By: Daniel Reynolds
We here at the Same Page are huge Seinfeld fanatics. Any time we are shooting the breeze, inevitably we will come to a point where we start tossing around Seinfeld quotes and references. To honour our favourite sitcom of all time, we’re launching a new weekly feature for the summer to document the most memorable episodes. What happened? What was said? Who was there? And what has managed to become part of our everyday cultural language?
Title: The Library
Episode: 5 (22nd episode of the show)
Air Date: October 16, 1991
Written by: Larry Charles
Watch the Full Episode Here
What’s the Deal with this Episode?
Each week our gang of New Yorkers were put into and then got out of (well, sometimes) uncomfortable situations. Here is the episode recap of their exploits.
A common complaint with modern day sitcoms is that they struggle sometimes to find interesting and funny things to do with all of their main characters. Characters get trivialized or forgotten, cast off in C or D plots that barely draw a chuckle. It’s a sad life, being the 3rd or 4th wheel on a show and never getting the chance to really roll.
So now, think on the Seinfeld episode ‘The Library’. Think on it and be amazed.
To start with the D plot, Elaine is finding herself on the outside of the social circle at her office. She’s getting left off the lunch list, and her boss, Mr. Lippman (played, notably, by a different actor than the usual Lippman) seems very cool towards her. As a D plot, it’s not much, but it connects later with the main story and adds a little background tension.
Meanwhile, three (three!) subplots are twined together, hung tightly on the same hook via a call from the New York Public Library. Apparently, Jerry has had Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (the romantic book for high school students) checked out since 1971. So, despite Kramer’s irrational hatred of the library and George’s general indifference, the three make the trip down. Here is where the marvelous Seinfeld economy comes in. Kramer is drawn into his own overwrought melodrama with the nebbish librarian Marian (“Why don’t you leave?” pause, dramatic look “I can’t”). George is caught up in his own horror story as he runs into (curiously, all off-screen) disgraced former gym teacher Mr. Heyman (“Can’tstandya!”). And Jerry gets to face-off with the library cop, Bookman, who, by the way, takes his job very seriously (obviously, more on this later).
This episode actually does a fairly rare thing for the show – it incorporates a couple of old flashback sequences to reinforce its story. We get glimpses of Sherry Becker, Jerry’s alleged memory burn and reading partner, with her orange (purple?) dress. And then, of course, we get the extended sequence of George and Jerry (complete with goofy wigs) acting out scenes in their high school locker room. I’m racking my brains, but I don’t think the show ever did this again (or was even filmed roughly in that style again). There is a nugget of wisdom in here somewhere about the errors of memory and the danger of nostalgia. Jerry eventually tracks down the former babe Sherry and can’t wait to get away from her; while Bookman appears to be lost in a world where the early 1960s never ended. But then, we move into act three.
Eventually, Elaine borrows the book of poetry from Kramer’s paramour Marian to give to Lippman. So now we have Elaine’s story (her office anxiety never does quite get resolved though) sidling up to Kramer’s, Marian getting in trouble with Bookman (“She didn’t have a private life), leading back to Jerry. George gets his wedgie, Jerry pays the fine. And in a final reveal, Tropic of Cancer never gets returned.
While it is fair to say that Seinfeld would eventually get perhaps too contrived or cute with its ‘everything connects’ plotting, watching an episode like The Library, I can only marvel at how the show is able to take a mundane idea (overdue book) and spin an entire ridiculous universe of characters and situations out of it. Could you tie together this plot that included high school antics, librarians (and library cops), vengeful gym teachers, office anxiety and civic responsibility so completely? In 22 minutes? Good luck.
It’s Really Just Something You Say
Endlessly repeatable and immediately recognizable, here is were we discuss the episode quotes to remember.
The obvious choice here is anything said by Bookman. His every line is a solid brick of gold, but he really deserves his own space (so enjoy the next section).
Fear not, there are other highlights to the episode. There’s Elaine’s exclamation, “It hurts your teeth!” that I still use all the time (yo, cold things hurt my teeth). It still elicits a chuckle to hear Kramer’s diagnosis of Marian, the quiet librarian, that “she needs a little Kramer”. An underrated gem: Jerry summarizing Columbus as “Eurotrash”. I mean, this is good stuff.
Still, this line reading from Bookman: “Maybe we can live without libraries, people like you and me. Maybe. Sure, we’re too old to change the world. But what about that kid sitting down, opening a book right now in a branch of the local library and finding drawings of peepees and weewees in the Cat in the Hat and the Five Chinese Brothers? Doesn’t he deserve better?”
The concern. The anger. The disgust. Just wow.
You Know Who I Ran Into Today?
Aside from its hall of fame main cast, Seinfeld had an amazing gallery of side characters. Each episode has a favourite worth talking about.
Ladies and gentlemen, I submit the finest supporting performance, and perhaps one of the finest scenes, in the history of Seinfeld: Bookman interrogates Jerry.
You know who Philip Baker Hall is. Yeah, you do. He does that gruff old guy thing with P.T. Anderson, in 50/50; he played Nixon once. He’s been around. Back in 1991 (22 years ago!), he was still around (having just made appearances in Midnight Run, Say Anything…, and um, Ghostbusters II). The guy is a pro’s pro, is my point. And that’s why his turn as library cop Bookman is the finest side role in Seinfeld history.
You see, a lot of early Seinfeld featured Jerry in all his comically bad acting glory. Now, I contend that this isn’t really a problem since the rest of the cast is always lights out, but also because part of Jerry’s charm comes through in his smirking amazement. “These are my friends?”
The Bookman character is hilarious because he feels so thoroughly dropped in from an episode of Dragnet or Law & Order (surprisingly, Hall never appeared on either show). Watch the clip again. Jerry grins, tries to get a word in, looks bemused. But it goes beyond that. To me, Jerry looks more stunned to be in a situation where he gets to be blown off the screen by Philip Baker Hall. Maybe, as Bookman believes, Jerry is just a joy boy, trying to get his kicks, he and his good time buddies.
I still laugh uncontrollable as Hall goes repeatedly into what seem like almost Vietnam flashbacks, recalling horrors far beyond the loss of a library book. Bookman wasn’t the first indelible character actor brought in to goose a scene or two but I dare you to find another that was as hilarious, as cutting, and finally, as consistent. If you told me that Hall had been beamed into the studio and did this all in one take, I’d believe it. Bookman enters, gets his man, and leaves. And we laugh.
Yada Yada Yada
Every classic episode has at least one element that has become part of the cultural lexicon somehow. Here is where we discuss those random elements.
A lot of Seinfeld’s best humour came not from the appropriation of crass everyday cultural detritus, but from its ability to marvel that this thing exists at all. Sometimes the show would come up with some sideways method of categorizing something, adding humour to the embarrassing (re: master of your domain) or it would just invoke some element and ask, smirk firmly on face, why?
Take, for example, the wedgie. The wedgie is nothing new. Seinfeld didn’t invent it. But you know at some point, Charles, Jerry and Larry David were sitting around and had to come up with some stupid, immature, embarrassing way to humiliate George. What could be better for linking his modern day anxieties with the shame of his former days than the wedgie? The answer, as always: nothing.
Since seeing The Library, whenever anyone mentions a particularly acute sense of embarrassment in any context my mind immediately snaps, like the waistband of a new pair of boxer shorts, to the sad look on George’s face as he explains: “There I was, on the steps of the 42nd Street library, a grown man… getting a wedgie.“