"The Wife"/"The Fire" S5 / E17, 20
- A- Community Grade
Here’s an episode better remembered for the fact that it has a pre-Friends Courtney Cox (who was probably filming this just a couple of months before she shot the Friends pilot) in the role of Jerry’s girlfriend of the week. It’s also probably remembered in more recent years for having a shot of Kramer in blackface (actually an uber-tan from a tanning bed) that I’m sure made the rounds a few times after Michael Richards fucked his life over by being a ridiculous racist onstage.
That plot (Kramer dating an African-American woman and meeting her grumpy dad in blackface) is the least consequential of the episode, serving only as one of those “let’s get Kramer into some kind of weird get-up/visual gag!” C-plots Seinfeld employs sometimes. Sure, it’s funny that the dad calls Kramer a damn fool. I’m sure many of us have wanted to say to someone on the street, “I don't see a white boy! I see a DAMN FOOL!" But the whole thing is too slapsticky, and the girl’s family are too caricatured, and unfortunately, the shadow cast by Richards’ behavior after the show is long, and the whole thing comes off rather icky now.
Guess what else is kind of icky in this episode? Jerry and Meryl (Cox) tallying up how often they say they love each other. This is one of those Seinfeld conventions that makes the show perfect in a vacuum (one of the reasons it’s basically the most successful syndicated show ever) but slightly baffling when you’re watching it week-to-week. Who the hell is this girl that Jerry’s suddenly in love with?! His relationship with Meryl is barely referenced by any other character on the show, yet obviously, it’s something more serious than what Jerry usually has going on with women. And the weirdest thing of all is that it doesn’t really serve the joke much at all.
The Peter Mehlman script is about how Meryl pretends to be Jerry’s wife in front of a dry cleaner so she can get a 25 percent discount that all of his family members get. As they continue their mock marriage in jest, it deals real damage to their relationship, and they break up. It’s a perfectly cute idea that is executed pretty badly through some close-to nonexistent plotting. The relationship ends because Jerry meets another woman, which (I’m just guessing) is probably how a lot of Jerry’s relationships end. The fake marriage he has with Meryl is just used as an excuse for a slightly more dramatic breakup than usual; the whole thing feels like a half-baked joke that just doesn’t rise to the occasion. That’s no slight against Cox, who morphed into a somewhat terrifying figure as Friends went on (she’s used in a similar role but far more effectively on the wonderful Cougar Town) but was actually pretty cute and winning in its first few seasons.
What’s the best thing about “The Wife,” you ask? Well, I know I can be a bit of a broken record in these reviews, but as is so often the case, it’s something horrible George does. Once again, we get the pairing of George and Elaine, one of my favorites, centered around a man Elaine likes (because he ignores her and is generally a dickbag) and George hates (because he spotted George peeing in the gym showers). Elaine being drawn to the guy as he behaves horribly and pushed away as he does totally normal things (like wipe off a bottle she’d been drinking from before he drinks from it) is great to watch but even better is Jerry making a judgment call on the bottle incident from his couch, almost robotically. It’s fun when shows mock their own conventions!
George’s defense on the shower-peeing is as weak as usual for him and gets the biggest laugh-line of the show: “Since when is a drain a toilet?” Elaine asks him. “IT’S ALL PIPES! WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE!” George cries, later threatening to call a plumber to prove his point. Jerry, obviously, is having none of that talk in his house. “Can we stop the pee-pipe stuff already?” Still, as reprehensible as George’s behavior is, I’m glad he and Elaine finally join forces to take down Greg the dickish, who is one of the least appealing men Elaine ever sets her sights on (and, as she notes to herself, she looks damn fine in that leotard).
A final point on this episode: It’s the last time this season we see Uncle Leo (he’s back many more times, don’t worry!) and it’s also the first time we’ve seen him on our A.V. Club recaps since Len Lesser died in February. So once again, rest in peace, Mr. Lesser, a great man you certainly were.
Might I posit that this episode (an excellent episode overall, with a great Larry Charles script that, as usual, pushes the bounds of how people behave in reality) contains, at least up to this point in time (sometime in 1994), Jerry Seinfeld's best onscreen performance ever? Now, I know you guys get mad at me sometimes for being too hard on Seinfeld's acting in this show, and you're right, but I kid because I love, and I love watching him perform, even if sometimes you might call it bad acting. But that scene where he's getting heckled onstage by Kramer's irritating girlfriend and the scene immediately after where he bitches Kramer out about it? That's real rage on Jerry Seinfeld's face, people. He's not making that up. That shit is real.
Obviously, a lot of stuff on this show is based in reality, in what happened to Larry David with this one girl he dated, or Larry Charles, or Jerry Seinfeld, or whoever. But obviously, as a seasoned, lifelong stand-up comic, Seinfeld has had a heckler or two in his day, and he knows just how awful that can be for someone in his line of work, and he really sells the scene. "I thought you're a pro, that's part of the show!" Toby (Veanne Cox) tells Jerry, one of those irritating lines comics probably hear a lot from stupid crowd members. "No! Not part of the show! Booing and hissing are not part of the show! You boo puppets! You hiss villains in silent movies!" Jerry corrects her.
Where the plot goes next is probably where it diverges from reality, although I wouldn't put it past a Seinfeld writer to have done this sometime. Jerry decides to go heckle Toby at her office just to see how she likes it, and, in predictably dark fashion, she flees in tears, walks into traffic, and loses a toe. Now, would George do that? Definitely. Would Elaine do that? I could see Elaine doing that. Jerry seems like a bit of a stretch. For one, he's just not a guy who exerts the same kind of efforts as the rest of the gang to fulfill an emotion like revenge. Still, it's an inspired idea, and it leads to the funniest bit of the show, as Kramer describes his mad dash to get her to the hospital on a city bus.
It's a common trope in Seinfeld: The escalating story of something so manic the show just couldn't film it, with constant twists and turns coming out of left field. Jerry's done it, George has done it, Elaine has done it, but it's always best in Kramer's hands, because Michael Richards is such a vivid storyteller, thanks to his physicality. Kramer's adventure is also a wonderful mix of the insane and the mundane. I'm going to post most of it here:
KRAMER: I jumped on the bus. I told the driver, "I got a toe here, buddy. Step on it."
GEORGE: Holy cow!
KRAMER: Yeah, yeah, then all of a sudden, this guy pulls out a gun. Well, I knew any delay is gonna cost her her pinky toe, so I got out of the seat, and I started walking towards him. He says, "Where do you think you're going, Cracker Jack?" I said, "Well, I got a little prize for ya, buddy," knocked him out cold!
GEORGE: How could you do that?!
KRAMER: Then everybody is screaming, because the driver, he's passed out from all the commotion... the bus is out of control! So, I grab him by the collar, I take him out of the seat, I get behind the wheel, and now, I'm driving the bus.
GEORGE: You're Batman.
KRAMER: Yeah. Yeah, I am Batman. Then the mugger, he comes to, and he starts choking me! So I'm fighting him off with one hand, and I kept driving the bus with the other, y'know? Then I managed to open up the door, and I kicked him out the door with my foot, you know... at the next stop.
JERRY: You kept making all the stops?
KRAMER: Well, people kept ringing the bell!
GEORGE: Well, what about the toe? What happened to the toe?
KRAMER: Well! I am happy to say that the little guy is back in place at the end of the line.
It's a great scene. And, as it seems for a while in the episode, on any other sitcom this would prompt George, who humiliates himself this week by knocking over women and children when there's a fire at a kid's birthday party, to see the error of his ways. But Seinfeld, famous for its "no learning" edict, can't have George actually learn the error of his ways. So we are treated to the sight of George not once, but twice, making a huge panic and knocking people over in a crisis situation when his girlfriend is nearby. Now, I think the first one is better (there's a great shot of him taking down an old woman), but they're both comedy gold.
- "I think I'll try a sport jacket and scarf thing, like an unemployed actor."
- I do like the cameos by the owner of Monk's and the schoolteacher way he always lectures the main characters about their antics.
- "His lower lip landed well below my rim." "Moisture?" "Definite moisture." "That's an open-lipped kiss alright."
- George won't hold it in. "That's very bad for the kidneys." "How do you know?" "Medical journals!" "Do the medical journals mention anything about standing in a pool of other people's urine?"
- Leo told Jerry when he went to school that he printed well. "I'm a good printer." "I remember your V... It was like a perfect triangle."
- He also shouts "HELLO!" at the bus he's missing.
- Elaine bitches to Jerry about Toby being like a contestant on the price is right. Jerry: "Yeah, that's real interesting."
- George's obsession with Bozo the clown is pretty golden too. That's Jon Favreau as Eric the Clown, deriding him for his Bozo love.
- "You're living in the past, man, you're hung up on some clown from the SIXTIES!"
- George's defense of himself to the firefighters is great. "I was trying to lead the way. We needed a leader, someone to lead the way to safety!" "But you yelled, get out of my way!" "Because, as the leader, if I died, then all hope is lost! Who would lead, the clowns?!"
- "What looked like pushing, what looked like knocking down was a safety precaution... I risked my life making sure that exit was clear." The fireman asks him how he lives with himself. "It's not easy."
- "What, you're using my 'babies' now?"
- Elaine damns the pinkie for being useless. "That's the one that goes wee-wee-wee all the way home!" "Jerry, why don't you just shut the f-"
- That's Dom Irrera, still doing standup today, as the prop comic.