Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What am I going to make sarcastic remarks to strangers?

The Chinese Restaurant is an absolute classic of Seinfeld's early seasons along with the carpark episode which we will get to in a little bit. I just adore the idea of an entire episode devoted to waiting. According to the background Inside Look on the DVD NBC were far less enamoured and held the episode back, broadcasting it out of sequence because they saw little value in it. Now I'm sure they're happy to claim as groundbreaking TV comedy. Because at first glance it does seem plotless, time passes, nothing happens, but at the same time there is so much going on. Let's see shall we?

Standup start: Again no tie for Jerry. This is a much better look and doesn't date the episodes quite as badly as those big wide ties. He's chatting about public phones which will become significant as the episode progresses.

The set is a Chinese restaurant. The three enter - George, Elaine and Jerry. Kramer doesn't appear in this episode. (Apparently Michael Richards was a little precious about this). They are chatting variously about crime and cleanliness in the city. George wants to see more garbagemen on the streets because we'll never stop crime, we might as well be clean. George, I couldn't agree more. Jerry's solution is a new job - cop combined with garbageman. They can sweep the beat. (my words, not Jerry's actually).

George is dating a certain Tatiana who never appears. They approach the maitre'd asking for a table for four. It's going to be "5- 10 minutes". Already Elaine doesn't want to wait. She's starving. George wanders off to call Tatiana, waiting at the public phone in the foyer to see if she's joining them. George's initial timidity at the phone is delightful. He is attempting to be polite but the caller simply ignores him.

The only driving force in the narrative is that they need to eat before going to see Plan 9 from Outer Space - the worst movie ever made. I actually can't believe how packed the dialogue is here. The conversations between the three jump around from the health biscuits Elaine refused to eat in Jerry's apartment, Jerry's refusal to check the menu before sitting at the table, the etiquette of public phones and people appearing to butt in, in the wait for a table.

Jerry and Elaine keep checking on their table as groups seem to arrive after them but get seated before them. The maitre-d has it covered: "they were here before". Elaine is getting cranky, as is George at the phone. He's now ready for a fight and looking for Jerry to be his backup. Jerry dryly refutes this ridiculous idea: "yeah I'm going to get into a rumble". Is this an obscure West Side Story reference?

Jerry thinks he sees someone he knows sitting in the restaurant. Elaine is complaining and starving. Jerry offers her 50 bucks if she walks in takes some food off someone's plate and eats it while standing there. She's so hungry she considers the deal. And she goes over to the table. She pikes out.

The phone's free...George races over but is beaten to the phone by a woman.
George: "I was here first"
Woman: "If you were here first you'd be holding the phone".

By now George is steaming, with bottled up rage. His little rant that follows is wonderful: "You know we're living in a society. We're supposed to act in a civilised way". This is announced at close to top note, through gritted teeth to everyone in the foyer.

Elaine goes off to check out the food, leaving George and Jerry to chat about George's Tatiana problems. Here I think we see Larry David's obsession with bathrooms again (as in the previous episode with the best public toilet in the city conversation). The problem is the bathroom in Tatiana's apartment. It's small with no "buffer zone". Many more cute euphemisms follow. George's "intestinal requirements" prevailed over his making out with Tatiana. And the bathroom was "insufficient" for his needs so he had to make an escape with no good excuse, thus offending Tatiana.

Nice line: The only excuse she might possibly have accepted is if I told her I am in reality Batman and I'm very sorry I just saw the Bat signal".

Elaine returns. "I hate this place".
The phone is free. George is off again vainly trying to make contact with Tatiana.

Jerry tries again to check on their table status with the maitre'd, but is interrupted by a regular customer,who after a good old joke and laugh, gets a table right away. The illogical seating policy is causing the ultimate frustration for Elaine. And alas, George has missed Tatiana and had to leave a message.

Jerry runs into a woman whose name he can't remember as she leaves the restaurant. They have an awkward conversation...the type you have when you can't remember someone's name. We've all done it. Elaine gets the name out of her by introducing herself. It's Lorraine who works in Jerry's uncle's office. This is the uncle he staved off seeing this evening by faking a stomach ache. Because with his priorities in order, he had to see the worst movie ever made.

They decide to try a bribe to get a table. George isn't keen. Elaine attempts to do the deed but stuffs it up totally. The maitre'd ends up with the money but still the next table is not "Seinfeld - 4".

So, Jerry tries to get the bribe back from the maitre-d and ends up discussing his past relationship with Elaine. Still, it's going to be '5-10 minutes'.
Elaine's desperation for food is getting the better of her..."Let's go to Skyburger and scarf it down". George isn't leaving. He's waiting for his call back from Tatiana. In the background we hear the maitre'd calling out "Cartwright". George discovers that the call came and the maitre'd yelled "Cartwright"
Jerry is confused: "You're not Cartwright". Rage follows.

The evening is unravelling. Elaine is off to Skyburger, George is off chasing Tatiana, and Jerry gives up on the movie: "I can't go to a bad movie by myself...What am I going to make sarcastic remarks to strangers?"

And as the door shuts behind them the call comes loud and clear from the maitre'd: "Seinfeld - 4?"

So this is an episode of Seinfeld that has all the hallmarks of its classic status (excepting perhaps the physical comedy of Michael Richards). It shows us the obsession with what Elaine names in a much later episode "the excruciating minutiae of everyday life". The test of its success is that the writing of the episode allows it to absolutely zip by. This is not boring, waiting around in real time. (Even though in another sense it is). Rather, it shows us that the everyday is chock full of vitally important, individual moments, conflicts, conversations, opinions and attitudes. It is this that produces richness in our lives. And as we watch this time pass on Seinfeld we can be reminded of the richness of the dailiness of our own everyday lives. Enjoy the waiting, revel in the moments of apparent boredom. For there is always something there, happening, bubbling underneath the surface, that may in fact lead us somewhere interesting. Or not. That's life...and I think that is what this episode of Seinfeld manages to capture and preserve as comedy. And when you come to think about it, that makes our own lives seem a little bit funny as well. And for me, if I can't find some comedy in the everyday, then life becomes a lot less interesting.

4 comments:

Catriona said...

I remember loving this episode first time around.

And I think you've got that description spot on: it's both a superficially very dull episode (as in, if you tried to explain it to someone who'd never seen the show, you wouldn't have much to say) and very funny. I don't know how it can be funny and catch the sheer mind-numbing boredom of waiting for a seat in a crowded restaurant, but it does. And is.

Wendy said...

It was actually really hard to describe so thanks! Going back to it I had to think about just what was going on here for a while before writing.

I remember the carpark episode and this as being television that I had never seen before. What I enjoy most is the frustration with the trivial - especially as exhibited by George and Elaine (Jerry and Kramer have a different attitude to life). I think some of this changed slightly in the show when Larry David left although the characters were well established by then and writers knew what to do. But the show changed from focussing on capturing, the banal realities of the everyday to more excessively ridiculous events (like George with the whale and Kramer's golf ball). That's okay I love those episodes too..but the tone is slightly different...leaning toward the "crazy", "screwball" style of comedy.

Catriona said...

I'd forgotten both the shift more towards the ridiculous later in the show and the fact that not all the characters were comfortable with the frustration of the trivial. (That's a great phrase!)

(I was never a huge fan--I really enjoyed it, but it was one I enjoyed on television but have never rewatched on DVD, so all the episodes are mucked up together in my head. I don't have a clear idea of what comes when.)

Wendy said...

I'm finding I'm definitely more familiar with these early episodes - probably up until about series 4 or so and then they tend to get all muddled in my head as well. I think those are the ones I have watched less...so I will be interested to see my reaction to them....when I eventually get there.

"The frustration of the trivial"...I think that's life somedays really isn't it... we choose to be frustrated or just fall about laughing in the face of the stupidity of it all.