If there were any actual detractors to The Puffy Shirt being selected as Seinfeld’s representation in the Smithsonian Institute, I was among them. After nine seasons, I believed Seinfeld deserved better than a good sight gag; it deserved a shrine, a wing, a monument. However, when reviewing all those seasons, it was difficult to find many other objects that would be an even quasi-worthy representation of the show. The Fusilli Jerry is too small and too insignificant. The Kramer or George in his underwear is too obvious and too commercialized. The Cigar Store Indian was probably too controversial. (Are Smithsonian curators the easily offended type? I say yes, but I could see it being the polar opposite.) The Junior Mint would have been a hilarious selection, but too few people actually remember the episode; same thing with The Mango. Down through all 180 episodes, each item seemed too inconsequential because Seinfeld is, apart from Kramer’s ill-conceived inventions and business ventures, a show of physical and verbal comedy that uses props but isn’t wholly dependent upon the prop.
And wouldn’t you know it, weeks after the enshrinement of The Puffy Shirt, the episode came on. I sat and genuinely laughed at all the jokes, despite it being the fourth or fifth time I’ve seen the episode. That’s one of the beautiful aspects of Seinfeld, after all. And right about when George sadly wallowed back to his parents’ place in Queens, the enshrinement of the Puffy Shirt made sense to me. You see, they weren’t enshrining the shirt; they were enshrining the episode, or so I like to think. And again, I went back through the 180 episodes in search of a better one to be enshrined. Undoubtedly, some were funnier than The Puffy Shirt. (My favorites are The Limo, The Serenity Now, The Andrea Doria, The Van Buren Boys, and The Frogger. I believe 80% of the world would list The Soup Nazi as their favorite.) However, I submit to you, not a single episode was more important to the vitality of the show than The Puffy Shirt.
Most important to the credibility of this claim is the position of the Puffy Shirt within the grand scheme of the show. It’s the second episode of the fifth season. There have been a few great three season shows. (The chief example, Arrested Development, is about to leave that category with the fourth season having been announced to the delight of all.) At four seasons, maybe the show has got a stew going, or maybe it’s just been a dead four years for that channel and it’s the tent pole by default. If the show makes it to the fifth season, it has reached syndication heaven and everyone is set for life. But that doesn’t mean the show picks up steam; if anything it’s the opposite (see: How I Met Your Mother and Weeds). Seinfeld was probably always destined to be a great show, seeing as nearly every episode was funny from start to finish, but the longevity and, ultimately, the legacy of the show may have been radically different if not for The Puffy Shirt. As you hopefully know, Seinfeld lasted nine seasons—well, eight and a half if you don’t count five episodes as a season. (And I don’t, season one.) Sure, George righted the ship after a sudden revelation in The Opposite at the end of season five and moved out of his parents’ place, but just having moved back in with the most grating mother and father in the history of sitcoms irrevocably changed his persona. And when you change one character in Seinfeld, you change all of them, even though the characters don’t really care about people in the conventional sense. (Example: “I’m there for you” being used as a manipulative tool.) In The Conversion, George experiences the unthinkable fear of living in a house with people who think he’s become a religious heretic. He watches their marriage unfold firsthand in The Chinese Woman, not through hearsay or phone conversations as people in their 30’s should discover such a divorce – well, he found out through the rhines being crossed, but eventually it was a direct experience. Although it seemed impossible, George realized he could be an even bigger loser than he had been before the move-in. And as horrifying as the experience was for George, it was doubly unfair to his friends who did nothing to invoke loserdom. Remember that Jerry is Even Steven and that his friends balance out his life. Well, if George’s life is in the tank, the lives of everyone else can only be OK at best. Elaine and Jerry want to disparage all of George’s shortcomings, but even doing so, they have to recognize that this is one of their three closest friends. It’s the equivalent of laughing at that idiot with a tattoo and then realizing it’s a mirror. (Kramer is excluded from causing embarrassment because it was well-known that he was not of this earth, which explained his loyalty to the Lloyd Brauns and Newmans.)
As mentioned before, but never expounded upon, there couldn’t have been a better timing for George to move in. If the show began with him moving back with his parents, the viewer would only see the rise or stagnation of George Costanza. If he moved back in with his parents in the final season, it would have seemed like a Hail Mary to save a dying show. (It’s not like Larry David feared season five was the last. The show had big ratings and the adoration of the media by then.)
The Puffy Shirt did not just illustrate the fall of George Constanza and friends; it illustrated how much further there was to fall than they already had.
Now that they were at George’s level, their world was opened up to a whole new pool of losers: Lloyd Braun the failure in The Gum, The Pool Guy in The Pool Guy, their drug sniffing accountant, Jimmy, the understudy, a friggin’ cockfighting ring, etc. Before The Puffy Shirt, the only loser that had had an entire episode centered on him was The Bubble Boy. In other words, The Puffy Shirt brought tragedy and tragedy in the Seinfeldian world meant glory.
The hours spent having meaningless conversation in the coffee shop and in Jerry’s apartment were filled with George’s exasperation, dejection, and outlandish arm flailing. Jerry and Elaine kept the steady hum of sadness moving with their reactions to his problems. Kramer fell down, made a weird noise, or had a kooky one-liner. (I hope I’m not disparaging Kramer because God knows I love his character to death, especially his long theories on modern society. Plus, Michael Richards has been through enough criticism.) In any case, that was Seinfeld. It wasn’t just a show about nothing; it was a show about nobodies saying nothing. George moving in with his parents brought the conversations down lower and raised the ceiling for the show’s hilarity even higher. None of the four can come back from living with their parents, even if only in a vicarious way for three of them. All of their future successes will be caked with the lingering fears of failure, and those fears will be intensified now that they know just how humiliating and awkward the experience truly is.