1. ‘The Conversion’ (Season 5, episode 75)

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King Edward. King Edward, Jerry.
Yeah, well, King Edward didn’t live in Queens with Frank and Estelle Constanza.

Recently completing a whirlwind watching of the complete series of Curb Your Enthusiasm—a show I hung my head as a Seinfeld aficionado in not being overly familiar with sans 5 episodes or so pre-watching—I was struck by many things most wouldn’t think to contemplate. This isn’t a brag in the slightest, more that I think I was predetermined to see different aspects than others as I had waited to see everything this long (so the shows influences had sunk in), had so immersed myself in Seinfeld (I think I’ve seen every episode at least five times and some as much as 15 or 20 times) over the years, and lastly, the condensed time frame (the entire Series in about 6 weeks or so) allowed for some of the more subtle nuances to expose themselves in what could almost be called ‘glaringly’. The show, as implied with the tongue thoroughly in cheek title, was in many ways a direct commentary on Seinfeld; on the show Larry David created, or more exactly, the show he tried and thought he (co-) created.

That last point, the show Larry David tried, and thought he co-created was one of the more interesting thoughts for me to consider. Largely because it synced with many of my thoughts on Seinfeld as well. Every time we see a cast member from Seinfeld acting as some version of their ‘real’ self (I use quotes because there is quite a bit of sarcasm going on there) a sly point is made; Elaine is a wonderful examination of feminine individuality because David appears to, on some level, see Julia Louise-Dreyfus as overly headstrong and stubborn (can be a negative and/or a positive). Kramer was sublimely aloof and irreverent because Michael Richards is some sort of pie-in-the-sky dreamer, one easily distracted by adult life. Jerry Seinfeld, seemed to get the fairest shake on Curb, always mingling with Larry step-for-step, every bit the equal that their much covered life-long friendship would indicate. Then there is the caricaturization of Larry David himself, in the George Costanza character, as realized by Jason Alexander in the role of a lifetime performance on Seinfeld. Curb handles this relationship in the most interesting manner, breaking from the others by seemingly not saying anything about Jason Alexander as he pertained to the ‘real life’ George Constanza. In fact, the most important thing to take away from their relationship, is how much Larry David thinks he fundamentally didn’t understand what George Constanza really meant and what he symbolized. Jason Alexander is used by Larry David as a mouthpiece to fully confront the prevailing idea in our culture of George Costanza as a liar, a schlub, a bum, or an endless screw up/off. David appears to think—and here is where I agree with him—that where Costanza came from, and why he reacted to every situation the way he did went over virtually everyone’s heads, including, rather ironically, the very actor that played him on screen. It seems to me that Larry David thought people misread him (as he is the original basis of the George character), but also, in the very actions where the character strays from the real life Larry David (and what these actions imply about him and the satire being employed).
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2. ‘The Dinner Party’ (Season 5, episode 77)

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I don’t even drink wine. I drink Pepsi.
You can’t bring Pepsi.
Why not?
Because we’re adults?
You’re telling me that wine is better than Pepsi? Huh, no way is wine better than Pepsi.
I’m telling you George, I don’t think we want to walk in there and put a big plastic jug of Pepsi on the table.
I just don’t like the idea that every time there is a dinner invitation there’s this annoying little chore that goes along with it.
You know, you’re getting to be an annoying little chore yourself.

Seinfeld‘s chief argument about being a ‘show about nothing’ has always been one that can’t wholesale be trusted. Firstly, its ‘nothing’ is one of purely philosophical meander; the discussion of the weighty on the topic of the mundane. Its ‘nothing’ is purely topics deemed ‘trivial’ by most, but often not in the least when contemplation occurs. Perhaps that is what Seinfeld was always getting at, but then they themselves confuse the point, when, in pitching the hypothetical fake show to NBC they don’t say merely, “we’ll do a show about nothing…” but they add on the implied action of, “everybody does something, we’ll do nothing”. The confusion is right there; though the show constantly and consistently showed that their nothingness is contemplative in nature they point that it’s first and foremost a lack of action, a lack of doing and showing, which as I’ll show in point two was never really the case. They state that other shows were doing something, when one looks at the nature of television comedy (or even drama) from the era, most were doing very little on the point that Seinfeld was generally making.

Secondly, and most importantly, if often wasn’t about nothing. As these pieces have shown, the episodes where filled to the brim with plot lines and situations, perhaps based on trivial ‘nothingness’, but if the ‘about nothing’ ideology is to be used as a signifier of how Seinfeld is different, I can’t see the nothingness of their jam packed plots as any more trivial to life’s mundanities than say the ones presented in Cheers. I suppose you could see a break from the organization of most typical sitcoms being around a specific (work) environment (Cheers had the bar, Taxi had the garage, Wings a small airport hangar, etc) to which the show got its thrust and united characters that wouldn’t normally exist in such regularity together. Seinfeld‘s ‘nothingness’ was the plainness of a small living room then (or a booth in a simple diner), which again, doesn’t seem all that unique to many shows (All in the Family, or its predecessor, The Honeymooners, saw much of the action presented inside a living room). When you go down this path, the thought most urgently becomes the Seinfeld‘s that are radically ordered within a single setting, with an actual ‘nothingness’ to the plot (and, it’d be here I’d think that Larry David, as George, had his sights set on when the idea was pitched). I’m thinking of episodes like ‘The Chinese Restaurant’ (Season 2, episode 16), or ‘The Parking Garage’ (Season 3, episode 23), or perhaps even ‘The Parking Space’ (Season 3, episode 39), but then, what of a stated thesis that only appears less than a half-dozen times in 9 seasons? But, I suppose it is enough, when they are watched and seen to be how radical they actually are, and, surprisingly how funny too (though with the brilliance of this show I suppose maybe it is of no surprise. But I do mean, just how much humor and situation is wrung from the these simple episodes). Then, there is the crème de la crème of this sub-genre of Seinfeld episodes, the truly intricate void of Season 5’s ‘The Dinner Party’. An episode so strikingly modern (I’ll avoid the post-modern semantics for now), as if to be happening on the streets right below my computer perch that I sit at and write this very sentence.
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3. ‘The Race’ (Season 6, episode 96)

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Where did a nice little boy like you learn such a bad word like that?

The only argument I’ve ever given any credence to that purports Seinfeld to not be a sitcom of unquestioned brilliance is the one that claims it is overly ironic and cynical. It would seem to these detractors that a post-modern show ‘about nothing’ would offer little after it has thoroughly trashed every social convention and held nothing sacred in and during its wake. After this monsoon of hipness washes aside, they’d argue, its aftermath would be a glaring void of nothingness to which we could build no foundation upon. It’s an argument against post-modernist ideology that has definite merit, just not in regards to Seinfeld. I think ‘The Race’ does as much as any episode to argue just this. Continue reading

4. ‘The Hot Tub’ (Season 7, episode 115)

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I’ll tell you, if you wanna get something wild goin’ on in your life, you get a girl
and bring her to one of these things. Just like 4 shots a wild turkey.

‘The Hot Tub’ is an episode more than any other before it that showed the eventual direction a post-Larry David Seinfeld would go; one where plot lines suddenly became more insular to themselves and the characters (both reoccurring and episode specific) more akin to caricature. Likewise the humor was drawn more from the absurd and the outlandish where previously it had favored realism and the subverting of the everyday commonplace arrangement. How Season 7 begins is a remarkable articulation of this eventual shift (I politely say ‘shift’ where I may want to actually say ‘degradation’), opening with the pseudo existential crisis born from seemingly meaningless Diner chit chat of ‘The Engagement’ that skewers engagement rituals as maddeningly soul crushing (the look of utter disgust on George’s face as he and Susan watch the end credits of an unseen Mad About You episode is sublime) is this very seriousness to which just four episodes later we’re watching the same George heckle Houston Astros execs in ‘The Hot Tub’ (as funny as it may be, the substance isn’t the same). ‘The Hot Tub’ does have its bit of subversion (George’s trick to act pissed at the office so everyone thinks he’s overly busy is one such bit of commentary), but the point remains, ‘The Hot Tub’ (and the previous weeks’ ‘The Wink’ is its partner in crime here) set the stage for a Seinfeld that was overly ironic and counter to the original thesis of a show about nothing (and thus seemingly everything).   Continue reading

5. ‘The Pilot’ (part 1 and 2) (Season 4, episodes 63, 64)

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She works for Pendant Publishing. She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. You know, I used to work for NBC, but when I go back to her this time, she’ll respect me.

I’ve already spoken several times about how sublime I feel the fictional show-within-a-show narrative is in Season 4. There is little wonder then that when I began compiling this list that several of its episodes would feature so highly in the ranking. No wonder too that the two part conclusion would end up in the prized Top 5.

It’s a bit of a cheat to put both episodes in one slot, but since they did appear back-to-back on one night rather than the usual splitting across two weeks like so many other ‘To Be Continued’ features, I’m affording myself the luxury. ‘The Pilot’ finds the boys in full on production mode; they’d gotten the speculative advance to write a pilot, and now it’s the next, rare step: cast, film, edit and air. Thinking then this way, it’s amazing how much is compressed into these final two episodes. The idea of the ‘show about nothing’ had sustained itself over the better part of a season (I think it touches no less than five to seven episodes leading up to ‘The Pilot(s)’, and now, with everything to be done, we’re left with a scant 44 minutes. I think that’s something of a point though, the living that created the genesis of the idea for a ‘show about nothing’ was the important take away. Survive or fail, and I’m happy the real Seinfeld (eventually) flourished while the fake one perished, the kernel present in Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld’s minds that produced such a wonderful balance between the urbane, the stupid and yet, the complex and philosophically rich (I love how the fake pilot shows this: on one had it’s a brilliant idea: about nothing, and everything. But then what to make of the truly absurd and stupid “the Judge decreed him my butler” idea?) ‘surviving’ didn’t apparently make much difference. The plots would still exist we’d imagine, somewhere in an alternate universe a version of Jerry and Larry would be talking about shirt collars, and popular condiments and the world at large would be none the wiser. The conversations still exist, and life still curtailed around nothing. Potentially it’d still be Larry and Jerry, but they’d just be pretty successful comics—but not world known stars—stills friends, still laboring over the same things.
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6. ‘The Sniffing Accountant’ (Season 5, episode 68)

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Wait, there is one way to find out. We set up a sting. You know like Abscam. Like Abscam Jerry.

‘The Sniffing Accountant’, or perhaps ‘The Marine Biologist’ (see number 12 below), is the episode I have seen more than any other I think. As such, it makes me able to quote it virtually at will. This is saying something, of course, in a show as insanely quotable as this one is. Perhaps the ranking at 6 isn’t high enough (maybe there was a bit of me saying, “I can’t accurately judge this episode because I’ve seen it over 30 times” and it should switch places ‘The Hot Tub’, or rather ‘The Bris’ should be 6, and ‘The Hot Tub’ 7, but this could go on endlessly so I’ll stop), so I’ll just close this with, on another day when making another list, this easily could have been number 1. Hours spent watching this episode on a dubbed VHS from Bob, itself a copy of a copy, blurred to virtual muddy abstraction at times, or even, when I entertained ideas of being a painter in college, painting to it while it was playing in the background. I’ve literally listened to this episode like most would listen to a record. I can recall the hearty explosion from a male audience member that realizes before anyone else that, yes, Kramer is about to chug a mug of lager while never removing the cigarette from his mouth without seeing a single frame. “Here’s to feeling good all the time, ah?”
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7. ‘The Bris’ (Season 5, episode 69)

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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.). Continue reading