Arguably the greatest sitcom of all time uses his last name as its title. So how is it possible that Jerry Seinfeld was underappreciated on his own show? Think about the favorite memories and best moments people reel off when discussing the defining television show of the 1990s: George’s harebrained schemes, Kramer’s pratfalls, Elaine’s dancing. Or maybe they mention their favorite secondary characters: Puddy. The Soup Nazi. Uncle Leo. J Peterman. Or a phrase: Yada yada yada. Spongeworthy. Festivus. Double dip.
The point is, it’s easy to overlook Jerry himself. That’s somewhat by design. In the Season 5 episode “The Opposite,” Kramer called him "Even Steven." Never too high, never too low. The calm surrounded by chaos. Jerry was the steady anchor. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have his standout moments that rank among the show’s unquestioned highlights. Here are five of Jerry’s best:
The napkin dab
In the Season 4 classic “The Bubble Boy,” Jerry and Elaine are in Monk’s Diner with Mel, the truck-driving father of the Bubble Boy, who is describing his family’s ordeal. (“We have sacrificed everything. All for our little bubble boy.”) This starts the waterworks for both Mel and Elaine, and they each wipe their tears with a napkin. Elaine hands a napkin to Jerry to do the same, but he uses it to wipe crumbs off his mouth. It is this subtle moment that epitomizes the gentle nihilism that defined “Seinfeld.”
By the end of its run, “Seinfeld” was a fairly standard sitcom, at least in terms of plot construction — lots of wackiness with everything coming full circle in the end. But the first few seasons were still largely based on Seinfeld’s stand-up routines and the minor frustrations of everyday life. This produced such memorable episodes as “The Chinese Restaurant” and “The Parking Garage” and moments like the one from Season 3’s “The Alternate Side,” when Jerry is told that the rental car he reserved isn’t available, because the company ran out of cars.
Jerry is dumbfounded: “But the reservation keeps the car here. That’s why you have the reservation,” he says. “I know why we have reservations,” the car rental clerk responds, which allows Jerry to launch into one of his most memorable mini-monologues: “I don’t think you do. If you did, I’d have a car. See, you know how to take the reservation, you just don’t know how to hold the reservation, and that’s really the most important part of the reservation, the holding. Anybody can just take them.”
With that final line, Jerry throws his hands in the air, pantomiming writing motions while holding back laughter, which was a defining characteristic of his acting “style,” particularly in those early seasons.
'But I don't wanna be a pirate!'
The titular object of the Season 5 episode “The Puffy Shirt” is such an iconic piece of television history that it’s the property of the Smithsonian, housed in the National Museum of American History. But just as memorable as the shirt itself is the line Jerry utters after seeing the monstrosity designed by Kramer’s then-girlfriend. “This is gonna be the new look for the ’90s,” Kramer tells him. “You’re gonna be the first pirate!”
“But I don’t wanna be a pirate!” Jerry whimpers in a scared, high-pitched voice. This phrase has an almost-sequel in Season 6 when, again thanks to Kramer, Jerry has to wear cowboy boots and he says, in the same voice, “But I don’t wanna be a cowboy!”
'Shut up, you old bag!'
One thing that most great Jerry moments have in common is Jerry being on the verge of cracking himself up. In Season 7’s “The Rye,” we see perhaps the single best “Jerryface” of the entire series. For various Costanza-related reasons, Jerry needs to get a specific marble rye from Schnitzer’s, but just before he gets to the counter, an elderly woman buys the last loaf in the shop. Jerry confronts her on the street and offers her $50 for the bread, but the feisty senior citizen refuses. So Jerry grabs it from her, and as she screams he tells her, “Shut up, you old bag!” Then he races off down the sidewalk, rye in hand, mouth wide open, as if even he can’t believe the situation he has written himself into.
'And you want to be my latex salesman'
"The Boyfriend," a two-part episode from Season 3, aired as the show was reaching its peak but just before it became a cultural phenomenon. Part one ends with a pantheon “Seinfeld” moment. George has given his unemployment officer Jerry’s phone number, saying it’s the contact for Vandelay Industries, a fake company (using George’s favorite fake name) where George is being considered for a job as a latex salesman. Jerry goes along with the ruse, but he’s out of his apartment when the call comes in. Kramer answers the phone — because of course he does — and tells the caller, “Nah, you’re way, way, way off.” George hears this from the bathroom and charges out, yelling at Kramer to say “Vandelay Industries,” but it’s too late. George falls to the floor, face down, pants around his ankles when Jerry walks back in, observes the scene and says (with his patented smirk): “And you want to be my latex salesman.”
That moment is a perfect microcosm of the show: Surrounded by ridiculousness, Jerry steps into the madness to deliver the perfectly timed one-liner.