“The Checks” (season 8, episode 7; originally aired 11/6/1996)
Okay, I know how everyone gets mad at me when I complain about jokes in Seinfeld that are perhaps a little culturally insensitive, or at least probably wouldn’t make it to air today. But I assure you, that is not what I’m doing when I complain about the little Japanese dudes living in Kramer’s oversized chest of drawers. Because you still see jokes about Asian people being tiny and weird on TV—it’s called 2 Broke Girls, people! Nah, I just don’t like the joke (and a lot of this episode) because it feels kinda hacky—the Japanese TV executive at least has some gravitas, but Kramer’s chirpy friends who he encourages to buy cowboy hats just come off as lazy writing.
It’s a very broad episode, but so is the following one, “The Chicken Roaster,” and I heartily enjoyed that one (more on that in a minute). But while “The Checks” is diverting, and it has that nice running gag about Elaine’s boyfriend Brett (James Patrick Stuart, later of Andy Richter Controls The Universe) thinking Jerry is an unemployed, broke loser, the stories are just all over the place, and every time the Japanese tourists show up in someone else’s plot, it makes less and less sense.
Maybe the problem is that there isn’t really an A-plot, it’s just a bunch of silly little stuff. Elaine’s new boyfriend goes quiet and shushes her whenever The Eagles’ “Desperado” comes on. Jerry is collecting residual checks from a Japanese TV show he’s in the credit sequence of, plus he’s going around claiming he invented umbrella twirling (both of those really come out of nowhere). George is trying to get sucked into a carpet-cleaning cult for no reason, and he’s also reviving the Jerry pilot for Japanese consumption, although his pitch technique mostly revolves around a bag of oranges.
It’s crazy stuff, and most of it doesn’t really fit with the characters—even George’s desperation to get sucked into the cult seems forced. There’s not a woman or money involved, and those are usually his motivating factors. I guess it’s just his weird pride, but there’s still a woman or money at some point. Here, he’s paying $25 to get recruited into a cult he’s not interested in. This plot might make more sense if we got the impression that George was genuinely lonely in his apartment since Susan died, but that seems like a stretch.
Still, there’s some nice stuff here. I definitely laugh when Jerry, his hand savaged by endorsing miniscule checks, takes an axe to Brett’s beloved chest of drawers. In fact, everything where Jerry looks like a lunatic (his umbrella dance, his ruined checks) is great just because it’s always unusual to see Jerry act the fool. I definitely get a kick out of Stuart’s arrogant bliss at hearing “Desperado,” too, and his general pretentiousness—I’m surprised it took this long for someone who doesn’t want to eat at Monk’s every day to show up on Seinfeld, and honestly, I wish there was a little more about that. Anything where the gang’s usual habits are challenged is good. But Jerry’s umbrella-twirling is definitely not part of the routine.
Plus, let’s not forget the almost tossed-off, but brilliantly brutal, death of Brett at the end of the episode as a doctor is entranced by “Witchy Woman” (Elaine’s preferred Eagles song). I’m just assuming that Brett dies because the nurse says they’re losing him and the heart monitor is bleeping quickly. I don’t know how you die of a mild concussion, but the important thing is that Brett is dead, right?
“The Chicken Roaster” (season 8, episode 8; originally aired 11/14/1996)
Now this episode is straight-up bonkers. For one, it prominently features Kenny Rogers Roasters, which was a REAL THING in the 1990s that went bankrupt soon after Seinfeld ended (the two things are connected, I tell ya) and now only has 37 remaining locations in the U.S. Was there a product-placement deal? If there was, they either really needed the publicity or didn’t read the script, because this episode implies that living near one of the restaurants will fill your apartment with blinding red light that drives you insane and warps your very reality.
Kramer is so destroyed by the red light that he switches with the unaffected Jerry, and the switch has a Freaky Friday effect where Jerry becomes manic and sleepless and starts saying things like “giddy-up” and talking about Bob Sacamano. Kramer, meanwhile, becomes sardonic, dry and dismissive, like a certain stand-up comedian we all know. The joke really doesn’t make sense (Kramer isn’t Kramer because of a lack of sleep!) but the role reversal is funny to watch, especially on Kramer’s end (Michael Richards really is a pretty diverse comedic actor).
There’s a whole complex subplot about Kramer getting obsessed with the chicken, and Jerry having a college buddy who falls on hard times and is forced to work at the chicken place, and this is why they can’t shut it down, and the whole thing just makes no sense if you think about it for even two seconds. The restaurant appears to shut down within hours of Jerry accidentally spreading rat fur everywhere. His college friend Seth loses a high-powered job just because Jerry insists on having lunch with him. Everything is very peculiar. But the tone is heightened enough that it works, plus there are a lot of big laughs in all the crazy set-pieces.
There’s some great little laughs too—like George knocking on Elaine’s framed butterflies, thinking they’re alive, or Elaine asking her accountant (about to recommend her dismissal) if she can fire him. George has a lady subplot that keeps returning to a self-consciously cute concept (that he’s like a jingle) but also has plenty of reliable Costanza deception, like his half-baked attempts at leaving objects behind in her apartment, and his inexplicable theft of a clock as some sort of revenge. Again, this stuff doesn’t really seem logical on paper, but the episode just kinda rolls with it.
The most bonkers stuff involves the return of Peterman. When I say return, I don’t mean he comes back to New York—no, Elaine goes to Burma to get him to approve her ridiculous $8,000 hat that she put on the expense account for George. Yeah, that’s right, Elaine goes to the jungles of Burma. Ain’t no thing. “You’re the only white poet warlord in the neighborhood,” she tells him. It’s a brief Apocalypse Now spoof, with Peterman gasping “the horror” at the sight of the urban sombrero (which also makes a cameo in “The Checks”), and it’s the only nutty thing in the episode that doesn’t really come off. A crazy infrared chicken light? Sure. Kramer’s ventriloquist dummy Mr. Marbles tormenting Jerry? Why not. But an Apocalypse Now spoof on Seinfeld? Was that really necessary?
- George doesn’t buy umbrellas, he just takes them from the metal can in coffee shops. “Those belong to people!”
- He asks Jerry about Brett. “Who is this guy?” “Who are any of her losers?” “You’re on that list.”
- The brief cameo by Farbman (previously mentioned in “The Hamptons”) is all we need, and it’s wonderful.
- The Japanese exec’s comment about the Yankees winning the World Series could have gone either way—“The Checks” aired 10 days after they beat Atlanta, and both subtitle options were included for the show.
- George thinks he should be able to haggle pasta. “All starches are a scam.” “Especially ziti, with that big hole,” Jerry agrees.
- Jerry knows Seth through a guy called Moochy. “Hey, whatever happened to Moochy?” “He’s dead.” “Is that right?”
- Great visual gag in “The Chicken Roaster” where Elaine puts Jerry on hold but he stays on screen, yawning and looking around, before being hung up on, forgotten.
- George thinks Heather has a little Marisa Tomei thing going on. “Too bad you’ve got a little George Costanza thing going on.”
- Kramer prepares cereal with tomato juice, thinking it’s milk.
- Newman can’t stomach broccoli. “Vile weed!”