7. ‘The Bris’ (Season 5, episode 69)


People compose yourselves… This is a bris. We are performing a bris here, not a burlesque show. This is not a school play! This is not a baggy pants farce! This is a bris. An ancient, sacred ceremony, symbolizing the covenant between God and Abraham… or something.

Here they sit side by side, numbers six and seven. The trenchant paranoid cynicism of ‘The Sniffing Accountant’ with the sketchy foundation in appearances of ‘The Bris’ coming now. It’s exactly as an audience would have taken them in sometime in the fall of 1993 as they appeared back to back that early October. It’s a remarkable thought to think that the show was clicking with this remarkable a degree of consistency. Season 5 features no real running plot line similar to the later Season 6 (whereas Season 4 had the saga of Jerry and George working on a pilot, while Season 7 concerns itself with the running theme of George’s engagement to Susan) which affords a great degree of exposition, absurdity, and variety. For this simple reason it reads like a virtual checklist of taboo-topic skewering: advertising truth distortion (‘The Non-Fat Yogurt’ and ‘The Pie’), check. Racism and its cousin, phony political correctness (‘The Cigar Store Indian’), check. Bathroom etiquette and homoeroticism (‘The Stall’), check. Work place unspoken codes of conduct (‘The Stand-In’, ‘The Barber’, ‘The Opposite’), check. Lampooning of sexual morays both individual (‘The Puffy Shirt’) and with a partner (well, almost every episode fits), check. If Season 4 was the one that drew the audiences in with its remarkable ability to create off-beat pop-culture slang than Season 5 showed the absolute limits of subversion and iconoclasm the formerly low medium of television could create (or rather the levels of decorum it could destroy would seem a tad more appropriate).

‘The Bris’ is another in the long line of Seinfeld‘s that support the argument that it is one of the great skeptic shows we’ve ever had. Here the skeptical eye is in a roundabout way, compared to say, the unmistakable atheism of ‘The Conversion’, ‘The Bris’ is concerned with an explicitly religious act— the act of circumcision—but handled in a rather areligious manner (Elaine, the only apparent non-Jew of the group [Kramer is debatable as his past is shrouded in so much secrecy and obfuscation] books the Mohel for example, the setting of the ceremony is in a living room instead of a temple, etc.). But even amongst the sub-genre of ‘dark’ Seinfeld episodes, (and most of the ‘skeptic’ episodes would overlap therein), the episodes that really mine humor from the depths, ‘The Bris’ seems darker than most. Larry Charles’ input to the show, and specifically its darker motifs can’t be understated, and ‘The Bris’ might just be his sharpest pen work. His strain of darkness, which contrasted in the peripheries to Larry David’s more gleefully ironic variety (often shrouded in class issues), was often heavily indebted to gallows humor where laughter at the expense of grisly death is often had. Finding humor in death is all over ‘The Bris’; the episode hinges on an early suicide of a mental patient that thrusts two of the three main plot lines in motion. George, “the still living victim” is wrapped up with fixing the roof of his car that the deceased has landed on, and Kramer helps the “pig man” escape by carrying him to George’s still damaged car. Meanwhile the Mohel is often morbidly aloof about the death of children, suicide and violence in general. His characterization of a person-who-really-wanted-to-be-a-kosher-butcher is so hilarious, quick and razor sharp that it’s easy to misplace the laughter for what it actually is, extreme unease and of the nervous nature rather than huge and belly flopping. Had Larry David wrote the episode I’d assume the attacks would be more systemic (see ‘The Conversion’ again for comparison within the topic of religion, it’s scathing in its indictment of organized religion but the fathers are all shown to be very likable chaps) rather than rooting out the individual participators of religious absurdity with such exacting condemnation. Thankfully, Seinfeld employed both Larry’s (Charles and David) and it’s an either/or that we never have to fully decide upon and can just have all their collective pieces each with their own significant contributions that make up the entirety of the Seinfeld universe.

(On the topic of Larry Charles contribution to the show I’ve always thought about the great Seinfeld episode that never was, ‘The Bet’ [also known as ‘The Gun’], an episode so dark that is was casted, rehearsed, and even filmed in part but at several cast members and studio executives requests ditched at the last minute to be replaced by the quickly written substitute ‘The Phone Message’ [Season 2, episode 9]. Now I like ‘The Phone Message’, I ranked it number 61 myself—the only episode from the series’ first 10 episodes to crack the top 75 by the way—but it robbed Larry Charles of adding a real classic slab of subversion to American television [‘The Phone Message’ you’ll recall was written by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David]. The episodes dual title refers to either a bet made by George and Kramer on the truth of a Kramer story that he has slept with a stewardess on his return flight from Puerto Rico [Jerry and Elaine make a trip to the airport to check its validity with stewardess] or a gun that Elaine considers purchasing for self-defense as a single woman in New York City. A central scene apparently involved Elaine asking Jerry “how he wanted it” as she perused hand guns at a local gun store, then pointing the gun at Jerry’s head and saying “the Kennedy?”, then his stomach and saying “or the McKinley?”. It’s all darkly subversive stuff aimed not at Jerry’s body as the gun is, but squarely at America’s insatiable gun fetishism, that is as timely now as it would have been in a newly christened Brady Bill America of the early Nineties. The thought that sadly the cast and crew balked at the choice of delivering a real salvo against this and opted to rather ‘be more comfortable’ with the material states how far the show still needed to go to destroy the supposed morality of mainstream good taste. Yes, Elaine put Jerry square in the cross-hairs, but to bad it’s often status quo decorum that gets to pull the trigger on what entertainment we get, or in this case, didn’t. But then this was only Season Two and cancellation always seemed a possibility at this point in the Series’ history, so it was a battle lost at that point, but in the end, a war unmistakably won.)

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