“The Wizard” (season 9, episode 15, originally aired 2/26/1998)
As we reach the close of season nine, I feel like I should be noting milestones in a wistful way. “The Wizard” is the last episode where we spend time in Florida—Morty and Helen show up a couple more times in the series, but Del Boca Vista is probably the show’s most memorable location outside of the usual New York spots, so I’m sad to see it go. This is also one of the few Seinfeld episodes that deals with race, and it’s easily the best.
It’s interesting that Seinfeld mostly stays away from humor about race—outside of this episode, Jerry’s paean to the black-and-white cookie, and Babu Bhatt, not a lot of examples spring to mind. Curb Your Enthusiasm tackles the topic frequently and gleefully (it’s one of the most memorable things about the show), so the difference may simply be the restrictions of airing on network TV in the 1990s. “The Wizard,” written by Steve Lookner, doesn’t have anywhere near Curb’s audacity, but it’s a gentler, funny look at the gang’s nervousness around the issue.
Elaine is dating a new guy (Samuel Bliss Cooper) because Puddy’s answering machine appears to be broken. Jerry thinks he’s black, which hadn’t occurred to Elaine. George, who initially thinks Darryl is Irish, quickly just wants everyone to stop talking about it. That becomes the great recurring joke of the episode—everyone’s concern at whether they’re even allowed to discuss such issues in public, or even in private. We all know that Jerry, Elaine and George mean no harm, but they’re so aware of their own ignorance that they’re afraid of doing inadvertent harm.
Eventually Elaine just decides to take Darryl to Spanish restaurants and stop worrying about it, but then he calls them an interracial couple and she gets cocky, assuring a black waitress that she can call her “sister” because of her boyfriend. Turns out Darryl thought Elaine was Hispanic (on account of her last name, black hair, and penchant for Spanish food) and he’s just as disappointed as her to learn they’re just “a couple of white people.” That line always gets me. The following hacky punchline—“So, do you want to go to The Gap?” “Sure!”—almost ruins it. But Darryl and Elaine’s obvious deflation over learning that they’re not dating someone “interesting” after all is a nice jab at the well-meaning prejudice everyone is trying to avoid.
Jerry and Kramer’s sojourn to Del Boca Vista (Phase III) is along the lines of our other visits to Florida. The humor is broad, there’s a dark tinge to the jokes about everyone’s mortality, and things end up blowing up in Morty’s face. This time, he attempts to take control of the condo board association by running the (newly retired) Kramer as a candidate, and while things initially go well, he’s ruined when Jerry buys everyone cheap pocket organizers so Morty doesn’t find out how expensive the one Jerry bought him is. Endless gags about cheapness, old people using technology, and Bob Sacamano’s unseen father—this one has it all!
Barney Martin and Liz Sherdian’s performances as Morty and Helen carry these plotlines, and maybe they don’t get the credit they deserve because Frank and Estelle are the more-memorable parents on the show. But lord, does Morty crack me up with almost everything he does, no matter how predictable—his excitement at the Wizard organizer being “hot” is still laugh-out-loud hilarious even though Jerry telegraphed the joke five minutes earlier. Helen is at her best when she’s unnecessarily praising Jerry, like clapping when he opens the organizer for his father.
This is quite a packed episode—George also has a great sub-plot in which he has one last showdown with the Ross family (excluding the finale). Furious that they know he’s lying about a home in the Hamptons, he tries to push them to admit it by driving them all the way there, having them buy him a housewarming gift, and almost walking them down the beach (presumably into the sea). Even for George, this is weird behavior—Jerry points out that maybe he shouldn’t antagonize the parents of the woman he had a role in the death of, but George doesn’t realize until the final scene, when he cracks and asks the Rosses why they let him lie.
“We don’t like you, George,” Mrs. Ross says. “And we always blamed you for what happened to Susan,” chimes the husband. It’s a great line, and it gets a laugh, but it’s pretty friggin’ mournful too, and a fitting send-off for the beautifully repressed Ross family.
“The Burning” (season 9, episode 16; originally aired 3/19/1998)
Here we have (excluding the finale) the last appearance of Puddy, and one of the best! This is the one where he says “feels like an Arby’s night.” Plus he thinks Elaine is going to Hell, for unspecified reasons, but doesn’t seem to be aware of the Bible generally frowning on premarital sex. Puddy’s chilled-out religious fervency and the reappearance of his 8-ball jacket are the highlights of an otherwise forgettable episode.
George takes up a habit of leaving the room when he gets a big laugh at Kruger Industrial Smoothing, deciding that showmanship should trump actual contribution, but this backfires as Kruger takes a shine to him and makes him do all the work. This is a B-plot that maybe deserved more time, since it’s rare to have George actually care about doing work. But even though Kruger is particularly funny in this episode (making his chair spin three times without using his feet), George’s frustration feels a little lacking in context.
The return of Mickey (again, excluding the finale, this is Danny Woodburn’s final appearance) doesn’t quite live up to some of his previous appearances. He and Kramer play patients for medical students and try to tap into their “characters” as best they can, but their rivalry comes off as forced, and guest appearances by Brian Posehn (who has one great line) and Daniel Dae Kim end up being the highlight.
I do enjoy Jerry’s girlfriend Sophie, who has a “tractor story” she won’t tell Jerry and a penchant for not identifying herself on the phone and getting mad when he doesn’t recognize her. Sophie is just another dumb girlfriend of the week, but there’s a couple good gags about that recurring trope. When asked how long he’s been dating her, Jerry says, “since the last one.” When he offers to introduce her to Elaine and George, they shrug and don’t even look up from the table. Turns out she thinks you can get gonorrhea from riding a tractor in your bathing suit. Well, it’s not like Jerry was going to find a suitable mate this late in the game.
- “Deep down, I always thought they blamed me for my parents’ death.” “Why, because you picked out the poisoned envelopes? Silly.”
- Darryl is from South Africa, but his family got out of there. “For obvious reasons. You know how it is.” “Maybe… ” Elaine muses.
- “Maybe he’s, um, mixed.” “Is that the right word?” “I really don’t think we’re supposed to be talking about this.”
- Larry David’s name appears in every headline of the Boca Breeze, the local paper.
- One of the best recurring gags in “The Burning” is George’s misunderstanding of the phrase “the ol’ switcheroo!”
- Also love Jerry’s dub voice as “Rafe” on the phone in that episode.
- Puddy doesn’t like being told he’s going to Hell. “This is BOGUS, man!”