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A fast Q&A with Spike Feresten

by Joel Keller, posted Sep 25th 2006 11:24AM
Spike FerestenIf you've never heard of Spike Feresten, you've at least heard some of his funny words. As a writer on Seinfeld, he penned "The Soup Nazi" episode, which many consider one of the best on the classic series. He also wrote for SNL, Late Show with David Letterman and The Dana Carvey Show.

Now he's in front of the camera with TALKSHOW with Spike Feresten (Saturdays at midnight on FOX), his twisted take on the tried-and-true late-night talk show format. How twisted? Well, in the last episdoe, he scoured a crummy neighborhood in L.A. looking for a sidekick, had Mary Lynn Rajskub operate heavy machinery after downing half a bottle of Nyquil, and presented a barbershop quartet that sung homo-erotic songs.

I caught up with Spike right before he conducted a Q&A with the cast of fellow FOX show Standoff at last week's New York Television Festival. We talked a little about his new show, but mostly just dicussed Seinfeld. The interview is after the jump.

Joel Keller: Why did you decide to do a talk show?

Spike Feresten: I've always been a big fan. David Letterman was the guy, like you hear so many people say, that changed the face of television for me. I'd race home from school just to watch it every night. I was just in love with the guy and what he was doing.

JK: I'm a big Seinfeld fan, and we had a feature called RetroSquad, where we reviewed old seasons of shows on DVD. I reviewed Season Three -- that's before you got there, right?

SF: Way before. But I'm a fan of those shows, too.

JK: That's when the show came of age...

SF: It really is. And that's very observant of you. That's what I find when half-hours do find their voice, is right around that second or third year, maybe towards the end of the second.

JK: Yeah, it was like the first few episodes had the slower pacing of the earlier seasons, but by the end of that year...

SF: It zooms, yeah. There's no time. We've gotta jam; we've gotta get four stories into a script, we've gotta get 'em all done, and we've gotta finish them up.

JK: When did you start on the show?

SF: Season Seven. My first episode was"The Soup Nazi."

JK: And you wrote that one?

SF: Yeah. Wrote it. Got a lot of help writing it, from Larry and Jerry, of course, and the guys on the staff.

JK: Where did you come up with that term, "Soup Nazi"?

SF: Well, it was how he was how he was introduced to me. I was writing for David Letterman at the time, and I used to go there for lunch, and it was how he was introduced to me. "This is the Soup Nazi, Spike, and this is how you get soup from him."

And a lot of theose scenes (in the episode) happened with me in them. I've been told "no soup for you." But it's more of a documentary; I'd like to take credit with the phrases, but even the Al Pacino line, that's something I heard a woman say to him: "You know, you look something like Al Pacino." And he said "get out," so, you know...

JK: You know, the guy's opening a chain of soup stores, and apparently the ordering procedure is supposed to be the same as from the episode.

SF: Two hundred stores, yeah. I'm going to be really curious to see whether it's going to be as good as the (original) place. Soup Kitchen International. They call him the "Soup Guy" (Actually, the chain is "The Original Soup Man" --Joel) ... I think, like most people, he doesn't enjoy being called a Nazi (laughs). It's not a nice thing to call somebody.

JK: I was reading the review of your show in the New York Times, and the reviewer, Virginia Heffernan, openly wondered why people were laughing at calling someone a Nazi back then (Spike laughs). She was saying that everyone was so into Seinfeld at that point, they thought anything they did was hilarious. But I don't know where she was coming from with that...

SF: You know I ran into a guy at this deli over the weekend who they call "The Deli Nazi." And he very proudly -- and he knows I wrote the episode -- he came up to me and said, "Hey, you know what they call me? The Deli Nazi!" That happens all the time; I've met the Car Wash Nazi, the Deli Nazi, the Salted Nut Nazi...

JK: What is it about Seinfeld that makes it -- I mean I can watch the episodes over and over and still laugh my ass off, even though I know what's coming. What makes it such a benchmark show, one that everyone compares their show to?

SF: For me, it was the relatable storylines. The storylines that we can go, "Oh, you know what I've been in this situation, and I really wish I had done what they did," you know, or "I've tried to cover up that way," or "I've tried to lie," or "I know a close-talker, too." That's what really appealed to me about it, it was that relatability. Whenever you see a show stray away from that, you just kind of lose it, then you're not really watching something that you can relate to.

JK: I'd imagine that's why Curb Your Enthusiasm has been so successful.

SF: I don't know if you know this, but Jerry (Seinfeld) and Larry (David) used to sit with their desks like this (demonstrates desks facing each other with his hands), Jerry here and Larry there. And they would do the Jerry-George dialogue and just write it down. You know, Larry is George. And then when he went on to do Curb, it's just George stories with swearing (laughs).

JK: That's great.

SF: It is. I've seen those stories; basically, those are just George stories with a little more edge to them.

JK: So, what did you do in the interim between Seinfeld and this new project?

SF: You know, a bunch of failed pilots; I tried to do a pilot with Louis C.K., and that didn't work out, and The Michael Richards Show, which ended up being a little bit of a disaster. Umm... then I worked on The Jamie Kennedy Experiment for a while, I produced that on that, which did alright. And Bee Movie, which I wrote with Jerry, which is coming out in a year or so.

JK: Was that weird for you, coming off a big hit show into projects that didn't work? Nothing really caught on...

SF: Not at all. No, no... You know, television is luck, pure dumb luck. I'm so grateful that I worked on Letterman and Seinfeld. I mean, right there, for me personally, I felt like I was done. And it's sort of what led me to doing my show. I feel like I've been on two great shows, and I really want to motivate myself to try something new and to take some risks.

And it's a big risk. I'm putting myself out there in a big way. And, as you know, I get slammed (laughs), and I get applauded, and I get slammed. And that's the fun of it.

JK: But so did Conan O'Brien at first; so did Jimmy Kimmel...

SF: Sure, yeah. Look, if I weren't the guy behind the desk, I would be slamming the guy behind the desk (laughs). No one new talk show hosts, me included. I totally understand; go ahead and take your best shot, it's completely fine.

And, by the way, I still don't know how to do the job; I'm still figuring out the voice of the show, so I'm learning a lot from the criticism.

JK: Give us something really funny to look forward to in the next few epsiodes.

SF: Well, we have Jerry coming on. And he is... I don't know if he's gonna do it, but I want to let him -- because he's never gonna host a talk show; no one will ever get to see that on any network -- but I want him to host at least his portion of the show, so we all get a little taste of what it would have been like had he got his own late-night talk show.

JK: How far in advance do you tape these shows?

SF: As the season moves on, we might be shooting in November and airing in May.

JK: So you can't really have people on who are promoting their movies or something like that?

SF: Yeah, it's tough. We can't do the topical stuff; it's kind of an issue with the show. But right now, you know, FOX is really just letting us experiment, and they're being really good about it, and they're saying, "Go ahead and get out there and learn how to do the show, and figure out what the job is and what the show is."

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Tom, we made it pretty clear that we were only doing Retro Squad during the summer. There isn't enough time to do it during the TV season due to all the new shows out. But we may pick up Retro next summer; just not sure which shows or seasons we'll cover.

September 25 2006 at 11:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tom Heintjes

Awesome interview! Interesting that the "Pacino" reference came from real life. Very impressive that the Soup Nazi episode was Spike's first Seinfeld script...what a mark to make off the bat!

Joel, you make it sound as if you won't be doing reviews of future Seinfeld DVDs...is that true? If so, what it the future of the reviews? I hope they continue, and I've enjoyed your insights and analysis--good job!

September 25 2006 at 11:42 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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