“Seinfeld” and The Pantheon of Legendary One-Off Characters
Seinfeld earned its place on the short list of greatest sitcoms ever with outrageous and unheard of plot lines, brilliant comedic writing, and the most phenomenal cast of characters in TV history. The Big Four were so transcendent, they could form their own Mt. Rushmore of television comedy roles. And the frequent secondary characters like Newman, Puddy, and Peterman are endlessly quoted and even typecast by how perfect they were for their parts. (And if anyone wants to know the extent to which Seinfeld fandom still appreciates Frank Costanza to this day, you only have to join a Facebook Seinfeld group and witness the avalanche of clips, quotes and outtakes shared since Jerry Stiller passed away Monday.)
Yet not to be eclipsed is a more obscure–yet still quite famous among mega-fans–band of unforgettable personalities: The one-offs. They only got a singular turn in the Seinfeld universe, but they made it count. Their quotes, shenanigans, and monologues stand the test of time as well and appear all over the Facebook fan pages. Seinfeld gifted us with dozens of these oddballs. But today I focus on my favorites. I did not focus on a specific number. Just those that kill me every time I binge through Seinfeld. Here they are in no particular order.
[Note that I will not count “The Finale” as an appearance. Note also that my list omits both The Soup Nazi and the Bubble Boy. Both roles are so renowned they have achieved a played-out status to me. Soooo played.]
Bookman, Library Cop
Confession: I’ve followed Seinfeld passionately for over 25 years but it wasn’t until I found other Seinfeld fans online in the last few years that I truly began to appreciate this Phillip Baker Hall performance for the ages. He owns the primary scene he is in, lecturing Jerry about coffee and raking him over the coals over his overdue library book. In total deadpan, he lands some of the funniest phrases in the show’s run, like “making the scene” and “good time buddies”. Hall has been a fantastic drama actor for decades. It still blows me away that he had this kind of comedy in him.
Eric the Clown
I’ve often said this is my favorite thing Jon Favreau has ever done. He stood toe-to-toe with the greatest sitcom legend of our time and did not buckle under the pettiness of George’s neurotic obsession with Bozo. The number of times I have said, typed or read the words, “YOU’RE HUNG UP ON SOME CLOWN FROM THE 60s, MAN!!” is at least four digits. And none of us will ever forget it was he who put out the fire. With his big shoe.
His screen time doesn’t even total three minutes. But he only needed a few seconds. Any discussion of Seinfeld lore would not be complete without his lambasting George over double-dipping a chip: “Next time, just take one dip…and END IT”. George’s reaction is classic Costanza. But Timmy’s set up could not have been better.
Kip/Ned/Moe/Saul/Lem (“Short Name”)
Actually unnamed, this dealership mechanic gets George wound up like few others were able to. All over a Twix. The only candy with the cookie crunch. And the truly hilarious part is that he doesn’t say much the whole episode. In fact, his best moment is when he rebuffs George’s theft accusations by taking another bite of his candy bar as he turns away.
These days it’s all the rage to bring in big stars to beef up sitcom episodes. Seinfeld never relied on this. Jerry invited the already-famous James Spader into this role because they were good friends. And Spader showed off his comedy chops by riffing on George in lieu of practicing Step 9. He was beboppin and scottin’ all over him!
He was a terrible tennis player, especially for a sporting goods store owner, but he had bigger problems to fry. What Seinfeld fan hasn’t shouted “Another game for MILOŚ!!” to the top of his or her lungs?
“The Pool Guy” is so significant as a character I have preached many sermons on “Dealing with the Ramon’s In Your Life”. Because everyone I know has people in their life that annoy them to no end. Ramon is as real a character and performance as you’ll see in a sitcom. So when Jerry lives out all of our dream reactions to him by rejecting him from his friend group, it makes me laugh out loud every single time.
Judge Reinhold knocks it out of the park in another of Seinfeld’s rare guest star roles. He earned his place at this table both for the overt “Close Talker” comedy (with Jerry refusing to back down at the end) and for the more subtle Oskar Schindler parody.
The Seinfeld main characters were so notorious for branding other people with “little pet names” based on superficial qualities, Jackie Chiles points it out in the Finale trial. Few nicknames have solicited the laughs for the last two decades like this one. An innocent bystander on a long flight from Europe, he was little more than a straight man during Elaine and Puddy’s constant bickering. But every Seinfeld fan knows this role deserves to be on this list. I know it. You know it. Even Vegetable Lasagna knows it!
Chinese Restaurant Maitre’d
NBC balked at the idea of doing an entire episode where three of the main characters wait for a table at a Chinese restaurant “maybe five, ten minute.” But are we ever glad Larry David got it through anyway. From “Cartwright!” to “Mr. Cohen, he always here” to “Seinfeld Four!” James Hong is the over-the-top hilarious centerpiece of this episode.
Other than at Kramer’s story of how he saved Toby’s pinky toe, I think the hardest I have ever laughed at this show was when Sid kicked Jerry out of his apartment, taunting him with, “Hey, before you go do you mind changing my diaper?!?” Before fist-pumping and guffawing in mockery. Sid was on fire this whole episode, taking the cantankerous, jaded old man schtick to rarified comedic air.
Larry Miller was yet another of Jerry’s friends who parlayed that into an classic guest spot on his show. Seinfeld took normal social conventions and dynamics and blew them up absurdly large to dissect them. In the funniest way possible. Few are as entertaining as Mr. Pitt’s doorman putting Jerry on edge with diabolical small talk. “Poor doorman needs to work two jobs to put food on the table for wife and baby.”
Tony the Mechanic
Before Brad Garrett became Raymond Barone’s eccentric brother, he played Tony Abado, an equally eccentric mechanic in New York. He only appeared in one episode because Puddy soon filled the cast need for a whimsical mechanic. But Tony got his money’s worth, treating Jerry’s car like a person and grilling him over the most ridiculous details about it after Jerry mistakenly put down the wrong milage on his form. “You don’t know the milage, you barely know the car…when was the last time you checked the washer fluid.” “The washer fluid is fine.” “The washer fluid is NOT fine!”
Darin the Intern
Darin’s episode in Season 9 (“The Voice”) is a prime example of how the show didn’t go downhill after Larry David left. The whole storyline of Kramer thinking he needed an NYU intern is genius. And even though by the end Darin went away for a long time, he appeared in several memorable scenes, highlighted by how he described everything he had written down in his notes that George and Jerry did before Kramer arrived at the coffee shop. And He was a tenacious little monkey.
Most fans will recall immediately that Brett was obsessed with the song Desperado. And as hilarious as that was portrayed, I find him equally as funny when he arrogantly and condescendingly interacts with Jerry. He’s so smug he at first comes across hard to take. But soon he’s so utterly annoying that it’s comical. Especially when he refers to Jerry’s stand-up writing as “skits”. He had the perfect facial expression, tone, and words to be perfectly pretentious. That somehow made the character humorous.
That is my list. Who would be on yours? Comment below!
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7 thoughts on ““Seinfeld” and The Pantheon of Legendary One-Off Characters”
I have a few to add.
1) Neil from the English Patient who ends up battling George for a beautiful woman. The woman chooses Neil after he’s been burned by a crepe. As he lays in the hospital bed he calls George over and whispers, “I win.” causing George to disconnect his IV as he leaves.
2) and 3) Maura and Loretta from the strongbox. Maura refuses to break up with George saying that both of them have to “turn their keys.” So, George starts dating Loretta and when he is finally caught goes into a hilarious speech about being caught in “his own web of lies.” As he prepares to leave, feeling his freedom, both of the girls decide they still want to work it out with George.
Those are fantastic and yes, that second duo gave us one of the best moments for sure. “I’m caught in a web of of my own lies” is 5-star George.
The actor who plays Neil is Jeff Miller…he’s Jason’s stand-in …he’s played a few roles
James Spader is one ridiculously dangerous actor.
Rebecca de Mornay was on twice. The other time she blasted Elaine for foisting topless (or was it bottomless) donuts on the homeless.
Thanks. Big oversight there. I need to go through the show again.
Keith Hernandez. I’d have to include Keith. “Come on I won the MVP in 79. I can do whatever I want to.”
The scene with Eric the Clown and George might be my favorite Seinfeld scene of all time.