man. He talked about some of this with places like the New York Times and Major League Baseball (and here) discussing “Who’s on first?”

The brilliant comic Larry Miller said of the Seinfeld–Abbott & Costello comedic harmony — “They’d both take a premise that it tissue thin, and just keep dancing on it.”

Jerry talks a bit about his love for Abbott & Costello here —

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And here’s the ’93 Abbott & Costello special he refers to —

 

Their roots in the classic comic masters runs deep.

Jason Alexander said Ralph Kramden was a big inspiration for how he played George. Michael Richards talks about studying the Marx Brothers and how he consciously brought that ensemble rapport to the Seinfeld team. Among other things, the show did their take on the classic stateroom scene from A Night At The Opera in the episode where Elaine’s using a broom closet as a fake apartment. At different times Jerry can be seen doing the besieged and flustered Don Knotts. And of course the futile yet never-ending scheming by the less than honorable leads follows in a direct comedic lineage from Sgt. Bilko to The Three Stooges and W.C. Fields.

Another source Larry & Jerry drew heavily from was The Jack Benny Program where an always put-upon well known comedian played an always put-upon well known comedian of the same name, involving the typical events and wise-cracking characters in the performer’s life. And their homage extended to stylistic choices like using exaggerated facial expressions as punch lines, putting a painfully petty cheapskate front and center, and being happily impolitic, unsentimental, and unrepentant — living up to the famous Seinfeld writers/cast motto: “No hugging, no learning.” 😉

A noted cinephile friend of mine, Ted The Fiddler, pointed out other subtle connections between the two show’s writing styles — “Having Kramer hit a golf ball into the ocean at the end of an episode as the credits roll, and then George finds a golf ball in the blow hole of a beached whale two weeks later. The idea of setting up the joke a week or more before the punch line. Each joke having three punch lines, each one getting a slightly bigger laugh. 19 major events in a half hour show … the pacing of the show. As a big Jack Benny fan, those are the echoes I enjoy the most.”

Here’s a great conversation between Larry David and Ricky Gervais about the roots and execution of Seinfeld and Curb comedy —>

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Here’s a brilliant interview with Larry David by America’s premier television critic, New York Times’ Bill Carter.

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When Jerry, Larry & Larry describe the motivation behind the writing, they use words like tight, dense, clean, no fat. In fact, the shows were so scrupulously trimmed that a “scene” might be less than 5 seconds with only one word or line of dialog before the next fast cut. Because of this precision sculpting and intricate four-story plotting, Seinfeld scripts often ran up to 70 pages — 20 pages longer than a one hour show.

Also of interest — every joke, routine, and script Seinfeld ever wrote, was originally written longhand on a yellow legal pad using a clear-barrel blue Bic pen. From his first days striving to be a comedian until the present, he’s never varied from his method.

Here’s an excellent NYT video on how he crafted his material –

 

The initial casting was so determinative to the success of the show. The talent and alchemy of The Founding Four was the reason it became a show. The series was such a longshot to begin with and got the smallest first season order in the history of network television — 4 episodes. If they had scored about one percentage point lower in ratings, it would not have just made the cut for a slightly longer trial of 13 episodes for a second season, which it then only barely survived to be given a full order for the third season. If the three hired principals — Jason Alexander, Michael Richards and Julia Louis-Dreyfus — had not been as exceptional as they were, it never would have survived those lean early years.

When the show first aired, prolly like most people, I focused on George. Jason Alexander was already a well-known (and Tony-winning) theater actor in my and the show’s hometown of New York, and he was the fresh television voice of the never-heard-before Larry David.

When I revisited the series in reruns, I couldn’t take my eyes of Julia, especially when she was not delivering lines — all the little things she was doing to support the moment.

And then in the last year, watching all the outtakes and interviews and the “How It Began” doc and so on, Michael Richards has absolutely blown me away. What a masterpiece of a character he created. And it was largely Michael who did that. Kramer was written (at first) as a “hipster doofus” but it was Richards who came up with the idea that Kramer was not dumber than everybody else — he was smarter. And that became the key to how the character evolved from Larry & Jerry’s original concept.

As Jason Alexander put it, “Michael drove himself to these levels of creativity that were extraordinary. I don’t think I’ve ever come across another actor that had that combination of manic drive, that off-beat sensibility, and the genetics of what his body could do to create that character. It was one of those kismet meetings of actor and role that becomes legendary.” Or as Jerry Stiller put it succinctly, “He had a mercurial mind in a weightless body.”

If there had to be multiple takes, he would play every one differently, which in turn kept his castmates on their razor’s edge. And he was so funny, as the blooper reels reveal, he regularly caused the other actors to lose it in the middle of a scene, often literally doubling over with laughter … and the whole time, he never breaks character.

And then to learn how he studied with Stella Adler (who studied with Stanislavsky, and who taught his Method to Brando, De Niro and loads of the other best actors you’ve ever seen) … and all of the on-set stories about his concentration and preparation … and how he was the first of them to win an Emmy … then won three of them … and how he’s equal parts cerebral and slapstick, and an absolute master of both … he’s now up there in the very highest pantheon of actors in my book, even if just for this one character … one who can pratfall alongside Basil Fawlty and Ed Norton as the funniest physical characters in the history of sitcoms.

He did the role for 9 years and there isn’t a bad Kramer episode. In fact there isn’t a scene — or line — that he doesn’t absolutely slay.

And as a funny aside and proof of his effectiveness, the producers eventually had to instruct the studio audiences to not applaud his entrances because it was throwing off the timing of the scenes.

I highly recommended this clip on how Michael Richards created Kramer —

 

On a personal level, during the entire run of the show, I was the same age as the characters, living uptown in Manhattan, working and performing in the arts (like Jerry), with all sorts of crazy friends like Kramer and George, and a girlfriend whose face looked very much like Elaine’s.

For us New Yorkers, it was kind of “our” show, and it always sort of surprised us that it was also so popular everywhere else. The issues were our issues — parking spaces, urban dating, transitory jobs — and the characters were the characters we lived with — cab drivers, street people, oddball proprietors. It was so definitively New York — even though the creators were by then living in L.A. — like James Joyce creating Dublin from France.

In fact, the out-of-town popularity is exactly why the show was picked up in the first place. The first four episodes did well on the coasts and in large urban markets, but what surprised NBC was that the ratings in small towns in the Midwest were the same as they were in New York and Philadelphia.

It really did become “Must See TV” as the NBC slogan of the time called Thursday nights because you knew whatever you did the next day, somebody’d say, “Did you see Seinfeld last night?” … plus … you really wanted to see it!

My theory is that although it was a take on big city life, Jerry himself grew up in the quintessential suburban town of Massapequa (Long Island), which could be Anytown, North America. As Jerry said of his world, “Massapequa is an old Indian word for ‘near the mall'” — with noodgy parents, gossiping friends, and the same first world problems and aggravations that everyone else was trying to shake off by watching a little tube after a long day.

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And then there’s the whole Kerouac angle I love. One of my favorite authors was an early proponent of using the stories of one’s life as the subject for his autobiographical novels — and here’s autobiographical comedy!  There hasn’t been a sitcom in the history of television that was the writers’ real lives as completely as Seinfeld.

When the network made one non-negotiable demand for the first season greenlight, it was that there had to be a strong female character equal to the three male leads. Larry David thought of an old girlfriend, Maggie Cassidy, I mean Monica Yates, who became a friend after they broke up, and realized that was the way to do it. Jerry had had a similar experience with the comedian Carol Leifer, and so with each of the creators strongly grounded in the concept of the ex-girlfriend as friend, Elaine Benes was born.

And of course the roman à clef copping extends to the real nextdoor neighbor named Kramer — and to countless scripts — from the Soup Nazi to waiting in a Chinese restaurant, from negotiating rules with an ex so they can have sex to the entire show-within-a-show storyline. And they also actively encouraged and mined the other writers’ and friend’s real-life moments and stories as comedic fodder. The B.O. in the car, the cutting a chocolate bar with a knife and fork, the trying to help a small neighborhood restaurant and endless other storylines and details were plucked from their personal conversations and turned into national conversations, yada yada yada.

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But I mean … the whole Kerouac / Beat symmetry … set in New York … almost in the same neighborhood around Columbia … young New Yorkers on the town, on the make, out for kicks … with George Costanza as their Gregory Corso or Henri Cru, always scheming, always workin’ the angles, but never hitting the jackpot.

Kramer is obviously Burroughs — the tall, skinny, knowing, oddly dressed, unpredictable eccentric who didn’t quite fit in with the others but yet was somehow part of them.

Jerry is clearly Kerouac — at the center of everything and using his friends as the inspiration for his work. And of course Jack’s longtime hometown of Northport isn’t that far from Massapequa in geography or mindset.

The Beats never really had an Elaine, but in a way she was the Ginsberg through-line, collaborating with all the others, ambitious, always with an eye for the boys, and an ability to turn on the charm and work the room that the others just didn’t have.

And if anybody’s Neal Cassady it’s the behind-the-scenes (unpublished) Larry David, the catalytic partner for Kerouac/Seinfeld, the manifestation of the entire enterprise, the “god” the others looked up to.

And I think I’m fine with keeping Leo & Gabrielle as Jerry/Jack’s parents. But since we’re here, I’m gonna go ahead and cast Truman Capote as Newman, Lou Little as the Soup Nazi, and Peter Orlovsky as Puddy.

 

Some tasty tidbits I came across on the journey …

NBC President Brandon Tartikoff after the Michael Richards audition:  “Well, if you want funny … .”

George Shapiro and Howard West, who managed up-and-coming comic Jerry Seinfeld in the ’80s, also handled Carl Reiner, so they had regular contact with his son Rob, who had just started Castle Rock in 1987 (along with 4 others), and who ended up producing the show starting in 1989.

For Jason Alexander’s audition, and in his performance in the pilot and first couple episodes, he was playing George as Woody Allen.  A couple episodes in, he found out George was based on Larry David, so then began doing “the best Larry David I could.”

It originally premiered as “The Seinfeld Chronicles” before being shortened to “Seinfeld” — but when Jerry & Larry were developing it and submitted the first script, they called it “Stand-Up.”

Just before the show first aired, Jerry asked the most experienced veteran in the ensemble, Jason Alexander, if he thought the show had a chance.  Jason answered it didn’t, “Because the audience for this show is me, and I don’t watch TV.”

Larry David wrote / created and was George.
Jerry ditto Jerry.
But it was Larry Charles who specifically focused on / wrote for and developed Kramer (along with Michael Richards).

To see how Larry and Jason created George, check this out —

 

Every episode title (except “Male Unbonding”) begins with “The…” then names something from the episode. Larry & Jerry instituted this because they didn’t want the writers wasting time creating clever titles.

Although Larry & Jerry have official writing credit on only 60 and 16 of the 180 episodes respectfully, they re-wrote / transformed / “worked their magic” (as the other writers put it) on every script once it was handed in.

Not only were the NBC execs famously opposed to the Chinese Restaurant episode, but also to the entire show-within-a-show story arc.  And so was Jason Alexander. (!) They all quickly came around, however, once the first shows were taped.

Both Jerry and George had two dads. Each of their fathers started out with actors who were replaced by different actors by the character’s second appearance and thereafter.

Keith Hernandez found out after-the-fact that his two-episode storyline was written to be cut back to one if it turned out he sucked.

Joshua White (of the famed psychedelic Joshua Light Show of the late ’60s) actually directed an early episode of Seinfeld (“The Library,” 3rd season, 1991). He had directed a Carol Leifer special the year before, so that’s prolly how it happened, but it certainly shows the renegade Prankster mindset of the project. 😉

And yet, from what I’ve learned, none of the principals drank at all, and definitely didn’t use drugs.  Just about every other artist in every medium I’ve ever loved, had a drug or alcohol problem.  But all four leads plus L.D. (and probably most everybody else, if that was the standard set from the top) were mind-bogglingly stimulant-free.

Jerry’s fictional apt. was at 129 West 81st Street, apt. 5A — but the exterior used in the show is actually a building in Los Angeles. Then the real Jerry Seinfeld ending up buying his multi-condo New York uber-pad at West 81st & Central Park West.

The trademark funky bass lines between scenes were actually played on a Korg synthesizer.  Bummer.

Out of the four central characters, Kramer is the only one to never have had an “inner monologue.” ie; He’s the only character whose inner thoughts we never hear.

During the show’s run, players on the Buffalo Sabres nicknamed their teammate (and the greatest goalie of all time) Dominik Hasek, “Kramer” because he was so weird and funny (to go with his tall and lanky).

Michael Richards crossed over and appeared as Kramer in a first season episode of Mad About You, playing the guy who subletted Paul’s bachelor apartment.

 

In another crossover, on The Larry Sanders Show, Hank (Jeffrey Tambor) wakes up on Jerry’s couch.

But most cooly — Sopranos creator David Chase suggested after both series had concluded that his show and Seinfeld should have switched endings.

Think about THAT for a minute. 😉

 

 

Various recurring and one-off guest stars  (many of whom were not “stars” at the time) —

Jerry Stiller (as George’s father)

Lloyd Bridges (in his final TV appearance)

Philip Baker Hall (the great character actor from Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Argo and about a 150 other movies)

Paul Gleason (who was Jack Kerouac’s friend in the early ’60s)

Brian Doyle-Murray (Bill Murray’s brother)

Bill Macy (Maude‘s husband)

Robert Wagner and real-life wife Jill St. John (Diamonds Are Forever)

George Wendt (from Cheers, whose time-slot Seinfeld took over the following year)

John Randolph (as George’s first father)

Bill Saluga (the “You can call me Ray, …” guy)

Candice Bergen (as Murphy Brown)

Teri Hatcher (and she was spectacular!)

Raquel Welch (and what’s more than “spectacular”?)

Bette Midler (who’s always spectacular!)

Marisa Tomei

Jeanneane Garofalo

Amanda Peet

Catherine Keener

Carol Kane

Kathy Griffin

David Letterman

Larry Miller

Bob Balaban

Stephen Tobolowsky

Clint Howard

Peter Krause

James Spader

Bryan Cranston

Pat Cooper

Wilfred Brimley

Fred Savage

Corbin Bernsen

Bob Odenkirk

John Larroquette

Jon Favreau

Jon Lovitz

Judge Reinholt

Jeremy Piven

Mario Joyner

Taylor Negron

Ben Stein

Courtney Cox pre-Friends

Kristin Davis pre-Sex and The City

Michael Chiklis pre-The Commish

Debra Messing and Megan Mullally pre-Will & Grace

Rob Schneider and Molly Shannon pre-SNL

Sarah Silverman pre-anything

Ana Gasteyer in her first television appearance

Denise Richards, age 21, playing a 15 year old with cleavage

the Farrelly brothers (as writers) before they’d ever done a movie

the Flying Karamazov Brothers in their first and only acting appearance

and Keith Hernandez and numerous other baseball players.

 

The Vagaries of Network Scheduling:

Season 1 — The pilot originally aired at 9:30 PM on Wednesday, July 5th, 1989, following Night Court.

The four episodes of the first “season” were run as a summer try-out in NBC’s prime slot following Cheers at 9:30 PM Thursdays, in May and June 1990.

Here you can watch Jerry first talking to Johnny Carson about the show the night before the series premiere (starting at 6:30 on the clip) —

 

Season 2 — ’90 – 91 — When they came back for 12 episodes as a mid-season replacement in January of ’91, they were first slotted in their original 9:30 Wednesday spot following Night Court (replacing the soon-to-be-cancelled Dear John starring Judd Hirsch) and up against time-slot winner Jake And The Fatman. But when NBC’s soap-opera satire Grand underperformed in the post-Cheers slot, they were moved back there for the next 7 episodes, before once again being bumped back to 9:30 Wednesday by the end of the season.

Season 3 — ’91 – ’92 — When they came back for their first full (22 episode) season in the fall of ’91, they were still in their original Wednesday slot following Night Court (now it its final season) but they still consistently lost in the ratings to Jake And The Fatman. At least, for the first time, they stayed in the same slot for the entire season.

Season 4 — ’92 – ’93 — In the fall of ’92 after Night Court finally ended its 8-year run in the spring, Seinfeld moved into their 9 PM Wednesday slot for their 4th season, followed by a new similarly New York 30-something show, Mad About You. But then half-way through that season (in Feb.) they were switched back to the prime 9:30 Thursday slot behind Cheers when Wings was failing to hold the audience. Finally having cracked the Top 30 rated shows in the country (finishing 25th overall for the year) Seinfeld became the network’s heir-apparent when their top-rated Boston bar show finally closed its doors to much hoopla that spring.

Season 5 — ’93 – ’94 — At the start of the fall ’93 season Seinfeld took over the prime 9 PM Thursday slot once Cheers vacated the premises, where they would finish as the 3rd overall show in the ratings for that season.

Season 6 — ’94 – ’95 — Thursdays, 9 PM (for the next 3½ seasons) — finishing the year as the #1 highest rated show on television.

Season 7 — ’95 – ’96 — Thursdays, 9 PM — the last season with Larry David.  Finished as 2nd highest rated show of the year, behind only George Clooney’s E.R. (also on NBC).

You can watch the cast and crew talking about the impact of the Larry departure here —

Season 8 — ’96 – ’97 — Thursdays, 9 PM — again finished 2nd only to E.R.

Season 9 — ’97 – ’98 — Thursdays, 9 PM — until January ’98 when the network moved it up to 8:30 for its final five months. The show finished its last season #1 overall in television ratings. The only two other shows in television history that ended while in first place were I Love Lucy (in 1957) and The Andy Griffith Show (1968).

 

Most watched TV episodes of all time in the U.S.:

#1 — M*A*S*H  finale (106 million viewers)
#2 — Cheers  finale (84 million)
#3 — Seinfeld  finale (76 million)

 

Bloopers and Outtakes

You’ve prolly seen every episode many times and there’s no chance you’ll ever see anything new, right?

Don’t be so sure about that!

Check these outtakes! They’re as funny as the show.

Once you get started with this, if you’re on YouTube you’ll see all the other seasons appear in succession at the top of the righthand column.

 

Also check this “Must See TV” — The Making of An Episode — if you wanna know how this masterpiece was painted.
Spoiler alert:  it’s all about the writing … 😉

If you pause at 12 minutes you can get a visual of how the show was structured — the table read with LD (and director Andy Ackerman) at the head, Jerry and “George” right next to them, Michael and Julia next, then the priceless “Puddy,” and on down the creative line.

 

And here’s the super insightful documentary on How It Began with interviews with all the principals telling the story from concept to on-air success.

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And you can read all the scripts for every episode here.

 

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For a rough primer on one of the other funniest shows ever produced, here’s my loose riff on Fawlty Towers.

For more on John Lennon check out my story of being at the Dakota the night he was killed.

For a more upBeat New York story check out Election Night 2008.

For more Henri Cru and the krewe surrounding Kerouac, check out this excerpt from my book.

For some comedic storytelling videos, check out Makin’ Movies.

For a Kerouac on Long Island story, check out The Northport Report about a bunch of the Beats gathering in ol’ Jack’s hometown.

Or for another Long Island story, check out the Long Island Mansions Adventure.

Or for a more Manhattan story check out this tale of downtown to uptown.

Or for more on Kerouac and the Beats on screen, check out the story of the On The Road” movie premiere in London.

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by Brian Hassett      karmacoupon@gmail.com        BrianHassett.com

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9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ken Morris // Jul 31, 2014 at 1:24 PM

    You might be the only person out there that could have made that Jack-Seinfeld correlation … And intelligently and convincingly. The last thing I read of yours is always my favorite Hassett — You outdid yourself once again. Always makes my day when reading your stuff. The passion and wordplay and cultural cross currents hits me refreshingly like a wave. I’ve been Hassetted once more.
    I’m dying for that book. 🙂

  • 2 Chris Welch // Jul 31, 2014 at 4:13 PM

    Hey Brother! This rocks!!

  • 3 Debbie Vazquez // Aug 2, 2014 at 9:48 PM

    aaaaaaa!!!!!! Jack and Jerry!!!!!! I LOVE it!
    and all the rest of it too ……. but my favorite show and my favorite writer!!!!
    Truman Capote as Newman !!! baaaaahhhaahhhaaahaaa!!!
    toooo perfect! you’re the best!!!!

  • 4 Michael Craig // Aug 3, 2014 at 11:47 AM

    This is really smart. like the show. well done. learned a lot. thanks.

  • 5 Mary Jo Hicks-Sullivan // Aug 3, 2014 at 5:12 PM

    You write, you’re a Kerouac fan, you’re a liberal, and now I learn what a huge Seinfeld fan you are. Friends for life. 🙂

  • 6 Maggie Clement // Aug 3, 2014 at 7:59 PM

    This is *such* a good piece! Thank you!

  • 7 Ted the Fiddler // Aug 3, 2014 at 11:14 PM

    Got totally sucked in. Couldn’t stop myself. Read the whole thing and started watching….

  • 8 Alex Nantes // Aug 4, 2014 at 11:21 PM

    The Sopranos ending switch blew my mind!
    Well scoped, Captain. Whole thang.

  • 9 Delta Hamilton // Aug 12, 2014 at 6:59 PM

    That was great. I never heard anyone comparing them to the Beats.
    Thanks.

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