Over the last 50 years, the late Jerry Stiller was the type of comedic presence that was always a joy to witness when he popped up in myriad TV and film projects — but perhaps the comedian and actor’s most recognizable role was his work as Frank Costanza on Seinfeld.
As the cantankerous patriarch to Jason Alexander’s tortured and insidious George, Stiller’s Frank was unpredictably hilarious, erupting with rage at the drop of a hat (or, a marble rye) with dialogue delivered staccato-style, like pure comic gunfire. Stiller was the perfect foil to Estelle Harris’s performance as Frank’s wife Estelle, balancing her doting anxiousness with hard-charging bravado and the type of yelling you can hear from several boroughs away.
Stiller appeared in 26 of Seinfeld’s 172 episodes (all currently streaming on Hulu), but his Frank was so riotous that the character itself feels as essential to the show’s comedic ecosystem as Kramer’s door-busting tendencies. All of the episodes he appeared in are worth revisiting, but if you’re looking for a primer on the best of the best, read on for our list of some of Stiller’s most memorable Seinfeld moments.
“The Raincoats” (Season 5, Episodes 18 and 19)
One of the show’s more memorable narrative arcs zeroed in on the mutual distaste between Jerry’s parents and the Costanzas, with every crossed path highlighting just how irritating Frank can be. Even though the titular garment that makes up this two-parter’s plot device technically belongs to Jerry’s father Morty, “The Raincoats” is really a showcase for how Frank interacts with everyone around him — from the Seinfelds to his own bizarre kinship with Kramer (more on that in a minute), not to mention his always-tense interactions with his own son.
On its face, “The Doorman” is one of those Seinfeld episodes that seems impossible to describe with credulousness: Upon moving in with George following a temporary separation from Estelle, it’s revealed that Frank has …large breasts? Which leads him and Kramer to … try to sell bras together? It’s a plan so crazy it just might work, and it almost (key word being almost) does. But the episode’s brassiere-focused gambit ends up highlighting a commonality that makes Frank and Kramer such a perfect pair — specifically, a passion for a get-rich-quick scheme, as well as the ability to self-sabotage said scheme just by being themselves.
“A million to one, doc!” It says something that several Seinfeld episodes end with Stiller’s wild yell, including this one, in which Frank encounters a truly unfortunate mishap with Kramer’s famed pasta statue. Being able to effectively have the last word in an episode of comedic television is a mark of true talent, and whenever that person was Stiller, the roiling rage he elicited was the perfect button of hilarity for a show that rarely let up with the laughs. It was as much proof of not only Stiller’s own comedic genius, but also of the show’s keen awareness of the actor’s natural strengths.
Seinfeld often derived comic gold from parental squabbles — but few matched the true meeting of the minds represented in this episode, in which George’s parents meet Susan’s mother and father for the first time. Come for Frank’s irrepressible pettiness surrounding the titular bread, and stay for the uproarious dinner scene in which he goes toe-to-toe with Susan’s father (Warren Frost) about the particulars of poultry mating cycles.
Sometimes, Stiller’s appearances as Frank were marked by just a few lines of dialogue that captured the character in all his absurdist, mind-wandering glory — and “The Caddy” features one of those very moments. When George’s plan to attend work without actually attending work backfires, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner (voiced by co-creator Larry David off camera) visits the Costanzas’ home to inform them (incorrectly) that George is dead; the resulting back-and-forth between Steinbrenner and Frank about his management of the Yankees is brief, brilliant comic gold.
“SERENITY NOW!” The iconic catchphrase Stiller shouts throughout this episode in an attempt to relieve stress was inspired by writer Steve Koren hearing his own father scream it at the top of his lungs while arguing with his wife — but Stiller made it indisputably his (or Frank’s, rather). Right up to its chaotic final seconds, “The Serenity Now” proves that if there’s anything funnier than watching Frank Costanza let his rage fly, it’s witnessing him trying to keep everything together.
Sometimes, Stiller didn’t even need to physically appear in a Seinfeld episode to make an impact. Witness his off-camera voice work in this one — a fantastically ridiculous late-period installment that involves Jerry drugging his girlfriend so he, George, and Elaine can play with her toy collection — where Stiller’s hysterical yelling rings through the air during George’s screening of home videos from past family vacations. At this point in the show, Frank was such a guaranteed source of hilarity that even the sound of him alone could trigger deep belly laughs.
Such was the comedic power of Stiller’s performance as Frank that the character’s appearances in B-plots — such as in this episode, where Frank holds a traumatic celebration of his made-up “Festivus” holiday in the shadow of Kramer’s strike against the bagel shop he last worked at — ended up the most memorable aspects from those episodes. From “The Airing of Grievances” to “The Feats of Strength,” Frank’s Festivus gambit took strong hold in real-life popular culture, inspiring everything from emo-punk album titles to a book on the holiday itself (to which Stiller contributed a foreword).