Well I got a flash for ya, joy boy: Party time is over. Y’got seven days, Seinfeld. That is one week!
Seinfeld, like many great episodic sitcoms before and after it, is a show heavily reliant on the bit character. A character created for a single episodes use that is both funny enough to provide a necessary function within that episode and eccentric enough that it would probably overstay their welcome if extended beyond that (elsewhere I state that my favorite ‘non-reoccurring character’ is ‘The Wig Master’s (Season 7, episode 129) Jiffy Parking lot attendant, mainly for his assured aloofness to any of his customers many woes). Sometimes they’re mere caricature providing outlandish mannerisms or physicality, sometimes they’re so odd that their mere existence is comedic fodder (the previously talked about Donald, better known as the Bubble Boy, would fit nicely here) and sometimes it’s an entirely singular ethos that is so steadfastly assured on an inconceivably trivial point that its outlandishness is sourced for belly busting laughs.
Such would be the case with perhaps the greatest single bit character in the Seinfeld universe, and it almost goes without saying. Trod out my opening paragraph above without any episode title over it and most Seinfeld aficionados would immediately being prepping a discussion on Robert Altman/Paul Thomas Anderson regular Philip Baker Hall and his remarkable turn as strong armed pseudo-sleuth Mr. Bookman. Appearing with dialogue patterns straight from a pulp novel of the 1940’s (and a trench coat to match), Hall’s performance is one of sustained hilarious aggressiveness. He’s always lurking, whether it’s to break up the possible romantic shenanigans of Kramer and the attractive, demure short-haired Librarian or to burst into Jerry like a pit-bull in desperate need of the five cent overdue fee. The substance of his arguments never matches the tenacity at which he’s ready to spout them, but that only adds all the more to the manic intensity of it all. It’s a bit performance for the ages.
I’ve always seen so much of his Mr. Bookman creation in his one man narrative performance as Richard Nixon in 1986’s Secret Honor (directed by Robert Altman); itself a funny thought. Nixon remains on screen for the film’s entire 90 minute running time alone, confined to his study in a self-loathing (potential) death march between himself and a litany of real and imagined foes. It’s a tour-de-force of writing and performance as Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone’s script (which was formerly a play of the same name) sustains the imagination about the recesses of Nixon’s mind as much as it explores the contemporary politics Nixon created and left in his wake. It’s Hall’s intensity that is equal parts neurotic, alienating and depressing that truly captivates; we’re left spell bound as an audience the entire time. It’s that Hall that comes raging into Jerry’s apartment on the topic of overdue books; the intensity with which he innocently expounds his demise as conspiracy theory in Watergate, the Bohemian Grove, and the moneyed Jewish intelligentsia are here in how he desires a future utopia where boys and girls can freely walk into any New York Public Library and not have their minds warped by scribblings of graffiti “pee pees” and “wee wees” in the books he seeks to recover, and the library offenders he yearns to punish. Bookman’s singular pursuit is totalitarian, he walks the streets with Gestapo like zeal, nothing can alter his righteous perspective of himself. It’s very much like the ever changing self-assurance that Hall’s Nixon extols throughout Secret Honor, complete with hatred of the counter culture left of the 1960’s. Bookman is Nixonian through and through, one minute a consummate outsider serving a purpose larger than himself for the greater good (as he defines it), the next minute so arrogant and righteous as to be puffing his chest for all to see as self-serving martyr. Mr. Bookman is a small weak man, and yet so was Nixon; Mr. Bookman is also a hilarious caricature of a man, and yet so was Nixon. Mr. Bookman’s faults are reduced to minimal as he only has keys to a few doors of a library (albeit one of the most famous in the world); while Richard Nixon had his faults elevated since the keys jingling around in his pocket could unlock the free world. It’s this juxtaposition that is at the heart of the comedy and tragedy of both representations.
“Yeah, ’71. That was my first year on the job. Bad year for libraries. Bad year for America. Hippies burning library cards, Abby Hoffman telling everybody to steal books. I don’t judge a man by the length of his hair or the kind of music he listens to. Rock was never my bag. But you put on a pair of shoes when you walk into the New York Public Library, fella.”
(While it is virtually impossible to think about this episode without having the bulk of your thoughts go to Hall’s performance, it would be a travesty to not mention the quality of the episodes remaining events. There is the physical education teacher (possibly) Mr. Heyman that George spots pushing a shopping cart of his belongings near the library. Once a devastating authority figure over George—who assisted in giving the young Can’t-Stand-Ya, err, Costanza underwear ripping atomic wedgies during gym class—he’s now fallen on increasingly hard times. Heyman is shown to have in his possession the misplaced book [Henry Miller’s 1961 candidly sexual Tropic of Cancer] that has attracted Mr. Bookman’s razor sharp sights throughout the episode. Elaine is trapped in the doldrums of office politics, this time on the topic of potentially being excluded from a group lunch invitation. To her this means obvious coming termination; another in the long line of Seinfeld’s remarkable commentary on office dynamics where hysteria and paranoia carry a stronger stench than fact. All these plot lines tie together to something resembling a thematic whole; Elaine watches over her shoulder just as George did as a pre-teen, while the work [and mindset] produced as an anxious worker bee can grow neatly into a lifelong sense of misplaced perfection seeking. Kramer careens over all this as always, with fits of intense sadness mixed with contemplative joy as he mulls over amateur poetry and romantic possibilities.)