In Jerry Stiller, the Rage of Jewish Fathers Found a Hilarious Outlet

In Jerry Stiller the Rage of Jewish Fathers Found a Hilarious Outlet

In Jerry Stiller the Rage of Jewish Fathers Found a Hilarious Outlet

In Jerry Stiller the Rage of Jewish Fathers Found a Hilarious Outlet
In Jerry Stiller the Rage of Jewish Fathers Found a Hilarious Outlet

Every time Jerry Stiller opened his mouth on “Seinfeld,” it made me laugh.

Partly, it was the shock of what came out. Stiller, who died Monday at the age of 92, didn’t speak so much as erupt. His bristling bass instantly changed the energy in the scene, adding ludicrous tension and unmuffled anger that came off as deliriously silly. Then there was his masterly comic rhythm, an old school rat-a-tat that got right to the point. But what really resonated was more personal.As a kid watching this classic sitcom, I didn’t know any New York stand-ups like Jerry Seinfeld, goofy copy editors like Elaine Benes or whatever the hell Cosmo Kramer was. But Stiller’s Frank Costanza was extremely familiar, with an energy and fashion sense instantly recognizable from the Florida contingent of my family. He didn’t remind me of a specific relative so much as all of them yelling at each other at the same time, over chopped liver.Stiller, it must be said, had an expansive career that included helping to invent improv comedy with the Compass Players in Chicago; a hit double act with his wife, Anne Meara; and memorable paternal roles in everything from the movie “Hairspray” to the sitcom “The King of Queens.” But as often happens in remembrances like this, journalists tend to focus on his most famous role. Just as it annoyed me that headlines about the death of Brian Dennehy focused on “Tommy Boy” and “First Blood,” as opposed to his landmark lead performances in plays by Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill, you might be irritated that this essay celebrates one supporting role toward the end of his career. If so, I ask of you one thing: Kvetch about it, loudly. If there’s anything to learn from Jerry Stiller on “Seinfeld,” it’s this: Volume matters.

When he bellows “Serenity now!” as a tool for relaxation on the orders of his doctor, there is not a teaspoon of Zen about it. Stiller was no one-trick ranter, either. He could find laughs in a soft tone, too, even benefiting from the juxtaposition. Listen to him repeat “You want a piece of me?” to Julia Louis-Dreyfus, making her break character, in one of the great outtakes in comedy history. His quiet intensity is what startles at first, setting up the roar.

Almost by accident, Frank Costanza was written as Italian, not Jewish. But those of us who are Jewish knew better. Or at least Jerry Stiller made sure we did. He was the Jewish heart of the show. “Seinfeld” was not explicit about its Jewishness, but it provided enough clues.

Stiller’s greatest episode is probably the one where we learn from his mortified son, George, played by Jason Alexander, that he invented a holiday as an alternative to Christmas called Festivus. If there is a common outsider experience for Jewish kids, it is the peculiar alienation felt during the December holidays when they are stuck without Christmas trees and stockings. And while Festivus has entered the popular lexicon, there’s a peculiar tone set by Stiller in the episode that sounded like so many Passover Seders. “The tradition of Festivus,” he announced, “begins with the airing of grievances.”

Like so many great Jewish comics, Stiller is a master at complaint. At Stiller’s New York Friars Club roast, Jeff Ross turned to him and said, “His Hebrew name is Yech!”

There’s a glorious tradition of Jewish comics’ making fun of their parents and grandparents, particularly the generation that immigrated to the United States. Woody Allen, Elaine May and Larry David have all done it, turning these people into shouting caricatures, guilt givers and nabobs of neuroses. These jokes emerged from the perspective of young people like me, who saw something alien about these beloved family members. They had thick accents, old-world ideas and funny-sounding jobs. I had a grandfather who sold eggs (he looked more like Seinfeld’s dad than like Frank Costanza). And yet, we also knew that these elders had it tougher than we did. They struggled in ways we didn’t entirely understand. They had to hustle and scrap. They raised their voices because it was the only way to get heard. And also, well, they were a bit deaf.

All these elements were in Jerry Stiller’s portrait. He was ridiculous but also proud, nervy and passionate about the dumbest things. His sparring with his wife, wonderfully played by Estelle Harris, with equal force and a much higher voice, were formidable fights but benign ones.

The anger of fathers can be scary. And sitcoms have a way of sanding off its edges in cheap ways. But Stiller has a comic rage that was consistently endearing: plucky, ineffectual with hints of warmth. That was critical. The younger people on the show didn’t cower so much as roll their eyes at his temper. He made you laugh at the things that made our forefathers strange and even embarrassing, but also reminded us of why we love them.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *