During his youth in Omaha, Neb., Pat Hazell couldn't have imagined that one day he would be behind the development of a bona fide cultural phenomenon. A writer, performer and producer set to stop in Fredonia Friday on tour with his one-man show, "The Wonder Bread Years," Hazell fondly remembers his days working with Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld and others as a special consultant for "Seinfeld."
"It was right at the beginning," Hazell said. "It was really fun to be a part of developing the characters and the theme song, naming the coffee shop."
Hazell had just co-written a play called "Bunk Bed Brothers" when he and his co-writer, Matt Goldman, were brought on board, after creators David and Seinfeld had completed work on the pilot. "Bunk Bed Brothers" went on to become critically acclaimed and was later optioned by Columbia Pictures, and made into a sitcom, "American Pie," (unrelated to the film) for NBC Studios.
Pat Hazell will bring his one-man show, “The Wonder Bread Years,” to the Fredonia Opera House Friday.
"One of the things I learned from Jerry was, we were going to write toward our own sensibilities, to entertain ourselves, as opposed to trying to be derivative of what was on television," Hazell said.
David, whom Hazell met while working on "Seinfeld," shares a lot of similarities with his character on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," where a "Seinfeld" reunion was held in recent years.
"There's a likeable curmudgeon (in there), you have to find just the right way to appreciate all of it," Hazell said. "(David is) a very creative guy and he's very prolific in terms of what he produces television-wise. We were quite different so it was interesting to face that sometimes when you pitch ideas, he's very adamant about what works and what doesn't work. I absolutely respect his ability and longevity."
Hours of deliberation went into each creative decision for "Seinfeld."
Hundreds of names were considered and rejected before they decided on "Monk's Cafe" for the name of the now-famous coffee shop frequented by Seinfeld, George, Elaine and Kramer. Any name that was the same as a coffee shop already in existence in the vicinity of New York City was thrown out.
"By the end of the day, after going through all that for a few days, there was a poster of Thelonious Monk hanging up, so I think Larry David finally said, 'Monk's. Try Monk's,'" Hazell said.
The team also struggled to clear the name "Kramer," as it was the real name of one of David's friends. They had to call and convince him. The real Kramer was reluctant to sign off on it, Hazell said, and suggested other names they could use instead, such as "Kessler." (In the pilot episode, Cosmo Kramer is called "Kessler," and Seinfeld and George dine at "Pete's Luncheonette").
"Finally, Larry David called and offered him $1,000 to use his name, and in true Kramer fashion, the real guy said, 'What about $2,000?'" Hazell recalled with a laugh. "The network said, 'No, don't pay it.' And we're like, 'If you can get it, just get it and let's be done with it.'"
Hazell also helped cultivate the theme music, heard at the opening of the episode and during scene transitions.
"With the music and the theme song, you kind of hear this popping sound that buzzes around, and I don't know ultimately what the composer (Jonathan Wolff) did to get that sound, but we were trying to describe it by using our mouths," he said, imitating that familiar "Seinfeld" sound.
Hazell said he feels a "sort of fun, deeper connection" to "Seinfeld," which he left after the first season.
"After I wasn't working on the show, some years later, Jerry called me and asked permission to keep using 'Kramerica Industries,' which was something I came up with for Kramer's sort of faux corporation for making up coffee table books and other crazy things."
Hazell stayed on doing stand-up for about 75 episodes of the series as the studio audience warm-up comedian - a task that came to fruition by way of "drawing a short straw" - talking to the audience through the tapings.
"It was a very fun thing watching it go from the page to the stage," Hazell said. "The actors brought so much to it, the characters - Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Michael Richards - their physical abilities, their facial expressions, how they intoned things. It was really quite a collaboration, I think, and it was something of its time."
Prior to "Seinfeld," many of the shows on television focused on core families. "Seinfeld" broke the mold, featuring 30-something characters, whose familial backgrounds were an afterthought.
"It wasn't until later that Jerry's parents showed up, and they were sort of secondary characters," Hazel said. "Your friends were really your family in this new generation, and Jerry was at the beginning of all of that."
TOM SAWYER METHOD
Before he became a comedian, Hazell had a magic and juggling act which he described as, "not tremendously great." His saving grace was his humor. To make light of any tricks gone awry, Hazell would make a joke. He honed his skills at performances, hired at ages 16 and 17 to perform at Christmas parties, and also gained comedic experience as a member of a high school improv comedy group.
"Being funny was always a very competitive art with my peers growing up," Hazell said.
He was also inspired by Johnny Carson, another Nebraska native. Going on "The Tonight Show" became one of Hazell's goals.
Before Hazell decided that comedy would become his career, he simply realized that he wouldn't have to keep his job at a pizza parlor if he was doing five or six shows per week. It would beat slinging pizzas part-time, and having to continuously change his work schedule to accommodate his performances.
"That was, I think, the Tom Sawyer method of work trying to do less and make more."
Hazell became serious about his comedy when he made the move from Omaha to Los Angeles to get his career started. He set aside the magic tricks and focused on writing jokes and performing wherever he could.
"It's a lot of work to go on at 1:30 or 2 in the morning and follow Robin Williams and still try to maintain your dignity," Hazell said. "It's not all glamour, but once you push through that sort of firewall and get accepted by your peers, then you work harder and harder at it."
Hazell started at the bottom of the totem pole, working his way up to opening for many famous comedians and eventually getting into sitcom writing.
"It seems like there's a pretty clear ladder, if you're willing to do the work," he said. "At the same time, if you can put a stamp of originality on your work, I think that's critical, for people to recognize you're not a duplicate of something that's already out there."
"Seinfeld" was not Hazell's first experience seeing his ideas come to life onstage.
"When I was a fledgling stand-up comic, I would sometimes throw ideas to Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen Degeneres or Dennis Miller, and they would show up on 'The Tonight Show,' or something, it was a big reinforcement that, 'Oh my gosh, these jokes are good enough.' And maybe I should try to pursue this on my own. Maybe I should tighten up on giving away jokes and consulting."
"I'm not sure that I would have necessarily pursued it that much had I not seen some of those ideas (come to fruition)," Hazell said. "It was kind of success by riding in a sidecar."
Hazell has earned plenty of success in his own right. In addition to his experience on "Seinfeld," other writing and performing credits include "Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" and "Waiting" Showtime named him "One of the Five Funniest People in America."
Hazell did make his dream of appearing on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" come true. In addition to their shared Nebraska roots, Carson also started in magic.
"He showed me a few tricks, and I showed him a few tricks," Hazell said. "He was just very, very supportive."
Hazell went on to do "The Tonight Show" another six times with Jay Leno.
'THE WONDER BREAD YEARS'
Hazell's one-man show, "The Wonder Bread Years," is a culmination of all of his years of experience in showbusiness.
Through his many stand-up performances and writing screenplays, he discovered that what he writes best is nostalgic material common-denominator comedy that anyone can relate to.
"It became my signature," Hazell said. "After a few 'Tonight Shows,' I realized that the best stuff I did was always about growing up and looking to the past."
He wrote "The Wonder Bread Years" about his generation and how they grew up, "from sitting at the kid's table to cereal prizes," about that childhood sense of wonder and how to reclaim it as an adult. The show is a hybrid of stand-up comedy and theater that can appeal to all ages and families.
Originally, it was written 10 years ago as a PBS special for a pledge drive for a station in Lincoln, Neb. The plan was to shoot it as a one-hour special. To prepare for it, Hazell performed it in a nearby theater, and the performances became public. The theater proprietor encouraged Hazell to take the show to an arts conference in Minnesota, where it was very well-received.
"It was just after 9/11 and a lot of folks said, 'We really need something uplifting, some Americana material,'" Hazell said, and he began to take his show on the road.
In "The Wonder Bread Years," Hazell recalls his family road trips, bad Halloween costumes (Colonel Sanders was a stand-out) and wearing a Twister tarp as a poncho on a rainy day.
"All of the dangerous toys that we grew up with, like Lawn Jarts and Clackers, that aren't around anymore, I look back and think about how crazy some of these inventions were," Hazell said. "And they were put in the hands of an 8-year-old. It's hilarious to me."
Hazell hopes the show will help audience members affectionately rekindle their own childhood memories, to look back and laugh.
"It's a little bit of a sugar pill that everybody could use."
Reserved seating tickets for "The Wonder Bread Years," to be presented at 8 p.m. Friday at the Fredonia Opera House, are $27 for the general public and $25 Opera House members. Tickets can be purchased in person at the Box Office, by phone at 679-1891, or online at www.fredopera.org. This performance is made possible, in part, with public funds from the United Arts Appeal of Chautauqua County.