Friday, October 10, 2008

"you can't over-die": Seinfeld: the pilot

So I begin with the pilot, curiously titled "The Seinfeld Chronicles" rather than just Seinfeld. This is the original version (not the revised version also included on my DVD). It's exciting watching this episode on my big screen TV too, rather than the little old boxy set.

We begin with Jerry's stand up- a bit on "going out". This always reminds of a classic line from that weak but enduring Australian sitcom Hey Dad - where Dad asks the teenagers where they are going. At the reply of "Out"... he retorts "out, out...where is this out?". Sadly, Jerry's monologue is not of much higher quality than this although he does take it a step further also musing on the need people suddenly have when they're out, to then "get back", "we've got to be getting back" etc. Hmmmm.

The opening titles are unrecognisable with a sort of silent movie feel (black with a white border, the simple presentation of names) and unfamiliar theme music as well. I'm glad they changed this later.

The exterior shot is of "Pete's Luncheonette" and inside, instead of the diner style booths, it's more of a cafe with Jerry and George in the middle of the room at a round table. It's all a bit brightly coloured and kitschy, rather than the more authentic grunge of the diner. Lee Garlington as the waitress Clare was obviously written to be a recurring character and there's some cute byplay with George as to whether the coffee she's serving is decaf. Jason Alexander and Jerry Seinfeld look so young. They do a little "bit" about the placement of the buttons on George's shirt which then flows into a conversation on the etiquette and semantics of dating, when Jerry reveals he has a girl coming into town to visit him. This is the full extent of the storyline, nothing like the interweaving plots of later episodes, and I have to say it's pretty slight.

We then follow Jerry and George to the laundromat. The highlight here is their conversation as to whether you can "overdry" clothes. This leads into a Larry David special - the repetition..."can't over-dry", can't over-wet" just like you can't "over-die". It's classic David to move from laundry to death with one swift verbal blow.

Then more stand up - this time on how the "washing machine is the night club of clothes"'s the only time in the week they get to mingle with each other, dancing around with lots of bubbles etc. These segments aren't as snappy as in later episodes...they linger too long perhaps and this one also had a strange camera angle that I don't remember ever seeing again - from over Jerry's shoulder towards the audience.

Now to Jerry's apartment. It's the same basic layout we grew to know and love - although here, unlike the diner, it seems a little grungier, not so well put together. There's a dartboard which seems distinctly un-Jerry as well as unusual cane bar stools which look a bit tropical hotel. And there's no bookshelves or computer desk. Still, there's the kitchen, the fridge, the couch and the exit to the bedroom/ bathroom all the in the right places. However, here also is the first real shocker, with Kramer entering but he's called "Kessler". In his dressing gown, with more sensible hair, he's written to be some kind of recluse who doesn't leave the building. He does do the recognisable entry though straight to the fridge in search of some meat for his sandwich, while Jerry munches on his cereal. Nice though to hear the "You better believe it", a familiar Kramer refrain.

Next scene George and Jerry struggle into the apartment with a spare mattress, continuing their conversation about the reading of signals between men and women. George's advice to Jerry "Always, always do the opposite" gave me a little tingle, as it is the basis of an entire episode in a later series, where George does indeed do the opposite - with amazing results. How exciting to see the seeds of these ideas way back in this slightly clunky pilot episode.

More comedy... on why women need cotton balls and men don't. This was a little strained i think in terms of relevance, but the "a date is a job interview that lasts all night" was more pertinent to the episode at hand.

George and Jerry are then waiting at the airport for Jerry's friend Laura. A detailed conversation about the meanings of different greetings - eg, the kiss hello, the handshake etc is trumped when Laura arrives and does "the surprise blindfold greeting"...George shakes his head in bewilderment..."that wasn't in the manual".

And, sadly for Jerry it turns out the Laura is engaged...however he only finds this out after agreeing to take her on a five hour boat ride around Manhattan. Some final stand up in a badly fitting brown suit and that's the pilot done and dusted.

It's not exactly an auspicious beginning to a classic television series. It's more interesting to watch in retrospect looking for glimpses of the themes and motifs that would dominate Seinfeld in it's more classic episodes. Clearly here they hadn't refined it's winning formula and it's not nearly as dark as some of the later episodes, particularly those by Larry David and Larry Charles. And no Elaine yet either. But it is wonderful to watch it with the memory of the later story arc where Jerry and George are commissioned to write a pilot for NBC. The story of the fake pilot is far weaker than this real pilot, but I can't help but wonder how much the experience in making this pilot inspired the story of the fake pilot. I'm sure somewhere on the internet this information is available, but in another sense I'm also not sure I want to actually know. I mustn't be a true fan after all.

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