“The Puffy Shirt”
The funniest thing about "The Puffy Shirt," for me, was that I had forgotten it was the same episode in which George Costanza becomes a hand model. I remembered the plot and that it was in season 5, but not that such a great, funny little B-plot ran in the same thread as one of the show's best-remembered A-plots. "The Puffy Shirt" is not as breathtaking an episode as Seinfeld storytelling wonders like "The Contest" or "The Chinese Restaurant" but it is an admirably silly, extremely hilarious 22 minutes.
The chief pleasure I take from the episode is that the joke is at the expense of Jerry, which is always fun to watch. Oh, sure, he gets mocked often enough, but rarely is Jerry a visual figure of fun. George and Kramer fill that role out so well, so why call on the straight-laced, light-blue jean-wearing Jerry Seinfeld? So it's just that much more exquisite to see him in the ruffled pirate shirt, and I have to praise Seinfeld's acting here. I don't know how uncomfortable he actually was to put the thing on, but I have never seen Jerry look so ill-at-ease. Since Jerry is usually the epitome of comfort in his finely-tuned apartment (the master of his domain, if you will), it's almost shocking to see that nervous look on his face.
The set-up for "The Puffy Shirt" is delightfully simple: The only reason Jerry agrees to wearing such a ridiculous thing on the Today show (to support a charity Elaine works for) is because he didn't know he was agreeing to it. Kramer's low-talking girlfriend is a great one-off character in that her gimmick is somewhat absurd but totally, totally realistic. I doubt I'd actually agree to wear a puffy shirt on live TV, but I have known plenty of people who I just end up nodding along to because they mumble or what have you. And the hotter the person, the more likely I am to just nod away!
Jerry realizing he's actually going to have to wear the damn thing is the best-remembered scene of the episode, especially his closing wail of "But I don't WANNA be a pirate!" I have equal love for his uncomfortable interview with Bryant Gumbel, where he resignedly takes his jibes for a couple seconds before admitting how much he hates the shirt. I don't know if Gumbel meant to send up his image of being a bit of a bore, but he totally does and does it well by flatly introducing Jerry (because the segment sounds pretty boring) before becoming increasingly amused by the shirt he's wearing. "You're all, kind of, puffed up," he chuckles.
The shirt is probably TOO ridiculous for the realm of realism. There are puffy shirts and then there's that thing, which they obviously swiped from the lot of an old swashbuckler movie or something. But it's just on the line enough that Jerry's closing admission that maybe the shirt isn't so bad after all works. But that said, that storyline is gritty realism compared to the more-wacky tale of George as a hand model, which is strange enough that I momentarily thought this episode might have been written by Larry Charles. (Nope. Larry David wrote this one.)
But it makes sense that David wrote it, because this is the episode where we really experience, for the first time, just how peculiar a man Frank Costanza is and just how oppressive even being around his conversations with Estelle must feel. Watch how Jerry and Kramer flee from George's parents' place in Queens after they help him move back in. "Would you believe when I was 18 I had a… SILVER DOLLAR COLLECTION?" Frank asks George at dinner, paying almost no attention as Estelle tries to advise him on his career plans (she's a bundle of crazy, too, just in a more typical Jewish mom kind of way). "You know, I couldn't bring myself to spend one of these. I got some kind of a…………….. PHOBIA." There's so much I love about Seinfeld, so, so much. But Frank's way of thinking out loud, his halting, mumbled, then SHOUTED delivery, that’s the pinnacle for me. I can’t get enough of Jerry Stiller.
Once George discovers by chance that his hands are considered beautiful, his mother immediately falls in line, while Frank is incredulous and seems more focused on the outrage of Estelle putting bananas in the jello. These scenes serve two purposes, I think: They’re laugh-out-loud funny almost every time, and they serve to explain George Costanza and the mysteries of his personality. More on that in the next episode with the bras.
“The Puffy Shirt” comes together quite well, considering the time isn’t there for George to fall in love with his hands and mutate them into masturbatory claws as his predecessor did. That the low talker erupts in such righteous fury, cursing Jerry out on live TV and throwing George hand-first into a hot iron, makes sense for her subdued, giggling character. And I guess George becoming a masturbatory fiend would have just been too obvious a way to go. The typically wink-wink approach to the tale of Ray McKigney and George alluding to the fact that he won the contest (which is disputed much, much later on) is all we need.
So, like I said. Maybe not a masterpiece of plotting and sophistication like some of Seinfeld’s other classics, but in terms of keeping the audience laughing, it’s got to be right there at the top.
“The Sniffing Accountant”
Frank’s musings on his silver dollar collection were somewhat of a prelude to this wonderful episode, which has a nicely-unfolding plot about the titular accountant at its center, but the spectacularly funny, mortifying side-plot of George’s possible new career as bra salesman is really the main event. And what an event it is. The centerpiece is the conversation George has with his parents at the dinner table where it’s announced they’ve set up this interview with him. George is understandably uncomfortable at first, but as the conversation continues, his exasperation takes hold, and then he’s just resigned to the whole mess.
“He doesn’t know anything about BRAAAAHS,” Estelle yells at Frank, who’s more obsessed with George’s consumption of ketchup. He forces Estelle to go fetch one of her own bras so that George can get acquainted before his interview, and while both first protest, she eventually complies. “How long's it take to find a bra? What's going on in there? You ask me to get a pair of underwear, I'm back in two seconds,” Frank says, before elucidating George on cup sizes. “You’ve got the A. The B. The C. The D. That’s the biggest.”
Frank’s bull-headed unawareness that any of this might seem unusual is what makes the scene so fantastic to watch, especially in the way that it wears George down. By the time he’s handling his mother’s bra, he’s casual about it, dumping it in the ketchup accidentally. This episode, by the by, was written by David & Seinfeld, with the bra salesman plot referencing a career David once had, while Seinfeld had his money stolen for drug use by an accountant. Imagining David as a bra salesman is hard enough, but I’d like to think some variation of this conversation happened with his parents.
The ongoing joke in the episode of “feeling someone’s material” (rubbing their clothes between your thumb and forefinger) is what brings George down in the end, when he’s a star in the interview with the bra sales guy but pisses off the manager (Christa Miller, later of Drew Carey, Scrubs and ER) by grabbing her jacket apropos of nothing. I love how calm and collected George is telling his tale of 14-year-old sexual awakening to the interviewer (“His mother's brassieres were hanging on the shower rod. I picked it up, studied it. I thought, I like this”), an example of his craziness being put to good use, and then he dashes it all with another act of sociopathy by grabbing a woman’s jacket. That would be the “unforeseen incident” the interviewer refers to, then.
The main plot really is very good too; a nice bit of bait-and-switch and then bait-and-switch again, where they think the accountant is a cokehead, realize he was actually sniffing because of Jerry’s ridiculous mohair sweater, and then realize he was ACTUALLY a drug user the whole time. I like episodes that force Jerry to ally up with Kramer & Newman (who are strange enough alone, and stranger still together) and his angry conversation with Newman in the car about dental floss is a high point. But the most memorable part would be Kramer’s tour de force of physical comedy as he tries to play the part of hip druggie to ensnare the accountant, rectangle-framed sunglasses and all. Apparently he ad-libbed the concept of Kramer chugging beer with the cigarette still in his mouth, which shows you how adept Richards was at that kind of detail-oriented, silly, visual comedy.
Elaine’s side-side-plot of the perfect boyfriend whom she dumps over the exclamation points is a cute idea too, in that it makes her seem as petty and ridiculous as the boys when they break up with their girlfriends, a similarity I’m glad they draw. It’s not like Elaine has to be “one of the boys,” per se, and I like that she has her own unique foibles that they draw on more and more as the show goes on, but giving her higher moral authority because she’s a woman isn’t really fair either. Elaine sometimes goes to the high ground in earlier seasons, but that becomes less and less of a crutch for the writers as the show goes on, which keeps her from being a nag character, one of the reasons I think she’s endured in popularity so much. Having the female “buzzkill” character is a problem you see a lot of shows. Think of the disapproving Britta from early season one of Community, a character that got subtle adjustments as the show went on so we could sympathize more.
Anyway, the whole thing ends with Jerry, Newman, and Kramer having their money stolen by the accountant, and it’s pretty much all Newman’s fault. Sure, he briefly thought he had saved everyone by hitting on a woman outside the mailbox with the “material” move which prevented him from mailing the letter, but the universe is never going to allow Newman to be the hero of any story. No, the accountant might have been allergic to the sweater, but he was also allergic to smart money management and very fond of sweet Columbian cocaine (at least, that’s what’s implied). And it’s all Newman’s fault.
- My favorite gag about the puffy shirt is Elaine's. "You look like the Count of Monte Cristo!"
- Jerry's dad has never thrown anything out, and his mom has never entered a natural body of water. But George's dad wears sneakers to the pool, and his mom has never laughed. The Costanzas win.
- Love Estelle’s pile of baloney sandwiches that no one wants. “I think you’re all a little touched in the head.”
- Jerry on George’s fine hands: “That's what comes from avoiding manual labor your whole life.”
- Jerry got heckled wearing the shirt. "Avast ye matey? What the hell does that mean! 20 degrees off the starboard side, a Spanish Galleon? There's no comeback to that."
- "This is my ketchup. I bought this ketchup so I could have as much as I want."
- "That’s my whole afternoon! I was gonna look for sneakers!" "You can look for sneakers THE NEXT DAY."
- Kramer knows how to identify a drug user. "Did he use a lot of slang? Did he use the word 'man.' I mean, when he was leaving, did he say 'I'm splittin'?'"
- "Jake, you should learn to use them! Like the way that I'm talking now, I would put exclamation marks on the ends of all my sentences! On this one! And on that one!"
- "What's today?" "It's Thursday." "Really? Feels like Tuesday." "Tuesday has no feel."
- "I'm hip." "Hip to what." "To the whole scene." "What scene." "The bathroom scene."
- Elaine’s brief love affair with exclamation points would have made for an interesting novel. "It was a damp and chilly afternoon, so I decided to put on my SWEATSHIRT!"
- Frank and Estelle are wrong about a lot of things, but right about the material-feeling. "What can be gained by feeling a person's material! It's INSANITY!" Estelle yells. "Whatever happened to my that's a lovely dress you have on, CAN I HAVE THIS DANCE!" Frank adds.
- By the way guys, I'm scaling back to two episodes a week in my reviews from now on. It just lets me get more in-depth on the episodes.