Saturday, January 28, 2012

SEINFELD - Season 2, Episode 10 - The Baby Shower

“The Baby Shower”

First Script Read: Wed, Nov 14, 1990
Filmed: Tue, Nov 20
Aired: May 16, 1991
Nielsen rating: 12.4
Audience share: 21
Directed: Tom Cherones
Writer: Larry Charles (1st episode he wrote)

This is it: the grand debut of Larry Charles on Seinfeld. He'd been writing for the Arsenio Hall Show before joining the Seinfeld writing staff at the beginning of season two. Before that, he had written for the ABC show, Fridays (1980-82), a sketch comedy show deliberately in the style of Saturday Night Live. That's where he met Larry David, who was writing for the show, and Michael Richards, who was performing.
Charles, with help from David, worked to bring each characters' distinct stories together at the end of the episode. Indeed, the climactic scene revolves around the extended consequences of the characters and stories literally coming together in Jerry's apartment. It's a big step forward from The Busboy, which concluded with the busboy running into Elaine's boyfriend off camera in the hall outside the apartment. Compared to the delightful madness of colliding storylines in future seasons, as well as in David's Curb Your Enthusiasm, this episode appears benign. But it is a milestone nonetheless.

Thanks to the zany mind of Charles, the man who would go on to join forces with Sacha Baron Cohen to direct Borat, Bruno, and The Dictator, this episode witnesses the death of the title character and star of the show; Jerry is gunned down in his apartment in a dream sequence, guilt-ridden because of his decision to steal cable. As this blog moves through the series, pay attention to the episodes written by Charles. They tend to be a bit quirkier and darker.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

SEINFELD - Season 2, Episode 12 - The Busboy

“The Busboy”

First Script Read: October 31, 1990
Filmed: November 6, 1990 at 7:30
Aired: June 26, 1991
Nielsen rating: 8.8
Audience share: 16
Directed: Tom Cherones
Writer: Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld

This episode was the third episode filmed for the second season, but aired last by over a month. NBC didn't like the episode because there was no storyline for the titular character, Jerry Seinfeld. The plot, in which George tries to make up for getting a busboy fired and Elaine hopes to get a boyfriend back to Seattle and out of her life, is forgettable. However, this is a landmark episode because it contains the first scenes when any of the three supporting characters appear without Jerry.

Of course, that only happened because Jerry, himself, wrote those scenes. “That showed a generosity of spirit," says Jason Alexander (George), "that I- - I can’t imagine in any other situation.” Adds director, Tom Cherones, "I don’t think it ever bothered him if somebody else got the laugh instead of him.”

 And so, off they go. I wouldn't qualify any of the scenes as "classic," but the idea of following the other three characters beyond Jerry's perspective was seminal. It also serves to establish Jerry's position in this four-person community. Yes, the show is named after him. And, indeed, the only thing the characters originally have in common is him. But these are characters who exist independent of Jerry, and who can clearly be funny without him, too.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

SEINFELD - Season 2, Episode 2 - The Pony Remark

“The Pony Remark”

First Script Read: Wed, Oct 24, 1990
Filmed: Tue, Oct 30, 1990
Aired: January 30, 1991
Nielsen rating: 10.7 (15.3 million watched)
Audience share: 16
Directed: Tom Cherones
Writer: Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld

Jerry's link to his family is through his parents' generation. We almost never meet any relatives his age. We certainly never meet his cousin, Jeffrey, the son Uncle Leo is always bragging about. (Leo makes his first appearance in this episode.)
Throughout the series, the humor of Jerry's familial relations hinges on generational difference. The show often used the stand-up segments to draw attention to this dynamic, most memorably with Jerry's "old people backing out of driveways" bit. This episode begins with a stand-up segment featuring jokes about Jerry's parents moving to Florida, and the boring awkwardness of family conversation. "...I wanted to hear a little about that Hummel collection, Aunt Rose!"

It is in such a boring, awkward situation that Elaine and Jerry begin ranting humorously about ponies, until Jerry makes the remark that may or may not have killed poor Manya. "I hate anyone who ever had a pony growing up!" Jerry declares to the table of his relatives. "I had a pony! cries Manya, horrified.

It's the sort of interaction that could have been smoothed over, or even immediately laughed at if Jerry was among peers. But Manya is the oldest person there. Plus, she's a Polish immigrant, so there is an even wider cultural gap. Jerry tries to backtrack. He tries to apologize. But the gap has been breached. Manya storms out of the room. The next day she dies.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

SEINFELD - Season 2, Episode 1 - The Ex-Girlfriend

"The Ex-Girlfriend"

First Script Read: Wed, October 17, 1990
Filmed: October 23, 1990
Aired: January 23, 1991, 9:30 pm Wednesday
Nielsen rating: 10.9
Audience share: 17
Directed: Tom Cherones
Writer: Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld

This is a relatively dark and uncomfortable episode about Jerry getting involved with George's ex-girlfriend, Marlene. Still, it is a step forward in the style of the show. The dialogue is snappier, and the show moves quicker; for example, there are nine scenes in the season two premiere, "The Ex-Girlfriend," compared to at most seven in the first five episodes.

We also start to get a picture of Kramer's philosophy, as he muses on Jerry's interest in George's ex:

Kramer: “Man. I don’t understand people. I mean, why would George want to deprive you of pleasure? Is it just me?”
Jerry: “It’s partially you, yeah.”
Kramer: “I mean you’re his friend. Better that he should sleep with someone else? Some jerk that he doesn’t even know?”

Jerry is eventually persuaded. Kramer thus assumes a role he will play often over the course of the series. He is frequently the voice of the social critic, perceiving and dismissing the structures of culture that Jerry is too non-confrontational and George is too timid to take on. If the character Jerry's outlet for his angst towards social norms is his stand-up act then Kramer's outlet is simply rejection. His friends occasionally find this helpful and sometimes useful as they navigate issues of etiquette and social behavior.

SEINFELD - Season 1, Episode 4 - The Stock Tip

"The Stock Tip"

Filmed: March 12, 1990
Aired: Thursday, June 21, 1990 at 9:3
Nielsen rating: 13.5
Audience share: 24
Directed: Tom Cherones
Writer: Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld 

One of the elements Seinfeld became famous and loved for was the array of zany characters that wove in and out of stories. Some characters were recurring, others made a single appearance and were never heard  from again. In the first season, it's common to notice background characters eavesdropping on the conversation between George, Jerry, and Elaine. Often, this seems to be because Jerry or George is being so animated and loud, it is only realistic that those around them might get caught up into what they are saying. 

Something like this happens in "The Pilot." While Jerry is explaining why it is not possible to "over-dry" clothes, George looks around and realizes all of the laundromat customers are listening in. "Any questions?" he asks them. They all turn back to their own business, a little embarrassed.

In "The Stock Tip," George is having a conversation with Jerry at a dry cleaners. (These guys love having clean clothes.) He turns away for a moment. He turns back and mutters, "Boy, I have to get to a bathroom," before he realizes a woman has stepped between him and Jerry. They both stare awkwardly at each other for a few beats.

While the zany characters in the world of Seinfeld would often feed the constant dialogue about minutiae, in season one, it seems that such Seinfeld-ian conversation is marked by background characters as occasionally intriguing but always peculiar. In public, a person isn't supposed to go on a long rant about how its impossible to over-dry clothes, just as a person in public is supposed to be discrete about his bowel movements. (Maybe George had to pee, but that sure looked like intestinal discomfort to me.) Seinfeld hadn't yet become known as a show about nothing, but in season one it was already a show about nothing anyone else would ever talk about.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

SEINFELD - Season 1, Episode 2 - The Robbery

"The Robbery"
Filmed: March 6, 1990
Aired: June 7, 1990
Nielsen rating: 13.6
Audience share: 24
Directed: Tom Cherones
Writer: Matt Goldman (1st episode not written by David & Seinfeld)

For all his narcissism and pettiness, the character Jerry Seinfeld is a pretty decent guy to his friends and family. Jerry returns from a weekend of doing stand-up in Minneapolis to find his apartment has been burgled, despite Elaine's house-sitting, and mainly because Kramer left the door wide open when he popped in to borrow a spatula. Jerry rants at Kramer for a minute or so, but when Kramer vows to track down the crooks, Jerry stops him. “Don’t investigate. Don’t pay me back. It was a mistake.” I think even Tim Tebow would moan about leaving the door wide open for a day or so.

The robbery finally convinces Jerry to heed George's advice (and Elaine's pestering - she wants to move into Jerry's apartment to get away from her annoying roommate) to look for a new apartment. The trio visits one together and are dazzled. But after Jerry declares that he is going to move, George admits that, after seeing the place, he would also like the apartment. They argue. They flip a coin. They "choose" for it (an odds/evens finger game). Jerry wins. But with George still unhappy, Jerry decides he can't take the apartment; George won't be able to come over because he'll just sit there moping. George, apparently for similar reasons, refuses it, too.

How can Jerry be so gracious to Kramer and George in this episode, but driven to the point of cutting off a longtime relationship in "Male Unbonding?" In all three cases, Jerry is making the decision that will make him feel better. Justice is not served by dismissing the value of the property lost in the break-in that was a directly result of Kramer's mistake. Nor is fairness enforced in Jerry eventually deciding to ignore the coin flip (George's complaint about the coin hitting the table is pretty lame) and the choose results. Jerry would rather have a smooth relationship with Kramer and George then receive the compensation he is fairly due in both cases.

In all of these cases, Jerry compromises justice for a result that best serves his therapeutic needs. He just wants to feel okay, and the easiest way to do that with his close friends, Kramer and George, is to just dismiss of the source of tension. Forgiving Kramer is justifiable; Kramer wouldn't be able to pay him back very easily anyway. But the end of the episode reveals the folly of Jerry's therapeutic mindset. The apartment is sold to someone else. He and George both lose the opportunity to move to a great place because they were each too hung up on the other's regret.

SEINFELD - Season 1, Episode 1 - The Stakeout

"The Stakeout
1st read: February 14, 1990
Filmed: February 21, 1990
Aired: May 31, 1990
Nielsen rating: 16.2
Audience share: 24
Directed: Tom Cherones
Writers: Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David
The scene from which this episode gets its name is the one classic scene from the first season and, who knows, perhaps the reason why the show survived. Critics loved this episode, the first to air during the show's four-episode run in the summer of 1990. According to Jerry Seinfeld, the late, great NBC Executive Brandon Tartikoff (who had initially passed on Seinfeld) had that scene queued up in his office to show visitors.

Jerry and George wait excitedly in the elevator lobby, looking for the woman Jerry met at Elaine's friend's birthday party. Their dialogue is very Abbot and Costello-ian (a key influence on Jerry). As Jerry Seinfeld says on the DVD commentary, the scene "was very important in establishing the way these guys were going to talk...and the stupid way they were going to solve problems." Larry David points out that the pacing of the show as it would eventually evolve matched that elevator scene, rather than the slowness of most of the rest of the episode.

Speaking of pacing, some of the rhythm of the scene is set by the physical movement of Jerry and George, who pace back and forth, changing positions on the set two or three teams during their conversation. The chemistry between the two actors is already trinitrotoluene; Seinfeld can't act, but even at this point in his career he is a master of comedic pacing, and Jason Alexander's background in live theater probably helped him weave his dialogue smoothly with Seinfeld in front of the live studio audience. The writing itself, straight from Seinfeld and David, is superb.

Jerry: "Art Corvelay?"
George: "Yeah..."
Jerry: "What does he do?"
George: "He's an importer."
Jerry: "Just imports? No exports?"
George: "He's an importer/exporter, okay?"

The level of detail that the duo haggle over is just hilarious. Moments later, the audience experiences the excitement of watching them act out their plotting. This is gripping comedy stuff.

Friday, January 13, 2012

SEINFELD - Season 1, Episode 3 - Male-Unbonding

1st read: February 7, 1990
Filmed: February 13, 1990
Aired: Jun 14, 1990
Nielsen rating: 13.6
Audience share: 24
Directed: Tom Cherones
Written by: Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld

Question: would you consider Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer to be self-involved? People who spend all their time talking about themselves without paying much attention to the words, actions, and needs of those around them?

Take this episode. Jerry spends the entire story commiserating with George and Elaine over a relationship with a guy, Joel Horneck (Kevin Dunn), who he he has been friends with since they were ten. George convinces Jerry to try breaking up with Joel. When that fails, Elaine half-jokingly helps Jerry come up with excuses for Joel so he can claim he is busy if Joel calls to invite him to any location.

Meanwhile, George's fears that his girlfriend is about to break up with him soon come to fruit. He talks it over with Jerry, who is more likely to offer a snide remark than a sympathetic condolence.

Then there is Kramer who, already in the third episode, is trying to get his "Make Your Own Pizza" restaurant idea off the ground. George and Jerry offer their friend no support. "With all due respect," declares Jerry, "I can't imagine anyone, in any walk of life, under any circumstance wanting to make their own pizza pie!"

Yes, they are self-involved. More so, even, than most television sitcom characters (at least, up until the emergence and success of Seinfeld).

*  *  *

Why does Jerry dislike Joel so much? "He's so self-involved!"

Joel is a jerk. He's rude to the waitress when he and Jerry are having lunch. He awkwardly attempts to charm Elaine even after he discovers Elaine was his supposed best friend, Jerry's, ex-girlfriend. And, unlike the main characters in Seinfeld, he completely tunes out when someone else is talking.

Joel is more self-involved than Jerry and friends, but it takes one to know one. Self-absorption is, after all, at the heart of both Jerry Seinfeld's and Larry David's brands of humor. It's annoying when Joel talks about himself but it's hilarious when Seinfeld, David, and their characters do it. Why? Do we take pleasure in watching their miseries unfold? Or do we recognize much of their struggles in the world around us and in our own nature? Both, probably. Either way, Seinfeld and David have the rare ability to make self-involvement hysterical.

P.S. 2015 update: I might have been too harsh on this episode, ranking it second from the bottom of my list. If I did the list again, I might bump it up a bit for this classic exchange which gets at the "show about nothing" theme at a very early point:

ELAINE: Come on, let's go do something. I don't want to just sit around here.
JERRY: Okay.
ELAINE: Want to go get something to eat?
JERRY: Where do you want to go?
ELAINE: I don't care. I'm not hungry.
JERRY: We could go to one of those cappuccino places. They let you just sit there.
ELAINE: What are we gonna do there? Talk?
JERRY: We can talk.
ELAINE: I'll go if I don't have to talk.
JERRY: We'll just sit there.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

SEINFELD - Pilot - The Seinfeld Chronicles ("Good News, Bad News")

“The Seinfeld Chronicles” (Pilot)

First script read: April 20, 1989
Filmed: April 27, 1989
Aired: July 5, 1989, 9:30 pm
Nielsen Rating: 10.9
Audience Share: 19 
Directed by: Art Wolff
Written by: Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld

How do people communicate? Ideally, with words. In his stand-up, presented in the pilot as something of a release for Jerry from the stresses encountered in the world, Jerry crafts words into comedy to take a frank look at society.

But in many situations society doesn't tolerate frankness. Politeness demands tact and restraint bounded by a generally unstated system of social etiquette. Because it is unstated, proper social etiquette is often a mystery. Luckily, in George (and as the series progresses, in Elaine and Kramer), Jerry has a friend who sees the world fairly similarly and who he is intimate enough with that he feels he can have frank discussions about social behavior

In this case, a woman, Laura, whom Jerry met a while back, calls him out of the blue to let him know she is going to be in town. Jerry is interested in Laura, but he and George wonder whether she is interested in him. They discuss the words and voice inflection of her call. When she calls again and asks to stay in Jerry's apartment, they debate whether this request is a "signal" that Laura is expecting to have sex with Jerry. George goes with Jerry to the airport. There they try but fail to gauge her interest in Jerry by her greeting.

As Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld's first crack at a sitcom, the Seinfeld Pilot is rough and far from hilarious. However, the Pilot pulls off a nice trick in simultaneously building both the sexual tension and the comedic tension to the climax when Jerry and the audience discover Laura's intentions. Once in Jerry's apartment Laura sends signal after signal to Jerry that she is interested in sex. She kicks off her shoes, unbuttons her top blouse button, asks for a glass of wine, and turns down the light. Jerry is about to make a move when the phone rings. The call is for Laura, who speaks cheerfully and fairly intimately for a few moments. She hangs up and was her fiancee.

Smash-cut to..."I have absolutely no idea what women are thinking," Jerry admits in the last of four standup acts interspersed in the Pilot. The main plot of the episode is about the timeless problem of trying to understand the opposite sex. But non-verbal communication problems transcend gender in this episode. Kramer (called Kessler in this episode only) visits Jerry at 1:00am. Despite Jerry's annoyed body language and repeated eye-rolling, Kramer makes himself at home with a bowl of cereal on the couch. Jerry could ask him to leave, but that wouldn't be polite.

From his first moments on the series it is clear that Kramer is strange, by which I mean his behavior varies from the unspoken cultural expectations to an extreme degree. From the Pilot, Seinfeld's humor (as well as Jerry Seinfeld's stand-up humor) addresses those unspoken areas in society, revealing their absurdity through the awkwardness of both "normal" people (Jerry and Laura) and more or less "abnormal" characters (many would join Kramer in this category over the series' run).