Jerry Stiller had a career in comedy that lasted over 60 years. He married Anne Meara and the two developed a successful comedy routine in the 60s and 70s. He’s also the father of Ben Stiller.
All of that is amazing.
But for me, he will always be Frank Costanza, the brow-beating father of George on Seinfeld. This hardly makes me unique. I think most people think of Stiller as Frank. He played Frank Costanza from 1993 to 1998 and he was comedy gold in every scene. I like to think of myself as a bit of a Seinfeldologist. I’ve seen every episode 4-5 times and some more times than I can count. I probably quote from the show once a day. In fact, I quote it to my puzzled wife who’s never watched a full episode in her life. But then I’m not really doing it for her am I? No, I’m doing it for me. Because it makes me laugh every single time.
There’s a real risk in adding parents or grandparents to a sitcom. One need only look back to the Cosby Show and all those episodes with the Huxtable grandparents that were pretty damn boring to find an example of how it can all go wrong. Extraneous characters can disrupt the flow of a show – especially a comedy.
That never happened when Jerry Stiller was on camera. He and Estelle Harris formed a hysterical team as they constantly embarrassed and denigrated George (the wonderfully beleaguered Jason Alexander). The magic of it all was found in the fact that they could be so mean – cruel even – but somehow never land too heavily on the butt of their joke (again, George). It should have been wince-inducing – maybe for some it was. But for most of us, the rips they took at George were so perfectly over the top that we couldn’t find fault in the manner of their berating. I honestly don’t know how they managed that.
Perhaps it was because Frank was such an original character. He wore his shoes in the swimming pool, he invented the manzier (or bro) with Kramer for men who needed, you know, some extra support on the top shelf, he bellowed “Serenity Now!” like a man possessed, and most memorably, he created Festivus – “a holiday for the rest of us.”
I think many of us find the TV-made holiday (and really, is it any more ridiculous than Valentine’s Day?) to be a quality tonic with which to douse the rest of what can be an unbearable season filled with crazy uncles, gift buying pressures, bad weather, and long lines at department stores – all for the purpose of celebrating the birth of the savior, or something.
In case you’ve forgotten, here’s how it works:
First comes the erecting of an unadorned aluminum pole.
Next is dinner.
Then the airing of grievances (“I got a lot of problems with you people!”)
Finally, there are the feats of strength
(This might not be all that different than the average family Christmas get-together for some).
When it comes to the last item on that list, for the last nine years, around every Christmas, I look at my pitbull and shout, “Come on, Dixon! Fight your father!” It never fails to cheer both of us. Dixon is in fine health, and I suspect I’ll be able to challenge him to a bit of grappling come this season too. When I do, I might just have a little mist in my eye for the man who introduced the tradition to me and so many others across the country.
Goodbye, Frank. You were one of a kind.
Jerry Stiller died today, he was 92 years old.