Quick: imagine the Seinfeld theme music in your head. It’s easy, isn’t it? Immediately that almost silly slap bass pops into your brain and walks down. You probably then see the exterior of Jerry’s apartment, or picture the characters from the famed television show sitting in a booth at Monk’s Diner. But whatever you imagine, that theme song is indelible.
We caught up with the theme’s writer, Jonathan Wolff, who is a longtime veteran of Hollywood. Wolff, who grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, moved to Los Angeles when he was 17 years old and began a career that would blossom to so much TV and film work that it’s nearly impossible to keep track. Some shows include Who’s the Boss? and Married… with Children.
Here, Wolff talks about the origins of the Seinfeld theme, how Larry David wouldn’t let it die, what it was like showing Jerry the original seed of the idea and much more. Fans of the show and of Wolff’s work, can now own Wolff’s newly released, Seinfeld Soundtrack album, which the musician released on July 2.
American Songwriter: What were the early talks like with Jerry Seinfeld or Larry David about the theme’s sound? Do you have favorite conversations from those first days?
Jonathan Wolff: There is an origin story for the Seinfeld theme. Jerry called me and described to me the opening credits of this new show, where, in these opening credits, Jerry would stand in front of an audience telling jokes and the audience would laugh. And he wanted a theme song to go with that. Now, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, we know this: theme songs were melodic with a lot of sassy saxophones and silly lyrics. Guilty. I created a lot of that kind of music. I’m not putting it down because I participated.
But it was not going to work for this assignment. I told Jerry, “It sounds more like a sound design issue than a music assignment. So, how about this? We treat the Seinfeld theme song as if your voice telling jokes is the melody, the jokes you tell are the lyrics and my job is to accompany you in a musical way that does not interfere with the audio of you telling jokes. Otherwise, we got a recipe for an audio conflict.” And that is how I started with it. I said, “I tell you what, I’m at my office, I’m by myself, it’s Saturday, come on over. Bring some video of you doing comedy. I’ll show you what I have in mind.”
Sampling was in its infancy in those days. But I was all over it. I was a techno guy. And I really wanted to do some serious sampling. So, I said, okay, here’s an opportunity. “Jerry, the organic human nature of your voice telling jokes might go well with the organic human nature of my human lips, tongue and finger snaps, creating a percolating New York energy underneath your dialogue.” [Performs snaps, vocal bops] I don’t know if you can hear that over the phone.
AS: Oh yeah, I can.
JW: And I had his attention. At any pitch [meeting—I mean, songwriters know how to pitch, that’s what we do. At any pitch, you’ve got to grab their attention, make sure they’re not looking around or thinking about what the next song is. And that was my moment to grab his attention, because that was from Mars in 1989. I created that little groove, put it under him and we started with that. It was good, it gave it energy, it uplifted the energy of him doing dialogue.
Then I said, “okay, now, remember in vaudeville old school comedians, there’d be a drummer hitting rim shots.” So, I said, “Watch this.” At the time, slap bass had not yet enjoyed celebrity status as a solo instrument. It was buried in the mix of funk music. I created – he watched me do it. I did some sampling, a couple different basses and I did some quick, nasty sample edits, compression, EQ, phase manipulation, gain staging to make it sound weird. And I created a bass line so simple, so basic that it did not require four beats per bar, it did not require meter to hold water.
It could stop and start to allow for his voice to tell jokes and I could use it to hit his punch lines. I could move, shift keys on it at any time to move onto the next joke and in that way I could architect, using these musical building blocks, architecture that could be modular manipulate-able within each monologue, to create a different piece of music or each monologue and that is how the Seinfeld theme was born.
AS: It’s funny, Jerry telling the jokes on stage eventually went away but your theme sure stuck around. How did you write riffs for the show off from the original theme?
JW: Oh, come on, the creativity part is the easy part. That’s the fun part to any artist. Writing, film, music—that part is the fun part. Creating. I don’t know if you can hear this, what I’m doing here [Plays a Seinfeld riff] I can do that all day and just make them fit into whatever transitions you want. [Plays another one] And that’s the fun part, being wacky.
The longer the show—you mentioned that the monologues went bye-bye. I don’t know what season that was, maybe 4 or 5. And they went bye-bye to make time for more storyline because the plot lines got denser and denser and we needed that time and apparently the monologues weren’t really necessary anymore to make the show unique. And that made my job on that end simpler because I didn’t have to build music for each monologue.
But at the same time, the producers had gotten wind that their music guy could do a lot of tricks and started writing situations into the shows that allowed me to be part of the comedy! And when I created the playlist for this new soundtrack album—how’s that for a smooth segue?
AS: Very good, impressive.
JW: Was it subtle? When creating this playlist, I only chose music that was, a) key audio in a scene. It wasn’t buried somewhere. And b) that played a role in the comedy of the scene. And c) that would act as an identifiable signature for a most beloved Seinfeld scene. And those were the parameters. It was not because it was great music. It was not outstanding achievement. It was to hit those emotional buttons, those warm fuzzies that we as Seinfeld fans share. For example, I mentioned Kramer’s pimp walk [Plays audio]. Are you a Seinfeld watcher?
AS: Oh, yes.
JW: Then you know exactly how to strut to this music. It’s as if that scene were not already enough of a cultural slur. I added to it with that urban street hip-hop groove. “Kramer’s Pimp Walk” is what I called it on the album, from the episode, “Wig Master.” And it’s just fun. That fun factor was really important. And I’m hoping that when Seinfeld fans get this record, that they will take a piece of music and have fun with it.
For example, that scene with George in his underwear doing the photo-shoot with Kramer [Plays audio], “You are a lover boy”—I’m hoping that people will use that music in their own photo-shoot videos and put them on Instagram and TikTok. There is no critical listening to this record. It just requires being open to fun memories. Sometimes my songwriting assignment was even to make crappy music. Like in the episode, “The Muffin Tops,” Kramer does that ridiculous Peterman Reality Tour [Plays audio].
This one is called “Kramer’s Crappy Banjo” So, that is the entire purpose of this soundtrack, to bring back fond memories of your favorite musical moments on Seinfeld. People ask me if I have a favorite episode. And I always say, “Not really.” I worked on every episode of Seinfeld. So, it’s hard to pick a favorite. There are four of us. At the end of the show, Jerry made a little speech and acknowledged the four of us who had been on every episode with him, which was nice. We hadn’t really thought about. We all kind of looked at each other, like, “Wow, did you work on the pilot, too?”
AS: What was that fateful day like when you were playing the theme for Jerry? What was his facial expressions like? Did he like it immediately?
JW: Yeah, Jerry really liked the energy it brought. He liked that it honored and elevated the comedy. I was not the first songwriter-composer on Seinfeld. There was another guy who came before me. I have nothing but respect for this guy. Even in the Major Leagues, the best hitters sometimes ground out. It happens. And in this case, he just did not take a worldview of the assignment. He did perfectly good music but it did not serve the monologues well.
So, I came and took his place. So, Jerry liked that, that it really, really honored his voice. And remember, this is 1989, there’s no FaceTime, no Zoom. So, he called Larry David and held the phone up to my speakers and played it for Larry that way. And Larry liked it. He instantly liked it. Unlike Larry, he approved it on the spot. I thought I was done. For that moment, I was done. But the network? Mmm, they were not so sure about it. It was weird! We had an actual meeting, which I was invited to because we knew music was one of the topics at hand.
And the network folks—by the way, nice folks, good folks, smart folks. I did 17 series for NBC during that era, all good people. We had a really good relationship. But in that particular meeting, Warren Littlefield had the unfortunate job of telling Larry, “I don’t like the music. It’s distracting, it’s weird, it’s annoying!” And as soon as he said the word annoying, Larry David just lit up. Like, “Really? Annoying? Cool!” Because if you know Larry, if you watch Curb Your Enthusiasm, that’s what he loves most, to annoy you! That’s his brand of comedy.
So, I’m there with Larry and Jerry and our boss, Glenn Padnick, who is a wonderful man, by the way. We huddled and Glenn said, “Look, guys. There’s a long list of things they’re asking for. I will go to the matt for you, with you on anything that you feel strongly about.” And I said, “Guys, Jerry you saw what I do. I work fast, I’ll have a new theme for you in two hours, no problem! Fight other battles, guys! Let him have this one! I’m not offended at all!” But Larry was.
He was just appalled, flabbergasted that I would even consider caving to a demand and he got mad not at the network, he got mad at me for even suggesting that I might change it. And he starts yelling, “Get out! Wolff you’re done here! Get out!” Larry through me out of the meeting. I looked at Glenn, who was technically my boss, and he shrugged and so I left. And that is how Larry David is responsible for the music for Seinfeld remaining the same, that bass music. All the music on the Seinfeld Soundtrack album is different from that.
JW: Just the first tack is that one that everybody knows. The rest of it is all special material that I did for other episodes. There weren’t a lot of songs. There were a few songs in Seinfeld that I got to write. One of them made it onto the album because it’s a really funny moment when Elaine is borrowing Putty’s car and turns on the radio and is surprised to hear this [Plays audio]. They added that little dimension to Putty’s character. By the way the singer on that is my forever long-term music editor.
AS: I could talk to you for hours about all this, but let me end here: what do you love most about the Seinfeld theme today and about music, in general?
JW: What I love about music today is that boundaries no longer exist. I was raised to love country music. One of my very first road gigs, I think I was 14, was with Pee Wee King, who is a country music legend. He wrote, “Tennessee Waltz.” But what I love about country music now is that it defies genre. Pop, country, come on. They all blend. I love that about music. The same thing with rock. Almost anything can be played on a rock station these days. I love that about music. It has elevated the caliber of musicianship of the songwriters and singers and musicians. I think music is really in a good place and moving more and more towards good places right now.
AS: And the Seinfeld theme?
JW: I love most that people still enjoy it, it’s quirky nature has survived the test of time. And that even people my kid’s age recognize it. I go to a lot of colleges these days and these kids know Seinfeld verse and chapter. For a lot of them, the way they were introduced to Seinfeld was through the theme in mash-ups. Apparently, if you mix together the Seinfeld theme and, well, anything, it becomes click bait.
And, as a result, there are all these amazing collabs with great artists using this old piece of music that I created. I love that about the Seinfeld theme. There are mash-ups with wonderful young artists. Kendrick Lamar was probably 10 years old when I created the Seinfeld theme and his mash-up is really cool. There’s one with Linkin Park. They’re just really good stuff. That’s what I love most about the Seinfeld theme, that it was allowed to have a second viewing, that it has a second act.