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 on May 11 at age 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 recognisable 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 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.