“The Cartoon” (season 9, episode 13; originally aired 1/29/98)
I think a viewer’s love of this episode depends largely on what he or she thinks about Kathy Griffin. Every other element is good—Elaine accidentally submitting a Ziggy cartoon to The New Yorker, Kramer taking a vow of silence, George’s girlfriend looking eerily like Jerry. But the main storyline is about Susan’s old roommate Sally (Griffin, who appeared in season seven’s “The Doll”) and her meteoric rise to fame based on a stand-up show that says Jerry Seinfeld is the devil. Of course, it’s Kramer’s fault—Jerry disses Sally behind her back to him, and Kramer immediately blabs to her and tells her to quit show business.
Jerry manages to talk her back into acting, which leads to her one-woman staged screed against him, which unexpectedly becomes a sensation and lands her a special on cable. Now, Kathy Griffin doesn’t really do anything for me, but even so, there’s something funny about the ridiculous bluntness of her show and how everyone seems to find it hysterical. The whole storyline is based in truth—Griffin really did have a mocking bit about Seinfeld in her act, and Seinfeld thought it was funny enough to bring her back—but it only works here because it’s so heightened, even if that also makes it grating. The only part I don’t like is when Jerry fuels the fire by wiping schmutz off her face, because that does seem like a borderline condescending thing to do. Everything else he does is an innocent mistake, but that falls into some other category.
Elaine’s travails with The New Yorker, who publish a cartoon they deem “a commentary on contemporary morays” (i.e. they don’t get it either) is also based in reality: Writer Bruce Eric Kaplan had published several cartoons in the magazine. The joke of The New Yorker not getting its own cartoons is a little hacky, but hacky humor about The New Yorker is still highbrow stuff. “Cartoons are like gossamer, and one doesn’t dissect gossamer” always gets a laugh out of me.
Then, eventually, Elaine successfully submits her own cartoon, but it’s just a Ziggy rip-off that had wormed its way into her brain (Puddy had Ziggy bedsheets). Now, The Simpsons will always be the master of the casual Ziggy allusion (“Oh, Ziggy, will you ever win?”) but Seinfeld runs a close second. J. Peterman, it turns out, is a fan, and that leads to one of John O’Hurley’s best line deliveries: “Some charlatan has stolen a Ziggy and passed it off as his own. I can prove it. Quick, Elaine, to my archives!”
George’s lookalike girlfriend feels like a plot the show should have used years earlier—perhaps it had been kicking around the writer’s room for a while. Jason Alexander is great at playing George’s uneasiness about his potential latent homosexuality. The fact that his girlfriend could not give less of a shit makes it even better. The same goes for Kramer’s vow of silence—Michael Richards is a fantastic physical comedian, so why not have him play silent for 22 minutes? His chemistry with Seinfeld is particularly fun in this episode, especially as he’s mostly providing sympathy, which feels much more authentic when it’s done silently.
“The Strongbox” (season 9, episode 14; originally aired 2/5/98)
Oh, the perils of being George! He’s always finding himself in miserable situations, but nothing more terrible than dating not one, but two women who refuse to break up with him, keep “fooling around” with him and going to movies, and seemingly don’t even care that he’s cheating on them with someone else! By season nine, we’re prepared for the possibility that George may be dating someone new this week and he’ll probably object to her for some tiny flaw (the lady played by Alex Kapp talks to her food; Illeana Douglas is weirdly tanned). Still, it’s a real challenge to get on board with his problem in “The Strongbox.”
Fortunately, there’s other good stuff at work here, including a lot of great, memorable jokes on the edges of the episode. Jerry bought special antique cufflinks so he’d have a reason to talk to Jerry Lewis at an event he’s going to, but, as George keeps insisting, “You already have an in. You have the same first name. Jerry!” It worked when he met George Peppard the other week, he points out, even though Peppard has been dead for years. “Well, whoever he was, he knew a lot about The A-Team!”
I also love the simple offscreen joke of Jerry tossing food down to Elaine because his buzzer’s broken and he refuses to toss his keys, because they’ll bounce into the sewer. The minute he tosses the food, what does Elaine say? “It went in the sewer!” That builds to the unexpected—but in hindsight obvious—reveal of George eating said food and suspiciously claiming he bought it. Makes you think about everything George has been eating that he didn’t explicitly buy onscreen.
Both of these episodes continue my favorite running theme of the later Seinfeld years—Elaine’s decline as a human being. She has a throwaway line in “The Cartoon” that’s utterly brilliant:
Elaine: You know, maybe Kramer is right, some people should just give up. I have.
Jerry: What did you wanna be?
Elaine: I don’t remember, but it certainly wasn’t this.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus kills the delivery, and it gets me every time. But “The Strongbox” has a more-elaborate “decline of Elaine” plot, where she dates a man who is hiding her from a woman and takes her to a ramshackle apartment that he heats by burning cardboard. She initially thinks he’s married—but no, he’s homeless, and the woman’s his caseworker. Everything about Elaine’s behavior here is beautifully awful: She doesn’t care if he’s married, but is eager to dump him once she realizes he’s broke, and sets about bribing him into a breakup by outfitting his apartment so she won’t feel so bad when she dumps him. Then, of course, as a final cosmic joke, it turns out he is married. Even George doesn’t have luck this bad at this point.
Jerry and Kramer are mixed up with a neighbor, Phil (Louis Mustillo) who Jerry doesn’t recognize and won’t let into the building. Mustillo’s a funny actor in general but his dumbfounded face in the first scene is definitely his finest moment. Through a bunch of wacky coincidences, the whole thing descends into abject farce, with Jerry getting caught illegally exhuming Phil’s recently deceased parrot Fredo in a pet cemetery. Like a lot of this episode, the story isn’t that memorable, but there are a lot of simple little jokes that are, like Kramer’s simple delivery of “this is one for the books, huh Jerry? Really one for the books!” to cap everything. Sometimes the simple stuff is the best!
- Jerry doesn’t have a lot of small talk he can make with Sally. “So! Susan’s dead.”
- Elaine thinks George’s girlfriend looks like Jerry, but she’s not committed. “She does not.” “Eh, maybe she doesn’t, I don’t care.”
- Kramer, meanwhile, thinks Jerry looks like Lena Horne.
- Jerry has a number of naked drawings of Lois Lane that Elaine knows about. “The Strongbox” also has a good Lois Lane (or Lois Loan) joke.
- One Peterman employee has a specific problem with Elaine’s cartoon. “You shouldn’t make fun of pigs.”
- George finds common ground with his girlfriend. “You don’t remind me of anyone and we love gum!”
- Kramer objects to Elaine’s new turn of phrase. “Literally? What’s that supposed to mean?”
- George goes to see a reading of Godspell with one girlfriend and goes ice skating with the other, leading to this exchange: “The actor who played Jesus made some odd choices.” “What?” “I mean, I had fun ice-skating.”
- Kramer wants “man’s best friend” on his tombstone.