We’re celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Seinfeld premiere with a simple question:
What is your favorite Seinfeld episode?
There might be Seinfeld episodes that are funnier overall than “The Burning,” but I don’t think the show ever topped the two minutes surrounding the first mention of “the tractor story.” Jerry is annoyed that his girlfriend, Sophie, has started saying “it’s me” when she calls, prompting George to suggest that he pulls the “old switcheroo” and do the “it’s me” to her. When he does, Sophie believes he’s someone named Rafe and mentions that she hasn’t told Jerry about “the tractor story.” Everything after that is fantastic, including Jerry’s fake voice, the fact that the name Rafe is just weird enough to throw Jerry off, the abrupt way that Jerry hangs up and his relief at avoiding being caught, and then the MVP of a scene that’s already very over-the-top: George’s “beep beep beep,” a weird little moment that completely derails any concern about “the tractor story.” Jerry Seinfeld didn’t break too often on the show, but it’s clear that he’s having a lot of fun being extremely silly in this scene.
My favorite episode of Seinfeld is “The Marine Biologist” for what it does narratively. Yes, many of the great Seinfeld episodes craft interwoven stories, with each characters’ arcs eventually merging or affecting the others. But it’s really a thing to behold at the end of “The Marine Biologist” when George’s marine biologist con is put to the test because Kramer unknowingly hit a golf ball into a whale’s blowhole. The other plot is pretty good too, with Elaine’s Russian author, a pesky piece of new technology, and a guest spot from Carol Kane. “The Marine Biologist” also has one of my favorite exchanges of the series, one that perfectly sums up who these characters are: When Kramer asks Jerry and George if they want to have fun, then asks if they’re saying they just want to have fun or if they really want to have fun, Jerry says, “I really want to have fun!” George, on the other hand, honestly replies, “I’m just saying I want to have some fun.”
Seinfeld was never really a show about nothing. That was just a hooky way to describe its actual area of interest: the mundane, inconsequential somethings of middle-class American life. For this fan’s money, many of the show’s best episodes were the ones that nailed something ultra precise about social interaction—the little agonies and petty obstacles of navigating a world of other people. To that end, I’ve always cherished “The Apartment,” an exquisitely relatable episode from the second season. The plot hinges on a surprisingly affordable unit that opens up in Jerry’s building, and the crisis he creates for himself when he suggests that Elaine move into it, before realizing too late that having a close friend (and ex-girlfriend) living right above him might not be so great after all. Seinfeld often gets cited as a particularly mean-spirited, even heartless sitcom, but there’s something weirdly touching about the wrestling match of Jerry’s competing impulses—his genuine desire to do his friend a favor versus his anxiety about the potential conflict it might create, plus a craven inability to just say what he’s feeling, even when Elaine gives him an out. The episode features one of the show’s all-time funniest exchanges, when Jerry has to explain to Kramer why, exactly, he doesn’t want Elaine to move in. It doubles as a description of Seinfeld’s guiding philosophy: To be human is to “feel awkward, uncomfortable, even inhibited in certain situations with the other human beings.”
This might be cheating a bit because it’s a two-parter (Seinfeld’s first), but “The Boyfriend” is absolutely packed with greatness. Jerry happens to meet baseball great Keith Hernandez in a locker room, kicking off a bromance that turns into a triangle when Hernandez starts dating Elaine, leaving Jerry unsure of which one he’s jealous of. Meanwhile, the show pulls off a spot-on JFK parody with Jerry leading Elaine through the story of the “second spitter” who hocked a loogie at Kramer and Newman, absolving the accused Hernandez. Even that bit is superseded by George’s obsession with not working, telling the unemployment office that he’s trying to become a latex salesman at the fictional Vandelay Industries. Hernandez even manages to weave into that storyline by the end, making “The Boyfriend” a deft masterpiece of sitcom structure. This episode also shows how Seinfeld’s humor stems from specific universal truths, as A.A. Dowd states above: We all know that asking someone to help you move is about as intimate as a friendship can get. Too soon, Keith Hernandez.
There are Seinfeld episodes that are flashier than “The Dinner Party.” There are scripts whose contributions to the lexicon go deeper than Jerry’s dessert-based solution to racial tension. But I love this fifth-season episode for being quintessentially Seinfeld in such understated fashion, in the way its details accumulate and snowball into a punchy comedy of manners and errors whose pair of storefront settings have as much texture and character as that ridiculous Gore-Tex jacket George is wearing. “The Dinner Party” has it all: A social norm, questioned (why can’t one show up to dinner empty-handed—or with a 2-liter of Pepsi and some Ring Dings?); specific New York flourishes (the babkas, the black and white cookie, characters waiting “on line”); a big Michael Richards pratfall (once the puffy coat does what it’s been promising to do all along). And there’s that unparalleled sense of the history the characters share, reinforced in “The Dinner Party”’s callback to Jerry’s vomit-free streak, as well as a story of Costanzian tardiness that prompts my favorite line of the episode, from Elaine: “You remember that Panama hat? That was nothing.” “The Dinner Party,” however, sure is something.
From the beginning, one of the things that set Seinfeld apart, and made Julia Louis-Dreyfus so enjoyable to watch on the show, was that the one female character among the central foursome was as big of an idiot as the men. No moralizing center, Elaine was just as petty, just as particular, just as scheming. So any so-called favorite Seinfeld episode—and, really, I have no one true favorite—would have to be a good Elaine episode, and one that shows her at her worst. And nothing, in Elaine’s eyes, is worse than becoming George. She begins “The Opposite” on a high note, getting a promotion and getting back together with the smartly dressed, if unexcitable, Jake Jarmel, but over the course of the episode, she undergoes a slow but steady downfall brought upon by an ill-timed purchase of a box of candy. Elaine’s limp-haired epiphany in Monk’s is counterbalanced by George’s unlikely rise brought about by his decision to do the opposite of his every natural instinct. The episode is arguably more his than hers, but pain beats pleasure when it comes to humor, and nothing in the episode is funnier than Elaine’s dejected explanation “Because they’re Jujyfruit. I like them.”
I’d be hard-pressed to name a single Seinfeld episode I don’t absolutely adore, aside, of course, from the finale. That leads me to ones that stand out for not only being hilarious, but also weird as all hell. Latter-day episodes like “The Dealership” and “The Muffin Tops” come to mind, if only because they uproot the characters in such strange, over-the-top ways. But then there’s season five’s “The Non-Fat Yogurt,” which, for just one episode, finds Jerry swearing like a sailor. It’s, of course, in service of the episode’s B-story, in which his swearing influences his neighbor’s son, but I laugh every time Seinfeld drops a performative, exclamatory curse. There’s his declaration of his yogurt being “so fucking good” at the episode’s top, sure, but it’s him calling the pre-teen boy “a little piece of shit” after he sees him tearing up one of his cassette tapes that gets me. Part of it is that, for all his callousness, Jerry’s never quite seemed capable of real anger. Chalk that up, perhaps, to Seinfeld, as an actor, always looking on the verge of laughter, a trait that, weirdly, often adds a dose of absurdity to his performances. Think, for example, of him stealing the bread in “The Rye,” yelling “Shut up, ya old bag!” and sprinting off. It’s completely out of character, but his performance acknowledges as much, making it that much funnier.
It’s generally held wisdom that the post-Larry David seasons of Seinfeld get a little too cartoonish for their own good. And yet, that heightened absurdity is what I enjoy about “The Abstinence,” a dopey premise executed so enthusiastically that I can’t help but fall in love with it. The episode’s pleasures are myriad: Watching Elaine (brain impaired by mental garbage bags full of not-having sex) giggle at spinning tires; the re-appearance of Phil Morris as increasingly screwed-over legal vulture Jackie Chiles; great guest star turns from everybody from Bob Odenkirk and Debra Jo Rupp to David Letterman and Derek Jeter. But the real appeal is George’s plot, which sees Jason Alexander dig in with glee to the idea of “smart George,” cackling, “Of course, absolute zero!” to himself apropos of nothing, and looking through microscopes just for fun. All of the withering put-downs about Kramer’s smoke-ravaged appearance are just icing on the cake, but watching Alexander calmly rattle off Jeopardy! answers while Jerry compares George’s brain to a cabbage is worth the price of admission alone.
“The Apology” isn’t the best episode of Seinfeld, nor is it necessarily my favorite (Jerry’s whole plotline with his nudist girlfriend is a dud). But out of every indelible scenario the show has put into the cultural landscape, none have ever spoken to me as truly as Kramer’s decision to just take a shower forever. Sure, Kramer’s a goofball; an ID-driven cartoon character who walks through doors like the Roadrunner coming to a dead stop. But at his best, he’s a manifestation of every stoned or child-like idea we’ve ever had and never been able or willing to apply to our lives. Naturally, the specificity of Kramer’s weird-ass notions may not always connect, but when they do, it’s dead-on. I love showers. They’re where I do my best thinking. They create a comforting, borderline amniotic feeling. So when Kramer decides he’d just as soon spend most of his time in one—to the point of preparing food under the shower head—I completely understand. Of course, like all truly beautiful dreams, his proves to be unsustainable. But briefly, he created something beautiful. And damp.
Since so many of my favorites have already been hit upon here, including individual episodes and reasons for watching—as Nick notes, Kramer’s zeal for, well, everything serves as a great foil for everyone else’s cynicism—I will just stump for my favorite of the “Kramer has a new project” subgenre of Seinfeld episodes. No, it’s not “The Voice,” although that’s a good guess. Kramer fell ass-backwards into some duty or honor just about every time he was on screen, but it’s his stint as an ersatz Moviefone guy in “The Pool Guy” that makes me laugh more than any other. Written by David Mandel, “The Pool Guy” slowly immerses Kramer into his new responsibilities as the holder of all movie listing info. At first, he’s just helping out a misdialing Chunnel fan or two, but as is his wont, Kramer throws himself fully into his latest ill-advised pursuit. Soon he’s doing the voice—no, not that one—and trying in vain to identify the different key tones so he can tell people where they can watch Firestorm (which gets a callback in “The Rye”) and Cupid’s Rifle. By the time he’s squawking “Why don’t you just tell me the movie you want to see??” at George—who’s spent the episode desperately trying to keep his worlds from colliding—I am always in tears from laughter. There’s always a moment in Kramer’s schemes where he realizes things aren’t going to go his way, but he’s rarely ever given up in such hilarious fashion, for me anyway.