Looking at comedy artistically ruins it. It makes it too complex and transparent, which inevitably leads it to lose some of its comedic value. The best thing to do is to simply say something is funny. Seinfeld is funny, but there’s something about the technique of it that makes it special, and above the bar of the sitcom standard. In the next few paragraphs I am hoping to break down in some way what makes it so brilliant, by looking at a single episode: The Jacket.
The Jacket (Season 2 – Episode 2)
Every Seinfeld episode opens, interludes and finishes with snippets of stand-up routines from co-writer and co-creator of the show Jerry Seinfeld. Now, the routines are hit and miss but they add a nice pause from the show, and I’ve always viewed them separate to the Seinfeld universe. I see these bits as the actual Jerry Seinfeld, and not his show portrayal. They often hint the content of the episode, and in the opening he is talking about his dislike for buying clothes. And as always the theme song plays in background as the episode starts.
The first scene is set in a clothes store where Elaine makes a joke about how sales assistants never find anything in the back. This use of observational humour is a constant of the show, where Seinfeld effectively tells the jokes he would say on stage through the characters. Consequently we are quickly put into a place of humour, and not necessarily plot. Jerry extends the joke, to excruciatingly funny lengths.
Next comes a dialogue with a stranger that sets up a later plot; someone telling Elaine how much they admire her father as a writer. It is established early how difficult it can be to be around him, and allows Jerry to make the joke about how talented people are tougher to socialise with. Then comes the premise for the majority of the episode: Jerry finding the ‘perfect jacket’. Despite this the joke behind the premise comes a second later, when he questions the price. Basically the joke is that the jacket is so expensive, you can’t even guess the price. This gives the writers chance to play with the worth of material possessions and how much someone is willing to pay for something so trivial. Not only this, but the pink lining is brought up by both Jerry and Elaine, something that will be repeated throughout the show.
It cuts to Jerry sat watching the TV in his Pyjamas, whilst also wearing his newly purchased jacket. This is single shot comedy that is used seldom in Seinfeld, but is effective as we can all relate in not wanting to take off something we have just bought. It continues with him feeling the jacket and getting up to check himself out in the mirror, again extending the humour. Kramer comes in randomly as usual, with one of his less flamboyant entrances. The price instantly becomes the talking point, further pushing it as the major joke of the episode. Kramer catches the price tag and is awe, but the audience is still unaware of what it costs. Interestingly its the mystery and speculation that makes it so funny.
The following scene opens with George entering the apartment, presumably the next day, enacting his common popular culture humour. He is singing a tune from Les Miserables’ that he cannot get out of his head. Jerry comes through with his new jacket on and George is of course blown away. The legend of the jacket is set in stone. They have an interplay about how the jacket has changed Jerry’s life, which again plays with the power of something so menial. George then says possibly my favourite every Seinfeld quote: “Can I say one thing to you? And I say this with an unblemished record of staunch heterosexuality…” …”Absolutely”… “It’s fabulous”. The delivery is perfect and the writing being so eloquent makes it even funnier. From this, the price comes up and George is guessing higher and higher frantically. He is getting typically sweaty until he walks out after he learns it was more than a thousand dollars. This piece of physical humour is beautiful to watch and Jason Alexander’s portrayal of George is masterful in every way. He returns straight away in absolute hilarity.
After this we come to scene where Jerry and George are meeting Elaine’s father (Mr Benes), and this is a showcase in the pairs wit. Lawrence Tierney brilliantly plays Elaine’s miserable father, who is a perfect foil for George and Jerry’s timing. The comedy comes from Mr Benes not being able to fathom the pairs difference to him. In comes a look into generation gaps and how separate people can be in their attitudes to life. Jerry and George are trying to dig themselves out of the stupid things they are saying, line after line. For example, Mr Benes proclaiming that he doesn’t need a weather guy to tell him when it’s going to rain. His delivery is so drab that even the simplest of conflicts are funny in this scene. Another classic quote comes when Mr Benes is wondering which one of the two is the comedian; he says: “We had a funny guy with us in Korea. A tailgunner. They blew his brains out all over the Pacific. … There’s nothing funny about that”. This quote highlights the writers juxtaposing the pairs lighter tones with Mr Benes’s more morbid one, which creates this wonderful awkward humour. Due to this, Jerry and George think about just leaving him before Elaine arrives.
Thankfully for them, Elaine shows up soon later, explaining that she’s late because of something she had to do with Kramer. This is was set up in a small moment earlier and shows how these characters are written so well, because they are still affecting the humour and plot away from the main action. They are leaving for the restaurant, it’s snowing and Jerry has his new jacket on. Mr Benes tells him they are not taking a cab, so Jerry turns the jacket inside out to protect the suede, revealing the pink lining. There is a laugh at the new look, and then a bigger one as Mr Benes is disgusted by it; refusing to walk with him if he has it on. Jerry’s face drops as he realises his new jacket will be destroyed by the wet snow. This is a punchline that has been set-up since the opening scene and lands remarkably well. The legend of the jacket has been firing all the way through the episode and now it has been killed. It is incredibly funny. And to make things worse for Jerry, the final scene is Kramer and Elaine poking fun at him.
This is certainly in my top 5 Seinfeld episodes because every scene is full of laughter. The pacing of the episode is perfect and each moment in the plot allows for simple, yet genius writing. Seinfeld is the best sitcom ever made for many reasons, hopefully made a little clearer by what I’ve written. The situations are golden, the characters individually compelling with their humour and the simplicity of it all allows the comedy to come forward. I recommend the show to anyone.