Image: Mark Metcalf as 'The Maestro' in Seinfeld.
Mark Metcalf has acted in numerous films and television programs, but he's perhaps best known for three roles: an overbearing ROTC officer in the movie Animal House, an ancient vampire in the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and a middling orchestra conductor in the series Seinfeld.
Two things brought the actor to my classroom, via the wonders of Skype: (1) His Seinfeld character, “The Maestro,” and (2) my Twitter account. Perhaps my experience will encourage you to branch out on social media and invite interesting and relevant guest lecturers into your own classroom.
A Q&A with The Maestro. I teach a college course on Seinfeld. Yes, that's right: We look at the NBC series from its early shaky period (when its own studio executives considered it “too New York, too Jewish”) to its news-making finale. Along the way, students and I explore, among other things, the show's obsession with social codes and food as well as its sometimes troubling, sometimes progressive representations of gender, sexuality, and religion.
It seemed fitting to invite a Seinfeld alum into the classroom. So I did. (More about how that came to be in a moment.)
Once I confirmed Mark Metcalf was willing to speak to my class, I informed my students. Then I asked each of them to come up with a question for the actor. It could be about anything: his character, the cast, Jerry Seinfeld, television comedy in general. Out of 30 questions, I picked seven, which I emailed to Metcalf. In response, he approved them as “good questions” and thankfully not containing words like semiotics and hermeneutics.
A week later, the seasoned actor was speaking with my students about his experience filming the two Seinfeld episodes in which he appeared, “The Maestro” (7.3 — i.e., season seven, episode three) and “The Doll” (7.17). He also shared with us general information about acting, auditioning, and making a sitcom.
At least three of my students' questions were about Seinfeld in general. For example, they wanted to know how long it took to shoot a single episode and if the scenes were shot in chronological order. They also were curious about Metcalf’s most memorable experience on the show and his favorite episode. Other students were interested in his character specifically and his acting process. One student wanted to know what it was like to audition for the cast of Seinfeld. Another was curious if The Maestro was based on anyone, as many of the show's secondary characters are. Finally, other students wanted to know if improvisation was encouraged on-set or if he was required to go by the script.
Here are what I found to be Metcalf’s most interesting responses (because I’m sure readers are curious even though they’re an aside to this topic):
- Virtually all episodes of Seinfeld were taped before a live studio audience (note the ever-present laugh track). But “The Doll” episode — in which The Maestro and other characters avoid creases in their pants by periodically removing them — was not. According to Metcalf, Jerry Seinfeld was scheduled to be out of town during the taping, so “The Doll” is one of the only episodes shot without a live audience.
- When asked about his favorite episodes, Metcalf cited “The Contest” (4.11) and “The Yada Yada” (8.19) as two of the most “artful” contributions to the series. Seasoned viewers will know them as, respectively, “the masturbation episode” and the “anti-Dentite episode." But Metcalf would confirm no personal favorite. Why, you ask? Apparently the actor didn't watch Seinfeld. He occasionally catches an episode since "they're so hard to get away from" (i.e., syndication), but he never watched the show religiously, it doesn't seem.
- When asked why his character was not brought back for Seinfeld’s series finale — in which dozens of minor characters reprise their roles — Metcalf was told that only secondary characters whom Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer had “treated poorly” were reintroduced. According to the writers, the The Maestro was never treated badly, so he did not return.
Thanks (Yet Again), Twitter. This guest lecture happened because of social media — Twitter, specifically. I have sung the praises of this platform before in my Chronicle and Vitae essays on academic branding, digital identities, and Twitter in the classroom. And now, I'll do it once more. Here is how Mark Metcalf made his way into my class:
- 2009: I signed up for Twitter.
- 2010: I set up a blog as a place to house my research and findings on the star image and work of Gene Kelly. My blog inadvertently morphed into a fan site called Gene Kelly Fans with multiple contributors and regular readers.
- Early 2011: Gene Kelly Fans expands to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
- Late 2011: A Milwaukee author who once interviewed Gene Kelly at his Beverly Hills home followed Gene Kelly Fans on Twitter. We conversed at length about his interview.
- 2012: I promoted my Seinfeld class on Twitter and Vine. Shortly thereafter, the author from Milwaukee sent me a tweet informing me that Mark Metcalf is his neighbor and is usually quite happy to share his time speaking to others.
- A week later: I am emailing The Maestro.
So because of connections made through social media, my Seinfeld students and I were able to talk with, and learn from, someone who was there when the series was at its pinnacle.
On another occasion, I was able to line up a guest speaker via social media — the director of a documentary my students and I were screening that term. While I had no third-party connection with this speaker as I had with Metcalf, I approached the process similarly. First, I contacted the filmmaker on Twitter via public reply. Then, once I learned he was interested in talking with my class, he and I shifted the conversation to Twitter's direct messaging function and then ultimately to email.
Of course, not all requests you make via social media will pan out (because of scheduling issues, one of mine didn't). But you won't know unless you try. What you may find is that speakers are more than happy to lend their expertise and carry on a dialogue with your students, even if it's just for 20 minutes or so.