Day 6

As Seinfeld turns 30, the sitcom's set designer looks back on 9 seasons — and 1,380 sets

It has been 30 years since the first episode of Seinfeld aired. The show's set designer, Thomas Azzari, takes us behind the scenes of one of the biggest TV sitcoms of all time.

'I would present it to Jerry and Larry and they had no idea what they were looking at'

Kramer, played by Michael Richards, shows Jerry Seinfeld his 'Fusilli Jerry' in this Season 6 episode of Seinfeld. Many of the sitcom's scenes revolve around Jerry's New York apartment. (Castle Rock Entertainment/Associated Press)
Listen11:11

Whether you know it from its original run on NBC or the back-to-back reruns that play in syndication, Jerry's iconic apartment in the sitcom Seinfeld is unmistakable.

That iconic New York apartment — and the series — turns 30-years-old this week.

Set designer Thomas Azzari, who joined the show after its fourth episode, was behind that apartment and a total of 1,380 sets during the show's run.

"Putting something together like this ... takes a lot of people, and the co-ordination was spot on," Azzari told Day 6 guest host Peter Armstrong.

"It was probably one of the most difficult shows I've ever done."

The Emmy award-winning production designer is known for his work on shows, including Newhart and Night Court. But it's Seinfeld that stands out to Azzari.

If lucky, Azzari says he would have a week to build the sets. Most of the time he had to create them in a matter of days — and occasionally, the turnaround was even tighter. 

"Some times they might add a set that I would have to do overnight."

Building a parking garage

The process behind creating the world of Seinfeld involved close work with the writer's room, Azzari explained, as the show's scripts dictated what he would build that week.

"All I needed to know is, you know, what the set was — Italian restaurant, whatever — how many people were in it, exits and exits, what the action was," he recalled.

From there, he would present drawings to director Tom Cherones, followed by a quick look by Jerry Seinfeld himself and co-creator Larry David, who were new to producing.

"They had no idea what they were looking at," Azzari said. 

"I think the success of the show is due to Tom Cherones ... He said, 'You guys just write, do whatever you'd like. We'll make it work,'" he continued. 

When it came to a scene set in an underground parking garage, the production designer faced a unique challenge: how to build a car park in front of a live studio audience.

In order to do it, Azzari says he and his team had to tear down the standard set, a first for the sitcom world.

"Scaffolding, lighting, you know, [it was a] bare-bones stage, except for the audience," Azzari recalled. "I built [the garage] on the walls of the stage. We had 32 cars on stage at one point."

And to create the illusion that it was bigger than the stage on which it was built, he explained that mirrors were positioned on either end. 

"So when you had a reverse shot, it would look like the parking garage went on forever."

Kramer's door

Asked about his time with the popular series, Azzari fondly recalled working with actor Michael Richards — who played Jerry's boisterous friend Kramer — and his impact on the set.

Kramer was known for often bursting into Jerry's apartment unannounced.

"When he crashed through the door, he crashed through the door," Azzari said, laughing. "We replaced that door three times and it was amazing."

With the show playing reruns almost every day on one channel or another and on streaming video platforms, Azzari is pleased Seinfeld still has a fan base three decades later.

And when residents of Taos, N.M., — where he now lives — find out about his time with the show, he say he faces an "endless" barrage of questions.

"I can't tell you how many times I've taken people tours through my memorabilia," he said.

"I guess it's gonna be with me for the rest of my life."


To hear the full interview with Thomas Azzari, download our podcast or click 'Listen' above.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.