The Understudy

The AV Club
The Face Painter“/”The Understudy

“The Understudy” (Season 6, Episode 24, originally aired May 18, 1995)
By David Sims July 21, 2011

This is an incredibly broad episode with a lot of fun callbacks (Rochelle Rochelle, Frank‘s “stop short” move, Kramer’s key ring, a black and white cookie, Macaroni Midler) and a guest appearance by the lovely Bette Midler who isn’t afraid to send herself up as kind of a mean diva lady (although she gets a nice looong applause line after singing the Rochelle Rochelle: The Musical song). It doesn’t have the same awesome impact as the last two finales (“The Pilot” and “The Opposite,” in case you forgot) but by all accounts it’s still a good episode.

It does, however, introduce the J. Peterman character, a character based on a joke that really suffers with age. A lot of Seinfeld’s pop culture references still work, but that’s one that really doesn’t unless you’re a Seinfeld fan. J. Peterman gets a lot of quirks as he goes on, but in this episode, you really just have to know that the catalogue is full of long ridiculous rambling descriptions of their raincoats. Which, these days, you probably don’t. His first lines (dressed in that white coat, talking to Elaine from under an umbrella) are admittedly very impressive, and John O’Hurley has that beautiful radio voice that sells it brilliantly. “Perfect for jumping in a gondola.” But by the end of the episode, I’m already sick of the gag, as is Jerry, backing away out of boredom in a nice bit of meta-humor.

The main Midler plot nicely gets everyone involved — Kramer as an admirer, Jerry and George as unwitting enemies in a softball game, Elaine as”¦well, OK, Elaine’s not involved. I like the setpiece of the softball game (The Improv vs. Rochelle Rochelle: The Musical) but wish they could have involved some more recurring characters and really made a meal out of it. As it is, the sight of George barreling through Bette at home is very welcome, but the rest of Bette’s material is a little flat when she isn’t singing, since she’s just confined to a hospital bed.

Elaine’s story, though, is what carries this episode off magnificently. Bringing in Frank is rarely a bad idea, but bringing him on and having him speak Korean is just at another level. I really think the scene where the Korean manicure ladies are being mean to him and insulting his sweater is kinda sweet and sad and upsetting. It’s something about how Jerry Stiller carries himself even when he’s wearing those wacky clothes (and that crazy collar). Frank just isn’t supposed to be talked to that way. Sure, he’s weird and annoying and crazy and a bad father, but badly dressed? Come on, ladies.

The great twist in that scene is that this plot is no longer about Elaine, who is banished to go walk in the rain crying. No, it’s Frank’s tale now, as he’s reunited with his long-lost Korean love, whose father he offended years ago by not removing his shoes in the house (he has a foot odor problem). You don’t even see the twist coming, despite how obvious it is. It just seems normal that Frank would ramble on to Elaine about the affair and all that, simply because”¦ who the hell do you think he talks to in his day to day life?

Of course, the plot ends as quickly as it begins, with a shocking gag much like George’s girlfriend last episode. Frank tries his trusted move of stopping short, but she doesn’t stand for that kind of behavior and that’s the end of the affair before it ever got started again. I almost wish they had carried it on, because nothing interests me more than Frank’s weird personal life, but I’ll admit, as a joke for the sake of a joke, it’s a pretty good one.

So, that’s the end of season 6! We move on to a much more structured year, Larry David‘s last, after I take my customary one-week break. I’ll see all you fools then!

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