Jerry Seinfeld walked into the National Museum of American History, looking good, fit and youthful, sharply dressed, but his eyes glanced around warily, as though he wasn't sure how this gig was going to play. He came last night for a ceremony, not a stand-up routine. He made a donation. He gave the museum the Puffy Shirt.
There are shirts that are puffy and there are puffy garments that are shirts, but there is only one Puffy Shirt, the one Seinfeld wore in Episode 66 of his eponymous show, the episode titled "The Puffy Shirt." It's a very puffy shirt indeed, with a flamboyant ruffle draping from the neck and sleeves that puff and pouf. The Puffy Shirt made him all puffed out, made him look like a buccaneer, like someone who should, as Elaine put it, "swing in on a chandelier." It made Jerry wail: "But I don't want to be a pirate!"
Jerry Seinfeld, left, with Kramer (Michael Richards) in the "Puffy Shirt" episode, said he had no idea it would become a classic on TV's "Seinfeld."
(Castle Rock Entertainment)
As Seinfeld came into the main hall, he ran into the museum's director, Brent Glass.
"This might be the first joke inducted into the Smithsonian Institution," Seinfeld said.
The director objected, pointing out that the museum has, among other objects, the chairs of Archie and Edith Bunker.
"Yeah, that wasn't a joke," Seinfeld said.
The Puffy Shirt will go on display today near the popular culture collection's holy grail, Judy Garland's ruby slippers from "The Wizard of Oz." Seinfeld also donated the Puffy Shirt script, written by the show's co-creator, Larry David.
He told the crowd that this was surely the most embarrassing moment in the museum's history, and that the Smithsonian is pretty much the opposite of everything he believes in, "which is just throw everything out." When people ask to have their prized possessions buried with them, he said, he thinks, "Good for them. Take your crap with you. We don't want it."
But the museum is clearly thrilled to have a piece of Seinfeldiana. Glass insisted that the timing has nothing to do with the release next Tuesday of the first "Seinfeld" DVD. The collection's curator, Dwight Blocker Bowers, said he's been trying to get something from "Seinfeld" into the museum for years. The show, however, didn't have a lot in the way of iconic props. The signature items of the NBC series are plot lines, jokes, catch phrases ("Not that there's anything wrong with that") and such physical gestures as Cosmo Kramer bursting into Jerry's apartment.
"What you remember most are the characters. But short of becoming a taxidermist we can't collect them," said Bowers.
Seinfeld, 50, told a reporter that he had no inkling back in 1993 that the Puffy Shirt episode would become a classic. "We never knew what was going to hit and what was going to miss."
But on closer scrutiny, the Puffy Shirt episode is even better than memory's fuzzy version. The script has the classic Seinfeld structure, with multiple subplots orbiting one another erratically before crashing together at the end. Along the way, some vintage phrases take life: Low-talker. Hand model. Puffy shirt!
The low-talker is Kramer's new girlfriend, a clothing designer. When she "talks" she makes almost no sound whatsoever. When Kramer leaves the room, she "says" something to Jerry and Elaine, and, trying to be polite (bad idea!), they nod their heads. Only later does Jerry learn that he's agreed to wear her new shirt when he appears on the "Today" show to promote a benefit that Elaine has put together to help provide clothing for homeless people. Jerry is about to get a lesson in the danger of getting caught up in someone else's fabulous idea. The shirt he must wear is unbelievably, catastrophically puffy.
The real-life designer of the Puffy Shirt, Charmaine Simmons, came to the Smithsonian last night and explained that when she was told by the show's producers to come up with a pirate look, she decided to create "the most uncomfortable, unwearable shirt you could find." She thought of a hideous shirt her mother gave her back in the 1970s. The Puffy Shirt, she decided, would have a high collar, to inhibit breathing. She added elastic bands to the sleeves to quadruple the puffing action. She gave the shirt a long front ruffle to make the wearer unable to dine without dipping the fabric in the plate of food.
As Elaine says to Jerry in the episode, "You look like the Count of Monte Cristo!"
In anticipation of Jerry's TV appearance, retailers order the puffy shirt by the truckload. George, meanwhile, bumps into a woman who tells him he has exquisite hands, and soon becomes a "hand model," trying to avoid the fate of the world's greatest hand model, a man who could have had any woman on Earth but fell in love with his own hand, and was not, as they say on "Seinfeld," "master of his domain." George is told at the photo shoot, "The muscles . . . became so strained with . . . overuse that eventually the hand locked into a deformed position, and he was left with nothing but a claw."
On "Today," Bryant Gumbel laughs at Jerry's puffy shirt, and Jerry, mortified (the entire series is a kind of meditation on mortification), denounces it, saying he feels ridiculous, which triggers a very audible scream of rage from the low-talker. When high-flying George sees Jerry backstage, he ridicules the shirt further and the low-talker shoves him, causing him to grab with his bare hands the hot iron used to press the Puffy Shirt, ending his modeling career. All the manufactured puffy shirts end up going to homeless people.
The summary obviously doesn't do justice to the timing and sparkle of the original, nor does it explain why a single puffy shirt became the Puffy Shirt. But as Seinfeld walked into the museum last night, he offered a simple theory.
"It looks funny and it sounds funny, and that's a good combination for a joke."
The word itself -- puffy -- is funny, he said. The actors said "puffy" as many times as possible during the taping of the show.
So the Puffy Shirt is now a permanent part of the nation's cultural memory. And yet a quick review of the episode indicates that the Puffy Shirt appears on screen for just 5 1/2 minutes.