An Oral History of ‘The Betrayal’: ‘Seinfeld’s Famous Backwards Episode
After more than eight seasons and 150 episodes, Seinfeld’s audience grew accustomed to the traditional end credits freeze frame, followed by the Castle Rock logo to close out the show. Then came the Season Nine episode “The Betrayal.” Viewers were thrown for a loop, as the first thing greeting their eyes was the Castle Rock logo, followed by the end credits and the “conclusion” of a story.
This continued, as they saw Jerry, George and Elaine dragging themselves into the coffee shop after a 23-hour plane ride, Jerry and George snapping at each other the whole time. Then Kramer running in, like the audience, eager to find out what’s going on. From there, the entire episode continued to unwind in reverse, telling the tale of Elaine, Jerry and George going to India out of spite to attend the wedding of Elaine’s enemy, Sue Ellen Mischke. On the trip, George discovered that Jerry had just recently slept with the woman he set George up with: Nina.
Kramer, meanwhile, had stayed in New York, beefing with hot dog vendor “FDR,” Franklin Delano Romanowski, over FDR constantly wishing that Kramer would drop dead. The feud was eventually resolved after Kramer allowed FDR to nail him with a snowball. However, due to the nature of the episode, this happened at the beginning of the show, devoid of context.
“The Betrayal,” commonly referred to as “The Backwards Episode,” was inspired by a 1978 play by Harold Pinter called The Betrayal, which also took place in reverse. The episode was written by Peter Mehlman and David Mandel, two Seinfeld writers who had written classic episodes on their own but decided to team up for the tricky task of doing an episode in reverse. A quarter century after its debut, Mandel and Mehlman are opening the vault and sharing just what went into the most mind-bending episode of Seinfeld ever.
David Mandel, co-writer of “The Betrayal”: Heading into Seinfeld’s ninth season, we didn’t yet know that it was the final season, but, being that it had been on for that many years, I got most excited by any idea that broke format. For example, during Season Nine, Jerry and I met with Will Vinton, who did the California Raisins, about making a claymation episode. The deal fell apart when one of the guys who worked for Vinton mentioned that they did something similar for Home Improvement. If Home Improvement had already done it, obviously Jerry wasn’t going to follow them, so we didn’t go through with it. I’m also guessing that guy was fired as soon as we left the room.
The point is, I got most excited about anything that broke format. I did that a little bit with “The Bizarro Jerry,” and when Peter Mehlman called me with the idea for “The Betrayal,” I automatically said, “Yes.” I’ll admit it: I love a gimmick.
Peter Mehlman, co-writer of “The Betrayal”: I’d already left Seinfeld at that point and was working on my own pilot and casting it, but there was a gap where I didn’t have much to do, and I had this idea. I’d never seen the play, but I was familiar with the film version of The Betrayal with Ben Kingsley and Jeremy Irons, and that movie sparked this whole idea. Then I called David because whenever I was working on something, I always came up with small ideas, and I always went to David when I wanted to go to a bigger place. The great thing about “The Betrayal” is once you have that format, you could really do a simple story.
Mandel: When Peter mentioned it to me, it was such a no-brainer. I knew that not only was it a great episode idea, but being based on The Betrayal, it also instructed us on the notion of “What if Jerry and George betray each other?”
When I took the loose idea to Jerry, he was quickly on board. He got what it was. The way it worked on Seinfeld was that it was all about the story, and the story with Jerry, George and Nina — with Jerry sleeping with George’s girlfriend — was good, forward or backward. And the story of the spite wedding — that Elaine would fly to India for a wedding out of spite — gave us an opportunity to end up somewhere crazy to begin the episode with. These were very good Seinfeld stories anyway.
The only thing that changed was that we had a very different start for the Kramer story. The episode was going to begin by opening on Kramer’s tombstone, and you were going to find out that the only way Kramer could undo the FDR birthday wish curse was to fake his own death. That was the original idea, but at some point or another, a couple of other writers got in Jerry’s ear about the tombstone and convinced him it was too big. They were fucking wrong, though, and they’re fucking idiots, and I will never forgive them.
As it ended up, the FDR story is fun, but I don’t think the snowball thing is anything. It was a placeholder. The whole Kramer story was “I wish you drop dead,” so the ending should be the death. That ending was very story-intricate.
Mehlman: It would have been so much better that way.
Mandel: Yeah, a thousand times better. I won’t say who they are, but they know who they are, and they’re not unaware of my feelings about it.
Mehlman: I wasn’t really there that much, but if I were on staff back then, that never would have happened. I think I would have had more influence over Jerry.
Mandel: I do think you probably would have had a better shot at fighting for it.
Mehlman: Like, during “The Yada Yada,” I had to nudge Jerry a little to get Debra Messing to say, “Not to mention the Blacks and the Jews,” and that is going farther than having Kramer fake his own death.
Mandel: One thing that was especially frustrating about that was that the change came late in the script stage, just before the table read, and because of the backward structure of the episode, it was more difficult to change something than it was for a normal episode.
Originally, when we wrote the episode, Peter and I beat it out forward and then laid it out backward. Then we wrote it and then had to rewrite it so that we could end a scene that then threw to a scene that was technically earlier. Some of the best stuff in the episode came in the fine-tuning of it, like Kramer’s lollipop and Elaine with the booze. Also the runners, like George’s boots and the bathrooms, we found all that. The early drafts didn’t have those finer points and those funny cuts. More so than a traditional script, each draft got better and better as each version took more advantage of the gimmick.
Mehlman: Yeah, it got better and better with the realization of the kind of fun we could have.
Mandel: The stuff at the “beginning” — which was actually the end of the episode — began with Peter and I just making ourselves laugh. Throughout the episode, we had George saying, “Stuff your sorries in a sack, mister,” as this runner. So, we thought it was funny if that expression came from Susan. That became “What if we bring Susan back and have her and George with Jerry and Nina in the coffee shop back in the day?” Once that was in, it was just a hop, skip and a jump to the scene with Jerry moving into the apartment. We also threw in a “Kessler” joke just to clean up the continuity error from the pilot.
Mehlman: Heidi Swedberg had also cut her hair by then, so they had to put a Susan wig on her.
Mandel: Yes! Also, “Stuff your sorries in a sack, mister” came from The Odd Couple. It was something Tony Randall said, and that was just in my head from having watched The Odd Couple on WPIX in New York.
Mehlman: Speaking of Nina, Justine Miceli was really great.
Mandel: She was fantastic. The idea that she could be Elaine’s replacement really worked. Of course, no one is Julia Louis-Dreyfus, but Justine did fit right in. Her banter level was equal to the others.
Justine Miceli, Nina in “The Betrayal”: Originally, I had been cast in Janeane Garofalo’s part in Season Seven, where I was supposed to be like the female version of Jerry. Unfortunately, even after going through all the rehearsals, something seemed very off. The night before the taping, my manager called and said, “They decided to go in another direction.” They decided to go with Janeane, who was a much better choice for that.
A few hours later, Jerry also called, but I wasn’t home, so he left a message saying they were pleased with my audition and they very much wanted to get me on another episode. Fortunately, they stuck to their word. He and Peter Mehlman cast me as Nina in “The Betrayal.”
Mandel: Mark Hirshfeld was always great with casting. Mike McShane just came in and read for FDR. He’s a great archetype, being a big guy, but still very different from Newman.
Mike McShane, Franklin Delano Romanowski in “The Betrayal”: David Mandel knew me from Comedy Central, and I remember going to an audition with him, Jerry and (director) Andy (Ackerman). I remember liking David immediately; he, like me, was a big guy with a very chill energy to him. I remember Jerry being very welcoming and generous with the laughs. Some comedians aren’t like that.
Eric Dobin, freelance writer and co-host of The Place to Be: A Seinfeld Podcast: “The Betrayal” is also the final episode for Elaine’s rival, Sue Ellen Mischke, so it was a nice send-off for her character.
Brenda Strong, Sue Ellen Mischke on Seinfeld: I loved this episode. I still have my sari and I just recently posted a picture of Julia and me in costume from this episode.
The wonderful thing about playing Sue Ellen Mischke was that, because she was kind of Elaine’s Lex Luthor, any time they needed to put a pebble in Elaine’s shoe, they would bring me back. I was a special device for the show, kind of like what Wayne Knight did with Newman, except Sue Ellen doesn’t know how much Elaine hates her. That’s the funny thing, while Elaine doesn’t like Sue Ellen, I think, for Sue Ellen, Elaine is her only friend and we got to explore that more in this episode.
Andy Ackerman, director of “The Betrayal”: Directing “The Betrayal” was definitely a different challenge than other episodes, just in terms of keeping track of everything and making sure we weren’t missing any beats.
After the table read, we immediately decided we could not do this one in front of an audience. Whereas 50 to 75 percent of each episode was usually done in front of an audience, this one became a block-and-shoot show. We shot this one over four and a half days — it took up the entire week. There was so much to do. I don’t think there’s one scene that lasts more than a minute. It was probably one of the most challenging episodes I did of Seinfeld, but also one of the most fun.
Because there were so many sets, we had to add a couple of soundstages to our regular stage. For example, the Indian wedding was on a separate stage, so we had to coordinate all that. We also didn’t shoot it in any particular order, which led to the challenge of keeping track of the backwardness of it all. We were constantly monitoring ourselves to be sure we were on track. The sight gag with Kramer’s lollipop, for example, we went over that again and again. All these grown adults were gauging how much lollipop should be in each particular moment. It was like a serious, scientific discussion over it.
We also had an elephant in the episode, which was one of the easiest experiences I’ve ever had with an animal. I’ve worked with a tiger, a leopard, a chimpanzee, a kangaroo, otters, snakes and tarantulas, and the elephant was probably the easiest.
Mandel: I believe the elephant started as a joke. It was just me and Peter saying to Andy, “There should be an elephant because it’s India.” Then, of course, there was an elephant in the episode.
Mehlman: I was walking to the set of the Indian wedding with Jerry, and we passed the elephant, and suddenly, Jerry put his head in his hands and shook his head. I asked him, “What’s wrong?” and Jerry said, “I just had the sickest thought. I was wondering if the elephant recognized me.”
McShane: I remember when I arrived on set, Jerry gave me a very brief but fun tour of the stage, including the famous wall of cereals in the back area, which had like, 300 different cereals all stocked and fresh.
The cast was very warm. Jason Alexander was a big fan of improv, so we talked about that a bit. As for Michael Richards, he’s a very talented man and he worked very hard at having a unique entrance every time he entered Jerry’s apartment, but I didn’t warm to him much, unfortunately. So, when we got to the last scene where snowballs were being thrown at him, at first, his stand-in was lobbing very soft snowballs at him. But Ackerman said, “This isn’t working. We need it to hit him. Does anyone here want to try?” I said, “I do!” and I stepped up and really hit him with it. Then they asked for another take, and I did it again, right on the cheek. Then I went to get the third one and Andy said, “We’re good, Mike.” After that, Michael Richards and I had a nice chat. I guess I had to hit him with a snowball twice to get his attention.
Ackerman: The episode was definitely a challenge, but we managed to pull it off. It all came together in the editing room, and we didn’t have to reshoot any of it.
Dobin: Since “The Betrayal” aired, it’s become kind of a cult episode, and the fans really do like it, but the original response to it wasn’t all that positive. I think the reason was because the hype leading up to the episode was that it was going to be the next great Seinfeld classic. Thirty-four million people tuned in thinking that this would be the next “The Contest” or “The Marine Biologist,” and it turned out to be a completely different type of Seinfeld episode. It was just really hard to please 34 million people, especially with something that had been so hyped up.
Mandel: I wasn’t aware that the fans didn’t like it originally, but I will say that I begged to not have NBC promote it as “The Backwards Episode,” but there was no stopping NBC from telling you it was the backwards episode, which ruined an incredible opportunity to have the audience go, “What the fuck is going on?”
Peter and I had originally had this idea that if you turned your TV on to watch “The Betrayal,” you’d go, “What the fuck is going on?” and then you’re playing catch-up. If you do that, you respect the audience and you respect their ability to catch up, especially the Seinfeld audience, but NBC had no such respect. There was no chance that they weren’t going to explain this episode just in case people didn’t get it. So, they not only gave away the gag, they also sold it as a “classic” episode. You can’t win when you’re telling everyone it’s a fucking classic. So if people initially didn’t like it, I get it.
McShane: I know the episode caused some controversy, but I thought it was a testament to how popular the show was. By then, the characters were so inoculated into the culture that you could do a backwards episode, and the expectations from the audience would make it funny.
Adam Pacecca, co-host of The Place to Be: A Seinfeld Podcast: Now “The Betrayal” is definitely appreciated as a classic; it just took some time. Fans especially like the Easter eggs for the die-hards out there and the final scene where Jerry moves in and first meets Kramer, calling him Kessler. It’s especially funny that Jerry invites Kramer in — like it’s Jerry’s fault that Kramer behaves the way he does.
Mandel: The episode made me laugh, and it made Peter laugh, and that’s what we wanted to get out of it. My only disappointment is that we never did find out what Harold Pinter thought of it — whether he liked it or disliked it. I would have even enjoyed a “How dare you! You’ll be hearing from my lawyers!” But that never happened.