Jerry Stiller, the legendary comic actor who died Monday at the age of 92, was one of the finest yellers in sitcom history. I mean that as the highest of compliments: As long as you’re not the one being yelled at, yelling is an inherently funny act, but there are some people who have a special gift for yelling, who can raise their voice in a way that is hilarious regardless of what it is they are yelling about. That was Jerry Stiller.
Stiller was known for a number of things before the early 1990s rolled around, most notably for his role in the comedy duo he formed with Anne Meara, the woman he would remain married to for more than 60 years, who died five years ago this month. He also appeared in numerous films (the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three, The Ritz, both movie versions of Hairspray, Zoolander), guest-starred on many TV shows, did theater both on and Off Broadway, and was the father to two children, Amy and Ben, who also became actors.
But many Americans know Stiller best for his work as Frank Costanza, the perpetually aggrieved father of George Costanza on Seinfeld. Before you say, “Wait, he also played Arthur Spooner on King of Queens,” yes, that is true. But that’s a part that he probably would not have been offered if he hadn’t first walked around in Frank Costanza’s shoes — shoes that, for the record, Frank would never remove, not even when he went in a swimming pool.
According to the book Seinfeldia by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, Stiller originally turned down the part because it conflicted with his work in the play Three Men and a Horse. He officially joined Seinfeld in a recurring role in season five, the season when George moves back home to Queens to live with his parents. In Seinfeldia, he calls this the beginning of “the best years of my life as an actor.” He was then 65 years old.
By all accounts, Stiller was a kind and gentle man, which makes the fury that Frank regularly unleashed at his son George, and others, that much more impressive. He got to show that side of himself for the first time in season five’s “The Sniffing Accountant.” “You can look for sneakers the next day!” he screams at George after his son complains that his whole afternoon will be ruined because his father got him a job interview for a position as a bra salesman.
Stiller is brilliant in the whole scene, actually, not only when he’s losing his shit. When his wife Estelle (Estelle Harris) takes more than ten seconds to procure a bra from the bedroom, Frank instantly grows impatient. “How long does it take to find a bra?” he asks, playing the line very straight, which makes it that much funnier. “You ask me to get a pair of underwear, I’m back in two seconds.” When Frank asks George if he’s familiar with cup sizes, Stiller brandishes a toothpick that makes him seem both knowing and ridiculous at the same time. Every line in this scene is funny on the page, but taken into “I’m laughing so hard I’m crying” territory because of Stiller, who drags out the nightmare of receiving a bra tutorial from an old man in a way that makes it even more nightmarish.
Oh, the things that Jerry Stiller would yell so gloriously via the mouth of Frank Costanza:
“Is this the group that goes around mutilating squirrels?” —To George when he decides to convert to Latvian Orthodox.
“Blow out the damn candles!” —To a young George, in flashback.
“That’s my cabana shirt. You stole my shirt, you son of a bitch!” —To Kramer, when he shows up at the Costanzas’ in Frank’s old cruisewear.
“How dare you stop short with my wife … Asssmaaaan!” —To Kramer after Kramer stops short with Estelle Costanza in the passenger seat.
“Are you trying to keep us out of Del Boca Vista?” —To the Seinfelds, who really don’t want the Costanzas to move into their retirement community in Florida.
“You want a piece of me?” —To Elaine, after she makes a disparaging remark about George.
“Serenity now!!” —To no one, but also really anyone who would listen.
Then there was his declaration of a “Festivus for the rest of us,” the most famous Seinfeld tradition that was technically based on a holiday invented by the father of Seinfeld writer Danny O’Keefe. But to Seinfeld viewers, it will always be the brainchild of Frank Costanza. The Airing of Grievances describes Frank Costanza’s lifestyle as well as the ethos of the entire series. As Frank, Stiller spent a large percentage of his screen time airing grievances, usually about minor, silly things that barely qualified as problems. That’s what made him a quintessential Seinfeld character: He complained constantly, about nothing.
What made the character hilarious and memorable, though, was Jerry Stiller himself, who didn’t just elicit laughter because of the way he yelled, but also because the audience knew a blowup was always just a few lines away. Stiller paced and gesticulated, making the buildups to Frank’s breakdowns as absurd as the eruptions themselves. Because he sometimes had trouble remembering his lines, the cadences in his speech were dotty and unpredictable. You hung on everything he said because if what he was saying wasn’t already funny, you knew it was about to be a second later. His delivery and the way he sometimes punctuated his shouts by bonking Jason Alexander on the forehead was the stuff of classic sitcoms. Yet it was completely at home in the contemporary, boundary-pushing Seinfeld.
Stiller’s last line on Seinfeld, uttered in the final episode, was, appropriately, shouted. After George, Elaine, Jerry, and Kramer have been convicted of violating the Good Samaritan law, Estelle passes out from shock. When court is adjourned, Frank attempts to shake her back to consciousness. “We gotta get outta here,” he yells in her face. “We gotta beat the traffic!”
It was one last explosion over one last issue that most normal humans would not be concerned about in that moment. But Frank Costanza was not normal, and his volume was high right up to the very end. Close your eyes right now and think about Frank Costanza and Jerry Stiller. The first thing you hear is him yelling, isn’t it? Even now, you can’t unhear it, or stop yourself from laughing at it, even if you try.