‘The Soup Nazi’ turns 25: The 'Seinfeld' writer and actor on the episode’s real-life origins, runaway success and why it couldn’t exist in 2020
“No soup for you!” If you haven’t said it — well, let’s be honest, you’ve definitely said it. It’s one of those sayings with seemingly indeterminate origins; more believable as something that’s always just been there than a catchphrase from a popular ‘90s sitcom.
And yet before NBC aired the Seinfeld episode “The Soup Nazi” (episode 6 of Season 7) 25 years ago in 1995, the phrase was known only to a select group of New Yorkers who earned the ire of Al Yeganeh, the fastidious chef of Soup Kitchen International.
Spike Feresten wrote the episode, basing it off his personal experience with Yeganeh while he was writing for The Late Show with David Letterman. He and his fellow Letterman colleagues frequently visited Yeganeh’s restaurant and one of them coined the chef “the Soup Nazi.” (Previously, a 1989 New Yorker article recounted the chef’s peevish nature.)
“He was kind of a mean guy, but on that day he said, ‘No soup for you!’” Feresten recalls to Yahoo Entertainment. “I was so bewildered, like, ‘What? I don't understand, I've got money, you're selling stuff.’”
Feresten was a new recruit on Seinfeld and only brought up the Soup Nazi story after several pitches to co-creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David fell flat.
“They go, ‘The Soup Nazi? Why do they call him the Soup Nazi?’” Feresten explained to them, “Because he's kind of like a Nazi, he's just mean to everybody. But the soup is so good.”
Seinfeld and David thought the idea was hilarious. And just like that, Feresten landed his first Seinfeld writing credit and the casting search for a Soup Nazi began. Meanwhile, Jason Alexander’s character George represented Feresten’s customer experience.
“I got the Middle Eastern dialect from Omar Sharif [from Lawrence of Arabia],” Larry Thomas says. In 1995, Thomas was a bail bondsman and struggling actor who had most recently played a cop with one line on Power Rangers. “Auditioning for Seinfeld was big,” he says.
Dressed in an Army shirt, green pants and a beret (“I looked exactly like Saddam Hussein”), and sporting three days of facial hair, Thomas nailed the audition.
“I went, ‘Oh my God, that's Al Yeganeh,’” Feresten says. “Larry [Thomas] is coming in and making us laugh right off the bat by playing angry.”
While Larry David wanted to pursue character actor Richard Libertini for the role (he’d played a wacko general in the 1979 movie The In-Laws), Feresten and Seinfeld succeeded in pushing for Thomas.
But when it came to shooting the episode in front of a live studio audience, Feresten had jitters. He didn’t feel confident about his script and some massive breaking news threatened to poison the atmosphere. “It was the day the O.J. [Simpson] verdict came in,” Feresten says.
Despite the surprising news, or maybe because of it, “the audience started going crazy and laughing harder than I had heard them laugh in previous episodes,” says Feresten.
Thomas also had a case of nerves, which was a blessing in disguise. “That actually worked to my favor,” he says, explaining that his stiff performance added to the character’s unyielding presence. And his first “no soup for you?” got “huge laughs,” he says.
After the episode aired on Nov. 2, Feresten signed on to the internet (remember, this was 1995) to check on the only online Seinfeld fan forum in existence back then. “There was one entry and it said, ‘worst episode ever.’ All caps. That's all it said,” Feresten says.
He went out to the bars to drown his sorrows with a few other Seinfeld writers, fearing for an awkward next day at work — if he even had a job anymore.
“Jerry walked in and he goes, ‘Boy, quite an episode last night,’” Feresten recalls. “He goes, ‘I don't usually get calls at this point, but I got a ton of calls from people saying how great this was.”
Overnight, the episode had become a local and national news story. Reporters flocked to Soup Kitchen International, seeking out the inspiration behind a Seinfeld episode that was already a hit. But Al Yeganeh was incensed at being labeled a Nazi and later even cursed out Seinfeld in person when, in a life-imitates- art-imitates-life scenario, the comedian attempted to buy some soup (Feresten witnessed the incident, calling it “very uncomfortable”). Yet in later years, Yeganeh would leverage the Seinfeld fame to help franchise his restaurant.
Thomas would go on to earn an Outstanding Guest Actor Emmy nomination for a role that lasted precisely six minutes onscreen (he lost to Tim Conway for Coach). And in the past few years, he’s laid claim to his character on social media; he even sends fans personalized Cameo videos, ideal for the Festivus devotee in one’s life.
But as “The Soup Nazi” turns 25 this year, Feresten and Thomas acknowledge the problematic nature of using the word “Nazi,” even in jest.
“The phrase ‘Soup Nazi’ would not be something I think you could find in a sitcom in 2020,” Feresten says. “It's just a different world right now and it's evocative of something we're all upset about. So it wouldn't work.”
“I do fear that it wouldn't be acceptable today and it kind of breaks my heart,” Thomas says, adding, “You can't be politically afraid of anything that could be funny.”
Thomas, who is Jewish, explains, “It was just a bunch of Jewish guys joking about an overly strict character, so strict that they call him a Nazi and it’s never been anything more than that. And it never should be anything more than that.”
More generally, the episode has undoubtedly become more than its intended life as a 23-minute episode of television: a Jeopardy clue, a card in the Seinfeld edition of the Monopoly board game, signed ladles, etc.
Feresten remains baffled by its enduring popularity. He jokes, “When I die, no matter what I do … it's going to say ‘the guy who wrote ‘The Soup Nazi’ on my grave. That's it.”
Video edited by Jimmie Rhee.
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