Interview by Liz for Glowy Box
Sam Kass isn’t a household name, though some of his credits certainly are. In a career full of highs and lows, Sam made the incredible leap from driving a cab in New York City while working as a playwright to writing for what many have called the greatest television show of all time – Seinfeld. He’s been a WGA member since 1994, but estimates that he only made enough money to support his wife and two children solely through writing for six or seven of those fourteen years.
The WGA has been there for Sam’s wife as she’s battled cancer for the past eight years. With a ticking clock on their health care eligibility, Sam worries that their insurance benefits could expire before he has the opportunity to land another writing job, leaving his wife without treatment. Despite this heart-wrenching situation, Sam and his wife both stand behind the WGA: “This strike is about more than just us. Hopefully it will end soon, and I’ll be able to secure a job that will keep our benefits going. Until then, I’ll get out on the picket line and do my duty.”
Sam’s courage and sense of humor during such difficult times made me grateful for the opportunity to interview him, and I am proud to introduce him to all of you.
Did you always want to be a writer?
This whole thing started because of my mother. I was a terrible student growing up in Brooklyn, failing class after class. One of my teachers suggested to my mother that perhaps I could use a little structure. That somehow got turned into being sent to the New York Military Academy at West Point, which was not my idea of a good time. I would write my mother letters, begging her to get me out of there. My mother decided that my letters were so creative and well done that she proclaimed I would become a writer. And for the next ten years, all she’d ever buy me would be pens and notebooks. Basically, I had 435 pens and one pair of socks…
What was your first writing job? From there, how did you get your first big break?
I started off in New York as a playwright. By Off Broadway standards I was fairly successful, meaning that I only needed two part-time jobs to supplement my income. Here’s a little story—my play Lusting After Pipino’s Wife was a big Off Broadway hit. It ran for almost 2 years. I was driving a taxi at that time, and one night I picked up a woman several blocks from the theater. She was carrying my playbill and raving about the show. She never looked at the license on my meter, nor realized that she was being driven home by the playwright… That’s when I decided it was perhaps time to investigate Hollywood.
About a year later, in 1994, I had just written/directed my first film, The Search for One-eye Jimmy. It had a great cast; John Turturro, Samuel L. Jackson, Steve Buscemi, Jennifer Beals, etc. At the time, Laurie David (Larry David’s wife) was a producer at Fox. She saw my film, and came to New York to offer me a pilot deal. I didn’t know what a pilot was. I didn’t know who Larry David was. I had barely heard of Seinfeld. I was a playwriting cab driver, living in a Brooklyn tenement with a wife and two little kids. Laurie convinced me to come to L.A and “pitch” my story to the executives at Fox. She was actually talking about my life story. So I did. And they bought it. And then we made perhaps the worst pilot ever. Laurie even brought in Larry to “consult.” If memory serves me correctly, he made it worse…if that was even possible.
The lead was played by an actor named Lew Schneider, who was so terrible he gave up acting after that pilot, and became a writer. To this day Lew still apologizes for “ruining” my pilot. Lew went on to write for Everybody Loves Raymond. I happen to know this because we were on a plane together: Lew in first class and me in coach. Episodes of Raymond played throughout the flight…6 hours of shows executive produced by Lew Schneider. In one episode he actually appeared….a nightmare at 30,000 feet.
How did you become a writer on Seinfeld? What was it like to write for one of the greatest shows of all time?
After the pilot debacle, I moved back to Brooklyn—for about a week. Then Larry David called and asked me to write for Seinfeld. I turned him down. Four times. My mother said that if I didn’t take the job, she’d kill herself. So I turned it down again—the funeral was the following week. (Just kidding.) Eventually, I relented, and we moved to Los Angeles. I kept my tenement apartment in Brooklyn, just in case. And 14 years later, I still have my taxi license—just in case. And with this strike, “just in case” could be here any moment.
Not many writers can boast that their first TV gig was perhaps the greatest series of all time. Mine was. In retrospect I realize that Seinfeld was the purest of all TV writing gigs. There was no “table,” where writers auctioned off lines in an attempt to one-up each other. Writers were actually allowed to write here… At my ex-agent’s urging, I left Seinfeld to work on a new Tony Danza show. [Hudson Street] was his comeback vehicle after Who’s the Boss? We both look at each other today and laugh. Actually, he laughs and I cry.
I have to ask, since you wrote the Seinfeld episode in which Kramer’s first name was revealed to be Cosmo. Who came up with Cosmo?
Larry actually came up with Cosmo, but there were several other names in the running. It was a huge secret up until tape night, and we blacked out all the Cosmo references in the script. NBC paranoia…
What is something you think people might be surprised by in terms of your lifestyle in Hollywood and your life as a working writer?
The biggest misconception is that TV writers are all rich. There are a lot of people on the picket line who laugh at that notion. I actually own a boutique in Santa Monica called Marcia Bloom. That’s my wife. She makes all the clothes herself, and now and then I’ll work behind the counter. Come on in—I’ll sign your Seinfeld memorabilia, and I’ll sell you a dress.
It seems like many writers have additional careers to supplement their writing income—your boutique is a good example. Would it be difficult for you to provide for your family on a writers’ salary alone?
Of the 14 years that I’ve been a member of the WGA, I’d say only 6 or 7 of those years I made enough money to support my family. There were 5 years that I made a lot of money, and that’s been a nest egg (although dwindling) throughout the years.
Can you explain why the issues surrounding the strike are important to you?
The issues we’re striking for are so basic– a tiny little piece of the Internet, and a couple of extra pennies on a DVD sale. Come on, guys! Are you kidding me?
Because of the strike, you haven’t been able to sell anything for three months. What has that meant for you financially?
Let me just say this– Eight years ago, my wife was given 6 months to live. She’s still here. Breast cancer, lung cancer, stem cell transplant, chemotherapy every week for 8 years. The WGA has been there for her. During the strike, the clock continues to tick on your health care eligibility. Your health care can expire without you having the opportunity to secure a job that would extend your benefits. Depending on how long this strike lasts, it is conceivable that our benefits could expire. My wife is uninsurable. No other company would take her on at this point.
We both stand behind the WGA during this period of uncertainty. This strike is about more than just us. Hopefully it will end soon, and I’ll be able to secure a job that will keep our benefits going. Until then, I’ll get out on the picket line and do my duty.
There’s no doubt that my wife and family face a serious problem with her health, but it’s in no way any more ominous than what many Americans face today—there’s a health care crisis that affects one and all.