Twenty-five years ago, a sitcom pilot titled The Seinfeld Chronicles debuted on NBC. A year later, the network gave the show, retitled Seinfeld, a try. Unlike what usually happens today, NBC nurtured the series and let it build a following. Today many critics and fans see Seinfeld as a high-water mark in television comedy, and in honor of its 25th anniversary, here are the ten funniest episodes.
10. “The Puffy Shirt”
By its fifth season, Seinfeld was at a bit of a crossroad. The fourth season had raised the bar creatively (one of the show’s writers referred to it as “our Sgt. Pepper year”), and the show was more popular than ever. Could they top themselves? After an uneven debut, the season’s second outing, “The Puffy Shirt,” showed that the team had plenty of creativity left in them.
In this episode, Jerry politely agrees with Kramer’s “low-talking” fashion designer girlfriend, not hearing what she said. Next thing he knows, he’s stuck wearing one of her creations on the Today show – a ridiculous pirate-inspired puffy shirt.
Naturally, Jerry embarrasses himself on national television, and the design goes nowhere. But in between are some memorable moments – Jerry whining, “But I don’t want to be a pirate”; Bryant Gumbel’s incredulous reaction to Jerry’s shirt; and two homeless men in the final scene wearing the shirts that have been donated to charity. “The Puffy Shirt” proved that the series still had plenty of life in it.
9. “The Bizarro Jerry”
Jerry Seinfeld’s real-life love of the Superman franchise became a thread that ran through the show. Clever references to the world of the Man of Steel pepper many of the episodes. One particular episode borrowed an entire plot device from Superman – the Bizarro World, where everything is the opposite of Earth.
In “The Bizarro Jerry,” Elaine breaks up with a guy named Kevin, but they decide to remain friends. She meets Kevin’s circle of friends, Gene and Feldman. The trio of guys turns out to be the Bizarro World equivalent of Jerry, George, and Kramer, respectively.
Elaine finds herself torn between these “normal” guys and the flawed friends she has had for years. Ultimately, she goes back to the familiar, of course. This plot conceit brings plenty of laughs and makes “The Bizarro Jerry” a late series gem.
8. “The Merv Griffin Show”
Some of the most absurd premises make for the best laughs. Case in point: “The Merv Griffin Show.” In this episode, Kramer finds the set to the old The Merv Griffin Show in a dumpster and sets it up in his apartment.
As the episode goes on, Kramer behaves increasingly as though his life is an actual talk show. He begins asking his friends questions from note cards and taking commercial breaks during conversations. He picks up Newman as a sidekick, and, when he learns that Jerry is drugging his girlfriend to gain access to her vintage toy collection, turns his “show” into a confrontational, tabloid-style format to boost “ratings.”
The only false note in this episode belongs to a lame subplot in which Elaine struggles with how to deal with a co-worker who sidles up behind her and takes credit for her ideas. Otherwise, “The Merv Griffin Show” is a wacky treat.
7. “The Contest”
“The Contest.” Yes, it’s the episode – the one against which all other sitcom episodes are measured. Critics treat this episode as though it’s some sort of Holy Grail of comedy, and while it’s funny enough to merit a place on this list, it’s not the absolute funniest Seinfeld moment.
This episode gets a lot of credit for taking a taboo subject into the mainstream, and we could probably assign part of the blame to it for the coarsening of our culture two decades later. But its comic genius lies in the fact that the viewer knows exactly what the characters are talking about without one offending word being mentioned. The way the characters deal with temptation makes for brilliant awkward comedy bits.
So, while “The Contest” isn’t exactly the be-all-and-end-all of television humor, it’s still a Seinfeld classic.
6. “The Soup Nazi”
Certain Seinfeld episodes have crossed over into the general pop culture consciousness in ways that most sitcoms don’t. “The Soup Nazi” is one of those – even folks who’ve never seen a single Seinfeld episode know the significance of the phrase “No soup for you!”
Larry Thomas plays the Soup Nazi — who is based on a real-life New York soup vendor — and he won an Emmy nomination for his guest appearance. It’s easy to see why, as Thomas steals every scene with the command and control of his establishment. Watching the trepidation toward the Soup Nazi and the deference customers pay to him when ordering makes for some genuinely hilarious moments.
5. “The Bubble Boy”
The amazing fourth season of Seinfeld had plenty of hilarious moments, from the Jerry-and-George-create-a-sitcom plot thread to the hijinks of “The Junior Mint,” but one of the best episodes of the season is “The Bubble Boy.” Jerry and Elaine and George and Susan are headed upstate to spend the weekend at Susan’s father’s cherished cabin. Driving different cars, the two couples get separated, and George and Susan arrive at the Bubble Boy’s house first. Turns out the Bubble Boy is a jerk, and he winds up getting in a fight with George.
Once again, the show mines humor from subjects that don’t lend themselves to comedy – this time, a teenager with a severe autoimmune disorder. Wouldn’t you know? It works! The laughs come readily in this episode, from Jerry’s attempt to take back an autographed photo he’s not fond of to the despicable behavior from the Bubble Boy. This outing is a highlight of a season full of highlights.
4. “The Library”
Some Seinfeld episodes play off of other notable moments in popular culture. In “The Library,” Jerry receives a notice from the New York Public Library that he owes overdue fines on a book he checked out in high school – the notorious Tropic of Cancer. He encounters one of the best one-off guest characters in the show’s history. Philip Baker Hall plays Lt. Bookman, the library detective.
Lt. Bookman is determined to get to the bottom of the case. His Dragnet-style, rat-a-tat dialogue shines in an episode that’s funny from start to finish. Jerry’s desperate search for the girl with whom he shared the book makes for some great comedy, as do Jerry and George dressed as their teenage selves. Kramer gets a nice subplot as he falls in love with a librarian who is also a wannabe poet. Unlike her poetry, “The Library” is a winner.
3. “The Boyfriend”
When most sitcoms stretch an episode into a full hour, I usually prepare myself for plenty of filler material. Seinfeld’s first foray into hour-long territory, “The Boyfriend,” proved me wrong. Guest star Keith Hernandez plays himself, and he ingratiates himself into Jerry and Elaine’s life – as Elaine’s boyfriend and a new friend of Jerry’s. The relationship comedy is rich here, between Elaine’s brief fling with Keith and Jerry’s treatment of their male friendship as if it were a romantic one.
But what sets “The Boyfriend” apart is the daring subplot involving Kramer and Newman’s accusation that Hernandez spat on them following a Mets game years before. Jerry refutes the claim in a setup that parodies both the JFK film and Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories in general (complete with grainy recollection film footage). These scenes make for clever, somewhat subversive fun in this sixty-minute spectacle.
2. “The Jacket”
Great comedy often stems from the awkward moments in life. “The Jacket” demonstrates this idea perfectly. Jerry (in his new expensive suede jacket) and George visit a hotel bar to meet up with Elaine and go to dinner with her and her father, played by the legendarily creepy Lawrence Tierney. Elaine is late, and Jerry and George find themselves left with Alton Benes, a hard-edged, grumpy author in the Hemingway mold.
Hilarity ensues, as Jerry and George attempt to make conversation with Elaine’s dad. Everything they say falls flat, and the awkward pauses generate as many laughs as do the most clever lines. The final act, in which snow ruins Jerry’s jacket because Mr. Benes won’t allow him to wear it inside out with a pink striped liner exposed, is the cherry on top of a sundae of comic genius.
1. “The Chinese Restaurant”
Seinfeld was always at its best when the producers and writers thought outside the box and attempted ideas that were different and innovative. “The Chinese Restaurant” was one of the earliest attempts at a fresh idea: a real-time episode with a single setting.
This episode delves into the minutiae of life better than just about any other – specifically, waiting. Jerry, George, and Elaine wait for a table at a Chinese restaurant. George waits for a call from his girlfriend and waits to use a pay phone (remember those?).
All the subplots stem from having to wait, from George’s frustration with other phone users to Elaine’s hunger to Jerry’s annoyance with the maitre d’. The result is comic gold. Even though I had been watching Seinfeld from the beginning, “The Chinese Restaurant” made me a fan for life.
What are your favorites? Share them in the comments section below.