Sunday, June 3, 2012

SEINFELD - Season 5, Episode 6 - The Lip Reader

“The Lip Reader”

First Script Read: September 29, 1993
Filmed: Monday-Tuesday, October 4-5, 1993
Aired: 9:00pm, October 28, 1993
Nielsen rating: 20.4
Audience share: 31
Directed: Tom Cherones
Writer: Carol Leifer (This is the first show of several written by Leifer, who worked on Seinfeld through season seven.)
Awards: Marlee Matlin nominated for Emmy for Outstanding Guest Star in a Comedy Series

Some of the comedy I find most brilliant are the jokes that take on stereotypes, political correctness, and other assumptions about etiquette. Great comedy can blast through these social artifices like the Hulk sprinting through a China shop. Standup comics have been doing this since Richard Pryor and George Carlin, but Larry David was the first to master this kind of cultural critiquing comedy using the medium of television. That he managed it on a network sitcom that became the most popular of its time is even more impressive. David didn't write this episode - his friend and ex-girlfriend Carol Leifer wrote it in her brilliant Seinfeld debut - but his fingerprints are all over it. This could easily be a plot of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Jerry meets and begins dating Laura, a deaf woman who can read lips. George, who has just broken up with his girlfriend, recruits Laura to read his ex's lips at a party they are all attending. Meanwhile, Elaine takes her company's car service and, to avoid talking to the driver, pretends to be deaf. It works until the driver catches her hearing.

The more I think about it, the more I recognize how crucial Marlee Matlin's performance as Laura is to the success of the satire. She plays the character with such self-confidence and empowerment, it's easy to forget that social etiquette implies her deafness should be cause for pity. In a hilarious scene, Jerry and George, out to dinner with Laura, go to great lengths to guard their mouths in natural ways, raising a glass to their face or rubbing their eyes so Laura doesn't know they are talking about her. George, of course, lacks the shame he should be expected to feel about using Laura's skill for his own selfish interests. Jerry is more hesitant, saying, "She's not a novelty act, George, where you hire her out for weddings and bar mitzvahs." Eventually Jerry relents to ask, but before he can, Laura blurts out, "Sure. I'll do it." She's turned the tables and demonstrated her own empowerment. Their attempts to disguise their conversation from her failed. She is too good a lip reader to be outwitted.

The tone for Laura's strength is set earlier in the episode. Jerry first sees Laura at a tennis match where she is working as a lineswoman. (Delightfully, this connection also leads to the hysterical B-story of Kramer trying to become a ball man.) Struck by her beauty, Jerry goes down to talk to her after the match. With her back turned to him, Laura doesn't notice he is speaking to her. Jerry, assuming she is ignoring him, gets mad. Finally, she turns around and looks at him.

JERRY: What are you, deaf?
LAURA: Bingo!

Jerry is immediately cowed. The episode might have gone to great lengths to extend the scene, showing Jerry embarrassed and repeatedly apologizing to Laura before finally convincing her to go on a date with him. Instead, the scene ends there. The emphasis, then, is on the humor of the surprising affirmative to Jerry's thoughtless rhetorical question, NOT on the awkwardness of Jerry's slip. It falls to Jerry to explain, in a later scene, that he did actually convince Laura to go out with him. The discomfort over Jerry's mistake is laughed at, but not dwelt on. The show has quickly moved on to other jokes. Jerry and Laura have quickly moved on to building their relationship. The audience moves on with them.

Political correctness and etiquette are not values Seinfeld seeks to promote. In fact, Elaine's behavior towards those presumed to be weak is revealed as hollow. Embarrassed by the incident with the driver, Elaine tries to prove to Jerry and Kramer that she is a sensitive person:

ELAINE: Oh, it didn't work. He caught me hearing. I know it's terrible, but I'm not a terrible person.
ELAINE: No. When I shoo squirrels away, I always say "get out of here!" I never, ever throw things at them and try to injure them like other people.
JERRY : That's nice.
ELAINE: Yeah. And when I see freaks in the street I never, ever stare at them. Yet I'm careful not to look away, you know, because I want to make the freaks feel comfortable.
JERRY : That's nice for the freaks.
ELAINE: Yeah. And I don't poof up my hair when I go to a movie so people behind me can see

Elaine wants to prove she is thoughtful about those around her. The squirrels and the freaks represent the innocent and the vulnerable. But Elaine doth protest too much. Her primary concern is her own feelings, her own guilt. Her treatment of squirrels, freaks, and people sitting behind her at movies demonstrates just enough thoughtfulness to assuage her own conscience. In a way, Jerry's lack of thoughtfulness towards those around him, which is often as bad as or even worse than George's, makes it easier for him to accept  diversity without adjusting his own behavior towards others. He finds Laura interesting because she is deaf and because she is beautiful, but Jerry never considers her particularly innocent or vulnerable. Elaine's "thoughtfulness" is inherently demeaning; the freaks have inherent weaknesses (i.e. inferiority) which must be navigated carefully for everyone's comfort. If she passed Laura on the street, would her behavior towards a deaf woman follow a similar strategy? Likely.

Though the show is about four extremely self-absorbed people, the satire of Seinfeld occasionally points the way to a more accepting future. This episode suggests Jerry's faux pas should be laughed off, and Elaine's attitudes should be laughed at. Laura is different. She cannot hear, but she can read lips. She is one more interesting character encountered in the Seinfeld universe.

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