Jerry makes a remark about ponies that upsets an older woman at a party and is horrified when she dies a few days later. Elaine tries to convince the widower to give her their old apartment. Kramer makes a bet with Jerry about building levels in his apartment.
Written by: Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld
Directed by: Tom Cherones
“The Chinese Restaurant” is famous as the point where the world clicked onto Seinfeld – most people old enough for the original run have remarked that it was where they started keeping up with the show. This has led to a belief that it’s the first great episode, which I think is overlooking “The Pony Remark”. Going in, I wondered if I wasn’t overrating it in my memory, but no, it really is wall-to-wall comedy; there are at least four spectacular comic setpieces, and more importantly, it’s connected by an absurdist plot. As will probably be no surprise to Seinfeld fans, this episode is based on an incident from Larry David’s life, and I’m awed by both his ability to apparently fuck everything up every day all the time as well as his knack for zeroing in on which incidents would be the funniest to put into a sitcom. It’s like he spent his life being a sitcom character and was waiting for the right expression of it.
More importantly, I think it gives his work an edge of both plausibility and originality. One thing that separates David’s works from other drawn-from-real-life comedy is that he does it with neither the need to prove a point nor any ego. I think my analysis is done in spite of David and Seinfeld’s intentions; I don’t believe either of them wrote with the intention of seriously analysing social behaviours or in trying to make George (or David) out as the archetypal schlemiel, I think they were just giving us a sequence of funny incidents*, and David has some of the funniest incidents around. Most people, in trying to come up with something novel, will tend to come up with the same idea (this is known as the hipster effect). David lifting from his own life with the ruthlessness of a plagiarist means it has the oddness of specificity (why ponies in particular?) and the plausibility of shit that actually happened.
(*I prefer it that way. It’s the writer’s job to present behaviour; it’s the audience’s job to interpret it.)
What tickles me in particular is that the whole plot is kicked off by, as Elaine points out, someone just trying to make conversation. I particularly like that Jerry gets quite a few jokes in before the infamous remark comes up, selling that he really was just throwing out ideas and seeing what would stick. More than once, I’ve entertained myself at a tedious party or shift at work or intervention by finding the most amusing way to express a straightforward thought. The idea of making a fool of yourself by locking onto someone’s entirely random sore spot is already funny; having someone apparently die as a consequence of it is what pushes it into absurd; having to pick between attending the funeral of your ‘victim’ and going to a baseball game is what pushes this into some higher spiritual plane of comedy.
It’s a really good look how absurd the social contract is. I love how George and Elaine speak with complete confidence on the nature of the afterlife, as if it were patently obvious that souls can travel across galaxies and dimensions after they die. Jerry’s question is ‘what should a normal person do here?’ in the least normal situation possible; really, he’s split between looking like an ass to his family and looking like an ass to his baseball team (and also, obviously, not getting to play baseball). For a bunch of selfish sociopaths, the gang do spend their time thinking about what they owe other people and then begrudgingly paying for it.
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- We also have Kramer making a bet with Jerry about building levels in his apartment and then trying to back out of it. I didn’t think about it until now, but there is a thematic connection to the main plot in that Jerry’s exasperated attempt to get him to pay up fails because Kramer is completely unaware of the social contract and can’t be argued into it. In fact, that whole scene reminds me of every conversation I’ve ever seen of someone trying to rationalise another person out of an emotional problem.
- We get an early example of a character labelling a tiny social behaviour, with Jerry referring to Uncle Leo’s habit of grabbing people’s arms.
- More than one person has pointed out that the reason Manya left a non-pony country for America would be that she was fleeing the Nazis. Others have pointed out that if Manya had a pony, she was probably pretty well off and has nothing to complain about.
- Jerry gets a good one-liner in his standup this episode: “We don’t understand death. And the proof of this is that we give dead people a pillow.”
- More good blocking: Elaine sipping from her coffee without lifting it to her face.
- I looked it up, and Manya paid more in rent a month than I do (accounting for both inflation and the fact that I’m Australian). Given this information, I am really sad that this is apparently a step up for Elaine.
Biggest Laugh: Seinfeld tends to get the short shrift when talking about the show’s behind-the-scenes contributions, but I feel this kind of wordplay is what he’s generally responsible for.