“He’s The All-Time Best Seller”: How George Costanza Became the Greatest Character in TV History
You know you really need some help. A regular psychiatrist couldn’t even help you. You need to go to like Vienna or something. You know what I mean? You need to get involved at the university level. Like where Freud studied and have all those people looking at you and checking up on you. That’s the kind of help you need. Not the once a week for eighty bucks. No. You need a team. A team of psychiatrists working around the clock thinking about you, having conferences, observing you, like the way they did with the Elephant Man. That’s what I’m talking about because that’s the only way you’re going to get better.Jerry, to George
And You Want to Be My Latex Salesman
Confession: when I find out someone is a Seinfeld fan, I silently judge them based on who their favorite character is. For my wife it’s Elaine and I get that. She’s a woman and Elaine is THE woman on this show. Julia Louis-Dreyfus stood next to three entertainment icons for nine years and held her own. So no judgment. But generally speaking, any answer other than the right one earns secret scorn from me, which I know is totally unfair.
When Seinfeld went off the air on May 14, 1998 there was no doubt to me who was the best character. It was Kramer. He was why my brother Ashley started watching the show, and why he influenced me and my friends to start watching around Season 3 when the show was new. In the beginning we watched every week to see what Kramer would do or say next. His hair, antics, physical comedy, randomness and high energy one-liners made for a legion of fall on the floor laughing moments. In Season 5’s “The Fire” when he explains how he saved a pinky toe while on a hijacked bus that was “out of control!!,” that may be the hardest I’ve laughed watching TV.
Ruth. Mantle. Gehrig. Costanza?
But something clearly happened in the next few years as I continued to watch on syndication and through a set of old VHS tapes my friend Joel Riley gave me. I still laughed at Kramer. But I really laughed at George. There were scenes that I was seeing for the 10th time where at the end I was so blown away by whatever George did–be it a diatribe or a lie or a rationalization–I would stand up and clap. The genius of George Costanza could only be appreciated with time.
I’ll say it this way: if the average sitcom fan watched Seinfeld for the first time, I think they would be much more likely to laugh at Kramer and find George supremely annoying. I would understand that. It’s why the brilliance of George’s character flew under the radar (at least for fans like me) the whole original run. To find George funny–to get George–you have to know him. And that means you need to see the episodes more than once. George is a culture unto himself and he, like Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre, takes a little time to fully appreciate. This is probably why I judge people for thinking Kramer is the best; it makes me wonder if they have seen the show repeated times.
This Pear Shaped Loser
So George’s meteoric rise to the top of the Greatest TV Character list in the years after the series ended still strikes me as incredible since the show is probably as popular now as it was 20 years ago. George, unlike Kramer or Jerry, would not be funny in real life. He is (pardon the reference) the opposite of what anyone would find attractive or appealing or entertaining. He’s short, bald, slow-witted, petty, and the most neurotic person in real life or fiction maybe ever. These adjectives come easily for a fan of the show since they are straight from its dialogue and it seems Seinfeld went out of its way to let us know how uncool he was and what a loser he was1. He went seasons without a job. He lived with his parents as a man in his 40s. If the Seinfeld main cast was in a race to see who could be the most narcissistic, George won by a mile. Or at least several hundred feet.
“I’m disturbed. I’m depressed. I’m inadequate. I got it all!”
So why is he funny, even all these years later? I can’t answer that question with any confidence. Just as with Ulysses Everett McGill in O Brother Where Art Thou? they took some of the most repugnant traits real humans have and made it funny. It’s like a magic trick to me. Why is it one of the funniest, most memorable TV subplots ever when George battles with Kip/Ned/Moe over the Twix? Why do I say that George’s impassioned speech about having to be the first out of the fire is the best scene in the series? Why did I once spend $12 to buy a salad at Tom’s Restaurant in New York City simply because George once said, “You had to order the BIIIG salad!!!”?
Even though I can’t be sure, I can guess. At least part of it is the acting. Jason Alexander deserves every award he won for this role times a thousand. It’s a marvel to see him in real life because he is nothing like George, at least based on his interviews. He’s soft spoken, jovial and oozes humility. So I can appreciate what talent it takes to act out the scene where George explains why his worlds cannot collide: because it’s an impeccable transformation to a boisterous, angry megalomaniac. It was, and is, something special to watch this mild-mannered man in real life be the exact opposite of himself numerous hours a week for several months each year over nine years. Anyone else in the role of George hurts the show significantly. I would die to meet Jason Alexander–and I rarely get excited about celebrities. But George is my guy.
A low rumple. A metallic ‘squink.’ A ‘glonk.’ Someone crying out…”Dear God!”
As with any good entertainment, you have to credit the writing and hair-brained storylines as well. I mean, TV shows just don’t have dialogue quite like George’s Marine Biologist beached whale story. God bless the mind that put “The sea was angry that day…like an old man trying to send back soup at a deli” to paper. Or whoever thought up everything George says and does after a guy at work zings him while eating shrimp. If you want to see the most glorious collision of acting and writing, go watch “The Comeback” from Season 8 of Seinfeld2. Never have neurotic and petty been so entertaining. The writers even made George’s answering machine funny.
You’re Stuck On Some Clown From the 60s!!!
And believe it or not, almost paradoxically, the legacy of George is also tremendously enhanced when he’s mixing it up with other characters and (sort of) blending in instead of–as he so often did–dominating the scene. I’ll forever be amazed by Jon Favreau’s performance as Eric the Clown in “The Fire” because he went toe-to-toe with the greatest TV legend ever and did not back down under the weight of George’s idiotic obsession with Bozo. Watching the two men go back and forth over clowns is one of the Top three greatest Seinfeld moments ever to me. Similarly when George and Jerry talk about their new sitcom “Jerry” being a show about nothing. It’s just two guys having an incredibly funny conversation. George doesn’t upstage Jerry; they play off of each other with perfect timing and execution. Like watching Larry Bird and Kevin McHale in a half court set for the Boston Celtics in the 80s.
If you take everything he accomplished in his life and condense it down to one day, it looks decent
When you start discussing “greatest” anything you open up debate and critique and I welcome it all. But I’ll defend my choice of George Costanza with all the inane logic of “Remember Jerry, it’s not a lie if you believe it.” It took years and countless repeat viewings to appreciate what Jason Alexander accomplished with such a unique yet utterly repulsive character. I doubt it will ever be topped. It’ll take someone being as funny or funnier during the 25th viewing of their antics as the first or second. Because Costanza is. He’s been the bad date, the bad house guest, the bad employee and the bad tipper. But he somehow turned all of that into a great character. Indeed, the Greatest of All Time.
- According to the “Notes About Nothing” on the Seinfeld DVDs, the wardrobe department was told to dress George in a way to make him as uncool as possible ↩
- My analysis of George’s Jerk Store comeback: It’s smart. It’s a smart line. And a smart audience would appreciate it. And HE’S NOT GOING TO DUMB IT DOWN FOR SOME BONEHEAD MASS AUDIENCE. ↩
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11 thoughts on ““He’s The All-Time Best Seller”: How George Costanza Became the Greatest Character in TV History”
You make a good case for George. I still don’t know if I agree though. I have seen most of the episodes multiple times, so the repeated viewing thing doesn’t apply to me. I really like George – as in – I find him to be funny. But, his neurotic nature still gets on my nerves at times. Not often, but it does happen.
I’m not sure the show works without any of the main cast, but you probably lose more if you lose George, so that is a big plus for him.
Although George has grown further for me through the years, I have loved his character since first watching the show.
Yes, my silent judging of other opinions is haughty, pedantic, self-righteous! It’s outrageous, egregious, preposterous! (Maybe I need to do Jackie Chiles next.) Seriously, I can see your points. I feel like I get locked into an opinion and become blind at times. Have you ever noticed that?
Have I noticed that? No! Never! Never!
“It’s not a lie if you believe it.” There’s a lot of that going around in this election season.
As to why we find a character who would be odious in real life to be so funny? I’m not sure, but I think we’re in good company:
Psalm 2:4 — “He who sits in the heavens laughs, The Lord scoffs at them.”
Psalm 37:12-13: “The wicked plots against the righteous And gnashes at him with his teeth. The Lord laughs at him, For He sees his day is coming.”
We see where the obnoxious behavior is headed, and we cannot help but scoff.
Good comment! All jokes aside, the election is very Seinfeldian. And as I wrote back in May, that often is not funny at all. I appreciate your wisdom and perspective, Allan.
FWIW, I voted for Elaine. Watching it again with my wife, her character has stood out the most for me. She is consistently funny, even when in the background of a scene. Her internal monologue/dialogue is always hilarious. She is great at physical comedy. She plays off the other actors perfectly. She gives so much non-verbal feedback during each scene it amazes me every time I watch it. Her scenes in “The Subway” are the stuff of legend. Or should be, in a perfect world.
I agree about the Subway. Acting is so much in the voice and the face and even when they were separate, she killed it. I probably have said before that in the last viewing by Kayla and I, Elaine moved into the same realm to me as the others. I always thought she was a notch below, but I think being married has helped me appreciate the roar of the woman. But for real, I love Elaine now more than ever. Favorite moment: “I”ll tell you you what you do. You get over there toot sweet. You lay on that so called charm of yours. I got the loser in this relationship and I’m breathing new life into him.”
Amy and I just watched the episode where George is in a book club but hasn’t read the book so he proceeds to try to track down the movie based on the book so he won’t look dumb. There are no copies available at the rental stores but he is able to covertly find the address of the person that rented a copy at one of the rental locations. He goes to that apartment and somehow convinces the man (and the man’s daughter) to allow him to watch the movie with them.
George goes from pitiful begging and pleading to boorish, obnoxious, and completely self-entitled demands in the span of a few minutes. It’s a vintage George Costanza moment and one that captures all of his “qualities.”
That surely has to be on the short list of his most selfish moments. Acting like a child fighting over the spot on the couch was the most selfish part but when he asks if they have “anything to nosh” that is the part that annoys me. Or maybe it’s when the mom is explaining about her hospital visit and George complains. I don’t know. It’s hard to pick. Because he was just so good at being bad.
Months ago George was losing the poll pretty significantly. Now he’s winning! Yay!