Two weeks I did a post that was in part about pop culture references on 30 Rock. I certainly enjoy their frequent nods to all-things-geeky, but my heart belongs to Seinfeld. While 30 Rock creator Tina Fey tends to be meta in her approach, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David just love using their favorite films and TV shows as punchlines, especially references to old comedians, which makes perfect sense when you think, well, the show is about a stand-up comic.
While re-watching several seasons’ worth of Seinfeld recently, I was struck by how high-end their lowbrow was. Some of their references seemed beyond the reach of the average primetime TV viewer of the mid-90s (a point typically driven home by the use of a laugh track to “sweeten” those jokes that failed to get a large response from the studio audience). Ozzie Nelson’s fashion sense, the lyrics to the theme song of The Patty Duke Show, and Kris Kringle speaking Dutch in Miracle on 34th St were all referenced without explanation. Either you got it or you didn’t.
This 3-and-a-half minute quiz has 7 clips from Seinfeld, each punctuated by a joke that banks on your knowledge of popular culture of the last 80 years. When you’re done, click “Keep reading” at the bottom of the page to see the answers. (Hey, at the very least you get to see a few minutes of great gags from Jerry and the Gang!)
#1. Goodnight, Ollie
I started off easy. At least I hope it’s an easy one. Beginning with Jerry’s “Hmmmm!” he and George swap a clichéd Laurel & Hardy exchange. Believe me, I really wanted to include a clip of the actual comedians saying goodnight to each other—only they never said it on film! I did the best research one can do nowadays: I went to the way-cool Laurel and Hardy Forum, where several gung-ho experts helped me try to track down a sample of Stan and Ollie saying goodnight, but to no avail. Ultimately, we concluded that it’s similar to Cary Grant saying, “Judy, Judy, Judy”: it’s in the right spirit but not a direct quote. Go figure.
Although it’s a reference to Biff Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, it’s actually an on-going joke Jerry had at George’s expense. In one episode from season 3, they provide context: Before one of George’s job interviews, Jerry gives him some advice, explaining that it’s the same advice Willy Loman shared with his son. George responds, “What, you’re comparing me to Biff Loman? Very encouraging. The biggest loser in the history of American literature.”
#3. You were like a Redd Foxx record
How can I write a short description of a man and a legacy that’s book-worthy? When I was growing up, Redd Foxx was enormously famous as Fred G. Sanford on the TV show Sanford and Son. Today, he’s not as well remembered as I would hope, judging from the frequent questions and stares I get for my (totally awesome) “You Big Dummy!” t-shirt.
But long before he was America’s favorite junkyard owner, he was a stand-up comedian who paved the way for African-American comics such as Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, et al. “Emerging as the dean of blue comedy,” Donald Bogle wrote in Blacks in American Films and Television, “Foxx became a master of wicked standup satires on sex and other topics. Even when young, he was often a bit of a dirty old man, using the vulgar and the profane to shatter middle-class pretenses.”
The records Seinfeld’s referring to were the real reason for his success in the 60s. His first LP, Laff of the Party (1955), is considered by many to the first ever comedy record, and another 50 or so LPs followed in the next 20 years, each getting progressively more risqué.
Even though Foxx’s LPs aren’t as scatological as what would come in his wake—not by a country mile—it’s obvious that the audience is having a great time enjoying it. And it’s easy to imagine white folks in the suburbs entertaining their party guests with these albums (they were referred to as “party albums”). Here’s one of his most famous bits, recorded probably in the early 60s. It’s called “The Racetrack,” and, yes, it’s pretty racy.
#4. I think Holocaust is on
Holocaust (1978) was a 7-hour TV miniseries about, well, you guessed it. Roots was a phenomenal success in ’77, and Holocaust was a variation on “long-form TV sagas about events that bond a culture and/or race.” As devoted as I am to Roots (I wrote about it at length), I’m partial to Holocaust. Seeing it as a child, it was much more digestible than a documentary about the same topic, and several of its images stuck with me. And revisiting it a few years ago on DVD, I was blown away by the quality of storytelling. Its arch—ten years in the lives of two families in Europe as they endure World War II—is perfectly suited to a miniseries. If it were a film, the stories would be shortchanged; if it were a series, it’d be finite. And the time spent developing characters reminds me more of contemporary quality TV writing (i.e. Mad Men) than it does average dramatic TV of its era. And yet when it came out on DVD two years ago, the fanfare was minimal. (On the other hand, can you believe it was so significant in its day, that TV Guide made this cover to promote it?!)
As far as being a joke in Seinfeld, I do think this is a great example of what is or isn’t tasteful humor: If the word “holocaust” has “the” before it, don’t touch it; if it’s in italics, go for it. In other words, it’s OK to joke about something derived from tragedy. 1 For a better example, see the Seinfeld episode “The Raincoats” (season 5), where Jerry gets in trouble for making out during a screening of Schindler’s List.
#5. My home!
Jerry previously quoted The Godfather Trilogy (“Never go against the family, Elaine,” from “The Bris”), but I like this one more. It’s Al Pacino in The Godfather Part 2, and, frankly, it’s one of the only lines from either film that I’ve never heard referenced elsewhere. (And I think Jerry does a pretty good Pacino!)
#6. Butchya’ are, Blanche!
George is borrowing from the 1962 film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?: Baby Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) is flipping out on her crippled sister, Blanche (Joan Crawford)…
#7 & #8. Winchell vs. Mahoney…the Charlie McCarthy Hearings
Jerry, pretending to be an attorney well-versed in legal precedents of the world of mannequins, refers to ventriloquists Paul Winchell (right) & Edgar Bergen (left).
Paul Winchell was popular in the 50s and 60s, and his dummy was Jerry Mahoney. Edgar Bergen and his sidekick Charlie McCarthy were famous for freakin’ decades. (He was performing up to 3 days before his death at 75.)
The Paul Winchell joke is the source of this whole damn post. I appreciate the joke, but I know only a few others my age who would. I’ve never heard him mentioned by anyone even close to my age. Unlike Bergen, Winchell left the world of ventriloquism at a relatively young age (47). (He continued to do voice work for cartoons, most famously as Tigger. Oh, and he also holds the patent for the first the artificial heart.)
So even though the younger viewing audience would likely miss that gag, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David didn’t shy away from an old show biz reference, God love ‘em.
BACK TO POST 1 I once made an Anne Frank joke in front of my wife, and she shot me a “Hey, you’re not allowed to tell jokes like that” look (she’s Jewish, I’m not). I backpedalled by claiming it was a joke about the film The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), which made it fair game.