Billy Domineau was tutoring one of his clients in Los Angeles when the idea popped into his head.
The client was working through an idea for a sketch for a UCB class she was taking, and Domineau liked it. The idea was offensive, but in a good way ― the sort of idea that he believed she should push to its comedic limit. Grasping for a way to make his point more clear, Domineau threw out a purposefully absurd example: Imagine if there was a 9/11 episode of “Seinfeld.”
“I paused a second and my eyebrows went up,” he told The Huffington Post.
Almost immediately, Domineau and his client started to figure out how a “Seinfeld” episode could be built around the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001. The concept fascinated Domineau. Not only is “Seinfeld” one of the most iconic shows set in New York City, but it’s also a show that constantly pushed the limit of what was acceptable on television.
In Domineau’s mind, the central question of his exercise would be the logical comedic limit of the show’s point: “Can we root for people who are taking advantage of the greatest domestic tragedy we’ve ever had?” Or, can we root for bad people while laughing?
Domineau, a frequent contributor to Weekend Update on “SNL,” and his client started sketching out the individual storylines for each of the four main characters. In the case of George, the arc was clear: He would fake his heroism and reap the benefits. “It was just no question,” Domineau said. Elaine would discover that the man she was about to break up with had been injured in the attacks. Jerry would get grossed out by the dust. And Kramer would try to market bottles of “authentic Ground Zero dust,” he thought.
After the initial excitement passed, Domineau ended up sitting on the idea for a number of months. But one day while in the shower, a line popped in his head: “My crazy friend Mo Atta.” It was Domineau’s aha moment: Kramer wouldn’t sell Ground Zero dust, he would find out he was friends with the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Mohamed Atta, who had just borrowed his box cutters. At that point. Domineau said to himself, “OK, I am going to write this.” When Domineau finally started writing, he almost couldn’t stop, finishing the script in well under a week.
From there, he moved fast, and soon enough he had a draft, which he showed to Brennan Lee Mulligan, a UCB actor and writer. “He gave me such a phenomenal note about the show,” Domineau said. Domineau had included a number of lines for Jerry in which he told George how morally wrong it was to exploit a tragedy for personal gain. But Mulligan noted to Domineau that “Seinfeld” wasn’t a moral show, or even an ethical show, so much as it was a “rabbinical” show, as Domineau put it ― one in which people are abide by rules without any rationale. “It’s just, ‘You don’t do this thing. You don’t double dip,’” Domineau said.
Domineau realized that through Jerry, he was trying to show the world that he wasn’t a complete monster. “[I was] trying to get out of the argument of, ‘Oh, my god, this is so offensive.’” But that’s wasn’t the point of “Seinfeld,” so the lines didn’t fit in. He cut them. Others stayed, however, even if they made Domineau nervous, such as Jerry’s opening monologue, in which he jokes about heaven getting overwhelmed with applicants after a 9/11-like tragedy. (”It’s gotta be like the DMV on a Friday,” Jerry jokes.)
“I feel like it’s the closest the script comes to actually making light of tragedy in general,” Domineau wrote to me over email after we talked. “Ultimately, I decided it was just worth it to go all in, as writing this episode without perhaps the most iconic ‘Seinfeld’ trope would have felt like a cop-out.”
After a few more finishing touches, Domineau decided this week that the script was as done as it would ever be. On Tuesday, he posted it to Twitter.
Domineau has said that the response in the days since has been “overwhelmingly” positive. The tweet has since received over 1,000 retweets and 3,000 likes, and garnered praise from various areas of the comedy world (although no, he hasn’t heard from anyone from “Seinfeld” yet). But some close to the tragedy have told him they had issues with his idea, which Domineau said he understands and respects. Others just don’t find it funny. “That’s fine,” he said. “But the idea of, you should or shouldn’t write it [at all] ― that’s out the window.”
“We all have full ownership of [Sept. 11],” he said, “and we can all choose to grieve in our own way.”
I asked Domineau if he considered writing the script an experiment in testing the concept of “too soon.”
“I guess, if anything, this maybe is all an exercise in making that line irrelevant,” he replied. “I definitely wanted to make sure that this was an episode that was funny on its own. And, certainly, there is some gallows humor ... But once you accept the premise then from there the jokes have to carry themselves, the story has to carry itself ― not dependent on the pathological laughter of ‘Oh, my god, we’re actually making a 9/11 episode.’”