Monday, October 29, 2012

SEINFELD - Season 8, Episode 3 - The Bizarro Jerry

“The Bizarro Jerry”

First Script Read: Wednesday, August 21, 1996
Filmed: Wednesday, August 28, 1996
Aired: October 3, 1996
Nielsen rating: 21.8
Audience share: 34
Directed: Andy Ackerman
Writer: David Mandel

"The Bizarro Jerry" vaulted the Superman-inspired adjective "bizarro" into widespread cultural usage. It also epitomized the style of humor in the last few years of Seinfeld. With Larry David gone, Jerry Seinfeld took David's role as Show Runner, taking on a heavy load as an actor, writer, and producer. Seinfeld couldn't help but delegate more responsibility into the hands of his talented writers. Before this year, David wrote every season premiere except season four. Even he wrote the script for the unofficial season premiere, "The Pitch/The Ticket," which kicked off the season's "Jerry pitches a show to NBC" arc. That aired a full month after Larry Charles had wrapped up season three's "Kramer moves to L.A." cliffhanger with the mid-August 2-part special, "The Trip." In season eight, the honor of writing the season premiere fell to Alec Berg and Jeff Schaffer, the writing team that would become the show's executive producers in the final season. David Mandel, who occasionally partnered with Berg and Schaffer on Seinfeld scripts and wrote the 2004 teen comedy EuroTrip with them, is probably the third most important writer working on Seinfeld at this time. 

While I'm on the topic of praising Mandel, he is also the most interesting out of all Seinfeld's staff who recorded commentaries for the DVDs. He is quite reflective and candid, and the only one willing to regularly criticize the show. He'll often disect story lines or jokes that he feels didn't quite work. Other writers will often use the commentary to describe where they got their ideas, but this information can usually be gleaned from the DVD's Inside Look featurettes or the Notes about Nothing pop-up feature. By contrast, Larry David and the cast usually spend the episode saying things like:
"I don't remember this part... Oh! That's funny! Ha ha ha!"
Or "He was so funny in that role!"
Or "God, look at that shirt I'm wearing!"
The commentaries aren't all bad. Production Designer Tom Azzari's commentaries are pretty good, especially if you're interested in the complications of set designing. And I'd put Peter Mehlman and Larry Charles in second and third respectively to Mandel; they both are occasionally introspective about the inspiration behind their humor. But Mandel is the best. For example, here's a long but revealing excerpt from his commentary on "The Bizarro Jerry":

"I came into the show in years seven, eight, nine - the show’s final years. So when I came into the show, I came into it as a fan. The show already existed. The hard work had been done. And to some extent the show goes through these different evolutions. There’s the initial show, the show starts to get much more complicated, the sort of multiple plot lines, and then in the sort of later years I think one of the things we brought to it, I guess if I can say the “royal we,” writers who were not there originally but came in as fans of the show is, having watched the show a lot, we were able to sometimes make the show comment on the show itself, if that makes any sense, which is to say we got a little more meta in places because the show had been going on and we could sort of enjoy the fact that you know Jerry has a girl every week, you know certain things about the way Kramer doesn’t work and things like that, so you can start doing these things that kind of really comment on what the show has been doing. And so the notion of…a male friend that really is a decent guy is sort of a comment on who the sort of person Jerry is.

There's a few important points in that quote. First, Mandel observes three periods of Seinfeld: the early years of the show as it experimented with the medium and figured out what it was (in my opinion, seasons 1-3, epitomized by, for example, "The Chinese Restaurant"), the mature middle years when the show complicated and expanded on its own established framework (seasons 4-7, epitomized by, for example, "The Rye"), and finally the late years when the show turned on itself and mocked its characters mercilessly (seasons 7-9).

I see a fairly clear boundary for the Early Period and the Mature Period between the aforementioned season four premiere, "The Trip: Parts 1-2" and episode three of season four, "The Pitch/The Ticket." In "The Trip," writer Larry Charles takes Kramer, George, and Jerry to L.A. for a big-concept story that tests the outer-reaches of the medium and fleshes out Seinfeld's characters, especially Kramer. Larry David's script for "The Pitch/The Ticket" is big concept as well as it establishes a story that would stretch over the entire season. However, it relied on the fact that the foundation of Seinfeld had been established. It couldn't have been written earlier before the show was established. The self-reflexive story of Jerry and George pitching a sitcom about nothing to NBC was only funny to an audience that was familiar with Seinfeld, an NBC sitcom that had been described as "about nothing." Of course, that storyline could work in the Late Period, and would be picked up again in the Series Finale, but it would be soaked much more deeply in irony and sarcasm. If the "show within a show" gag was used in the Late Period, it would focus on making fun of the fictional characters. In season four, it uses the characters to make fun of reality.

The boundary between the Mature Period and the Late Period is blurry, and Mandel's second point offers a clue why. He points out that the writers who joined the staff later in the series' run came in as fans of the show who were able to turn their knowledge of the show and its characters into jokes that commented on the show itself. Of course, the later crop of writers didn't join all at once, so their influence overlaps with the Mature Period, fully blossoming once Larry David left after season seven. That's when Mandel wrote his masterpiece, "The Bizarro Jerry," which makes fun of the existing characters by showing the audience what they are not.

I'll discuss Elaine's interactions with the bizarro versions of Jerry, George, and Kramer in a moment. Mandel also satirizes Jerry's and Kramer's characters and interrelationship by sending Kramer where he has never gone before - to a 9-to-5, white-collar job. Kramer gets the "job" after using an office bathroom and getting swept into a business meeting on his way out. He plays along, integrating himself into the workplace culture. He tells Jerry that he likes the structure the job gives him, but eventually stereotypical workplace stresses start to wear on him. He comes home late and starts to get ulcer-like stomach pains. Eventually, his relationship with Jerry hits a breaking point; he comes home late to find Jerry sitting in a dark apartment with two plates of cold food on the table. The whole premise is only funny because it runs counter to the audience's knowledge of the characters. Kramer hasn't worked a day in the history of the show. Jerry is usually complaining about Kramer taking his food. He has been anything but a "doting housewife" for Kramer.

In this story line, Jerry is concerned for Kramer's well-being. The audience (as evidenced by the laugh track), reads his concern ironically. So Jerry's bizarro doppelganger, Kevin, actually is a person who is concerned with his friend's well-being. At the end of the episode, Elaine tries to give up Jerry, George, and Kramer for Kevin, Bizarro George and Bizarro Kramer. In the Late Period, Elaine, out of her own sense of superiority, feels a longing to break free of the quartet. In this case, her own typical behavior - taking food from Kevin's fridge without asking, shoving Kevin to the ground in excitement - quickly leads to her rejection from the bizarro world. She is cast back to her rightful place.

Our last view of the bizarro world continues to comment on Jerry's world through contrast. Gene (Bizarro George) finds a phone at work that allows him to make free long distance calls, so he reports the problem. Feldman (Bizarro Kramer) arrives with bags of groceries to replenish Kevin's fridge. And Kevin, overwhelmed with love for his friends, pulls them into his arms and starts to weep with joy. Imagine watching that scene in a vacuum, with no knowledge of the Seinfeld characters it is parodying. It would make no sense, and it would be extremely dull. Mandel rightly trusts that by season eight, Seinfeld's audience is in on the joke.

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