Even the better and more generally liked sitcoms tend not to age well, especially since many social situations that would have provided fodder for an entire episode in the ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s can nowadays be resolved with a smartphone. On the flipside, there are many scenarios made possible by social media and other relatively recent new developments that would have been incomprehensible even just a decade ago. This is exactly why Seinfeld Today was such a hit on Twitter. Technology has created as much a gap of lived experience between now and then as there was between people living in the ’90s and old movies and shows depicting people having to talk to phone operators and share a single phone line with multiple people in the same apartment building.
But history moves in strange currents and sometimes social trends and political developments can make a piece of art from many years ago more uncannily relevant than it was even at the time it was first seen. So it is with the “Seinfeld” episode “The Limo”, which is also, incidentally, one of my favorite comedic pieces of all time.
It’s one of those “Seinfeld” episodes that take place mostly or entirely within a mundane setting, in this case, a (spoilers) limo. But it’s also written by Larry Charles, a writer famous (or notorious) for penning or co-writing some of the show’s darkest turns, including Kramer being suspected of being a serial killer (and being pursued by a cop taken right out of a police procedural of the era and hilariously misplaced in an otherwise typical “Seinfeld” episode), Elaine being threatened by a mentally ill stalker whom she has to ward off with pepper spray, and Elaine’s hunky boyfriend nearly dying in a mountain climbing accident accidentally caused by George. Plus, Charles wrote the show’s only known episode that made it far enough in the production process it was partially filmed and was table read, “The Bet”, yet was never close to fully filmed, much less broadcast. In fact, the episode’s director and half the main cast more or less revolted against doing it, something even Charles himself admitted in an interview was “understandable”. How controversial would it have been? Well, it had a b-plot about Elaine buying a handgun and, at one point, threatening Jerry by asking him if he wanted a bullet “in the Kennedy” while pointing the gun to her head or “in the McKinley” while moving it toward her stomach.
Needless to say, given my own dark sense of humor…yes, I wish that episode was made, and, yes, I spent about 20 minutes trying to find if there was a script online (alas, no dice).
Anyway, true to form, Larry Charles made “The Limo” a horrific series of upping antes with a plot that could fairly easily be repurposed for a drama series. George arrives at the airport to pick up Jerry…barely, that is, because his car just broke down. Stressed out even by his usual standards, George is susceptible to his own crazy idea: to go up to a limo driver waiting for an airplane passenger named “O’Brien” and pretend that he is the would-be limo passenger, whom Jerry knows is stranded in an airport in Chicago. Things seem to go without a hitch, especially when they find out the limo is embarking for Madison Square Garden, which leads Jerry to assume they’re also getting tickets to a big basketball game in the bargain.
Unfortunately, before too long they find out their driver is picking up two passengers, a woman oddly enthusiastic about O’Brien and a slightly paranoid man, who know O’Brien even though they never actually met face-to-face since O’Brien is apparently a well-known author and speaker, one scheduled to give a speech at a gathering at Madison Square Garden. Next Jerry and George learn O’Brien is well-known yet his face is unknown even to his fans because he’s a prominent Neo-Nazi making his public debut after a career so far spent in seclusion (the moment of this revelation remains a favorite of mine — the woman shows “O’Brien” a copy of his speech. George, reading: “And the Jews steal our money through the Zionist-occupied government and use the black man to bring drugs into our oppressed white-minority communities.” And Jerry’s nonchalant reaction: “You’re not going to open with that, are you?”) Oh, and the Neo-Nazis are packing serious heat.
Needless to say, the jig is up once Elaine and Kramer, who were invited along back when George and Jerry still thought O’Brien was just some rich guy going to a Nicks game, finally tip the Neo-Nazis’ suspicions over and lead to them all having to plead for their lives at gunpoint. Forced out into a swarm of angry protesters, though, everyone seems to ultimately get out unscathed – except, of course, poor, helpless George, who winds up on an “interview” on TV and identified before all of New York City as the leader of the Aryan Union.
I’m a bit biased, because not only am I a long-time fan of the show, but a fan of this one episode. It’s got that perfect mixture of real-world darkness and pure farce that I can’t help but personally be a mark for. If I had to lodge any negative criticism, it’s that more isn’t done with Kramer and especially Elaine (especially considering that, if I had to have a fictional avatar, it would be an amalgam of Elaine and George, if such a thing is imaginable). Nonetheless, even Elaine gets her moments. An easily missed one is when the quartet are all simultaneously trying to convince the Neo-Nazis not to kill them and Elaine blurts out, “I would never do anything to upset a Nazi!” Or when Elaine excitedly waves to her social justice-conscious (and very confused) boyfriend Dan from the limo, even as he’s part of the mob attacking the limo. Is it a believable reaction? No. Is it nonetheless something I would probably do in real life in a similar situation? Oh, God, yes.
But, of course, such claustrophobic stories as this rely on strong character moments. It’s delightful to watch George show himself as a great liar while his neuroticism shines through (his being terrified about whether or not this was a good idea back when everything seemed okay if uncertain giving way to his absolute insistence that the plan was “a good jig” even when everything is definitely going very, very downhill is classic George) as is Jerry’s compulsion to make little wisecracks and gags even when it threatens to expose himself as an impostor to two violent bigots. Also the bedrock of the episode is Jerry and George just bickering back and forth, bouncing around bad ideas for escape. (George: “They can’t shoot us in the city!” Jerry: “No, no one’s ever been shot in the city.”) It’s yet another reason I wish all of Larry David (“Seinfeld”‘s co-creator who inspired George’s character more than anyone else) and Jerry Seinfeld’s pre-fame conversations were recorded for posterity.
But to return to my original point before I just mindlessly share every joke from the episode, it’s kind of obvious for reasons I don’t spell out about why “The Limo”, which aired in 1992, might seem more relevant 26 years later. Of course, “The Limo” doesn’t explore the issue of Neo-Nazism with any depth, humorous or otherwise, nor is Jerry and George’s Jewishness really called attention to except at the edges. To be honest, though, I have a hard time believing any network sitcom today would even have such a premise for an episode. In any case, like many of Larry Charles’ other darker plots, both the humor and the discomfort spring from the same place: the idea that, just beneath the surface of our everyday social dilemmas and interactions, something threatening could lie. That’s an observation that was true then, but in some ways is even more true today. At least, I think the other lesson that can be gleamed from “The Limo” is also important for today’s world – that sometimes the best way to counter fascists, even when they’re pointing guns with you, is with humor and a well-developed sense of the absurd.