21. ‘The Pie’ (Season 5, episode 79)

thechef

I don’t think that’s the kind of thing you wanna hear about your father. But I’ll tell you when he came out of that bathroom and he was kneading that dough, it was a wild scene.

One thing I’ve always liked about Seinfeld is its ability to not only comment on the mundane, everyday object, but to repurpose the idea of that object into a fresh perspective onto which a wonderfully comedic point is made. Meaning that the fulcrum of an entire episode’s genesis might be a piece of clothing, or food, or a place where a very specific social function occurs. The jump from most television is then that the action is therefor based more on human spontaneity and individuality, in essence because it’s showing how several rather idiosyncratic people are reacting to (and then conversationally processing) events happening to and because of them. The tie to an object, or, in this case objects sharing the same name but different (a piece of dessert pie and a pizza pie) potential roles, is not only a means to show scriptwriting creativity (though it does that in spades) it’s also a tie to just how much control we have over our worlds; the world as a collection of objects that could seemingly be the source of any unwritten Seinfeld episode, and in each of those potentialities, we’d see our characters scraping out a present (and therefor future) entirely of their own making.

This seemingly small, or obvious point (though I don’t honestly think it’s common sense when experiencing the show) is important to note in art, and especially important difference in mainstream American television. Mainstream American television works for a pretty specific end; generally to offer wind down entertainment for a very specific socioeconomic demographic. This is because several factors; one, their positioning at the end of the day, in a usual Monday through Friday placement implies they’re for a class of people maintaining a middle class 9 to 5 work day (or something strikingly similar), two, their ordered placement in relation to the other shows alongside them in a night is a decision made entirely on the grounds of potentially offensive content or imagery (or both), and three, which connects points one and two, that they are a household with children present (and with this implication the windfall of connected social and economic class signifiers spring forth). This myriad of connected factors result in content that is both driven to suit its populace, but also that its populace is driven by it (where these splits happen is a matter of continued debate, but it’s generally important to just initially note that the split is there) which results in a saturated television landscape that purports a world of preset outcomes and realities. It shows people working within a life framework, making decisions encoded by time and place, similar to those decisions made by others before or after them. Seinfeld shows an object as a means into the world, to which the actors spring into action determining the course of event (thus the heightened object is stripped of any significance, and is thus arbitrary). This is a radically subversive arrangement, so radical I’d argue that that is why it’s very easily overlooked.

I see this arrangement most easily when I watch other very popular (i.e. significant) shows before, but more importantly during and after, Seinfeld’s historic run. One is a typical episode of Friends in which Pheobe tries to recall a cookie recipe she loved as a kid so that it can be made during an important event in her life. The importance of the object, the cookie, as an integral part to a ceremonious ritualistic event that served the same function as it did in her past, and apparently the pasts of members of her linage, is typically populist (then, when we discover that the recipes origin is nothing more than from a Nestle Tollhouse wrapper, the consumerist ideology is made all the more clear). Consider now how Seinfeld would address any cookie (in this case the New York City staple, the black and white cookie) as the means with which to enter our environment. The cookie offers little more after consumption than a treat, with the promised ‘racial equality’ resting on our shoulders as potential agents of change. The cookie is nothing in the actual event (and neither is any other object in that particular scene), opposite its central role in the previously shown Friends dynamic (I’d even argue that Jerry’s absurdist take on race relations adds an additional subversive layer of white obliviousness in race relations).

How another ardent defender of the status quo, King of Queens, deals with desert treats also shows how liberating Seinfeld is. In a standard episode, Doug chooses to become a surrogate father/big brother to a young boy with an agreement to run with him during a charity long-distance race. In not atypical fashion we learn that he’s partially doing this to ‘keep up with the Jones’ as his friend Deacon has already agreed to do the same. The episode ends with Doug, the fat and lazy slob that he is, unable to finish the race and passing out from exhaustion. The boy, realizing Doug’s heart was perhaps in the right place (I’d argue it’s in the exact opposite place, but I digress) seeks Doug out from where he has keeled over in exhaustion. With him he brings Doug all his favorite junk food, to sort of ‘resurrect’ him from his exhaustion induced roadside slumber. Included is an apple pie, from fast food chain McDonald’s, which Doug immediately begins scarfing down, with the sugar temporally spiking his insulin levels and rising him to a seated position. Granted, these two shows (Friends and King of Queens) are hardly artful—precisely my point though—but they were huge successes (Friends regularly registered ratings to rival any show in American television history), and attempted to harken to the golden age of television (King of Queens had obvious sights on The Honeymooners dynamic). But it’s clear what the object, again one of heavily iconic consumerist culture, does within the King of Queens dynamic. Doug’s desires (father-figure like status and sugary fast food) are quick fixes and not his own, but his cultures, and come at a point in the story when he’s being rewarded for easy—but still nonetheless unfilled—promises, with the ‘prize’ (or episodes punchline) being the actual objects. Again, it’s argued that the object (or status) is the focal point and not human action (or at the very least that human action works to manipulate and trivialize others). Now consider how Seinfeld would consider the role of a pie…

Season 5’s ‘The Pie’ is most readily seen diminishing the object by its multi-faceted use; the titular pie is most assuredly the apple one that Jerry indulges on that his girlfriend, Audrey, refuses to eat without reason. This action, or rather refusal of the action of eating, sets in motion his eccentric plot line. Bit then there is also the (pizza) pie that he refuses to eat prepared by Audrey’s father Poppie (played with the usual supreme brilliance of Reni Santoni’s characterization) after witnessing Poppie not wash his hands upon exiting the men’s room of his restaurant. Then, in an unrelated George plot line, there is the French Chocolate Silk pie prepared to him (and his potential business associates) by a chef who George has previously screwed over by hiding an extravagant, but, since it’s on sale, cheap 40 short sized suit (as a 38 short myself I can sympathize with their collective trouble in finding anything other than your stereotypical grey, black or navy suit. To add additional importance to this one suit is that this is the early 1990’s, at least a decade before men’s dandy inspired fashion became affordable). That pie, like the one made my Poppie’s unwashed fecal matter ridden fingers, is spiked with something that makes everyone, to quote George, “violently ill” after consuming (George’s earlier remark, “conformity is an obsession with me” is one of his best). So, in effect, it’s an episode that weaves in and around no less than three pies of varying origin, not to mention Elaine’s brilliant body double mannequin plot line. Taking final view over it, with my earlier comparisons to Friends and King of Queens you see just how explosively original Seinfeld was, and how different it viewed human interaction within the material world. This isn’t elevating Seinfeld above the low hanging fruit, but seeing just how exponentially different (and qualitatively better) it is compared to everything it rubbed shoulders with; it truly was a cut—or rather slice—above!

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