Best ‘Seinfeld’ episodes: Festivus, the puffy shirt and plenty more
From a Chinese restaurant to Festivus, here are our picks for the best ‘Seinfeld’ episodes ever.
Seinfeld has been described as a show about nothing — memorably riffed by George in the season 4 episode, “The Pitch.” However, anyone who has watched the classic ‘90s sitcom knows there was a whole lot of something going on.
Created by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, Seinfeld premiered on NBC in 1989 and ran for nine seasons and 180 episodes. The show starred Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jason Alexander and Michael Richards, along with guest stars that would go on to become big stars in their own right (Bryan Cranston, Courtney Cox, Catherine Keener, Debra Messing, James Spader and Bob Odenkirk, to name a few).
In honor of Festivus — the made-up holiday on Dec. 23 that became an annual tradition for Seinfeld fans — we decided to take a look at our favorite episodes. Taking into account lasting cultural relevance, how it impacted the art of sitcoms and, ultimately, just how funny the episode is, here is What to Watch’s 10 best Seinfeld episodes, in order of air date. You can watch all nine seasons of Seinfeld right now on Netflix.
“The Chinese Restaurant” (season 2 episode 11)
The first season of Seinfeld was only five episodes. So, even into the second season, Seinfeld was still trying to find its rhythm. The episode that did it was “The Chinese Restaurant.” The concept is so simple — Jerry, George and Elaine try to grab dinner before they see a movie, but it essentially turns into a sitcom version of Waiting for Godot. Elaine is starving, George keeps trying to make a call and the maître d' (played by James Hong) keeps telling them it’ll just be about 5-10 minutes. Seinfeld did another great single-location episode in season 3, “The Parking Garage,” but “The Chinese Restaurant” was the first truly great episode of the show and set the tone for what was to come.
“The Boyfriend Part I & II” (season 3, episodes 17 & 18)
When a parody of something becomes as recognizable, or arguably more, as the thing it originally set out to parody, it speaks to the brilliance of the former. This is what happens with the JFK-inspired “magic loogie” scene from the two-part season 3 episode “The Boyfriend.” Jerry iconically debunking Kramer and Newman’s spitting story, involving guest star and Mets legend Keith Hernandez, is funny no matter how many times you watch it or — for that matter, even if you’ve never seen JFK. “The Boyfriend” is not a one-joke pony though. The running gag of Jerry and Keith’s budding friendship mirroring that of a romantic relationship is fantastic. We also can’t forget Vandelay Industries drummed up by George and the iconic ending of the first of the two-parter.
“The Contest” (season 4, episode 11)
Every so often a TV show comes along and pushes the boundary of what you can talk about on TV. Seinfeld’s moment came when Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer all attempted to be, as they put it (ahem), master of their domain. From Kramer’s quick exit to the temptations faced by the other three — most memorably George going gaga over a silhouetted sponge bath of a neighboring patient as his mother (the always fantastic Estelle Harris) lays in a hospital bed. The episode was so popular for fans that Larry David and company felt it deserved a callback in the season finale.
“The Junior Mint” (season 4, episode 20)
Sometimes, you just have to enjoy the pure silliness of a Seinfeld episode, and perhaps there are few better examples of that than “The Junior Mint.” The episode gets its title for the classic candy, which somehow Kramer sneaks into an operating room viewing section. When he offers one to Jerry, the two get in a bit of a shoving match and the candy goes flying into the open cavity of the patient. Don’t worry, it miraculously saved his life because, as Kramer points out, “it’s chocolate, it’s peppermint. It’s delicious. … They’re very refreshing.” Yet somehow perhaps even sillier is Jerry not remembering the name of the woman he is dating and trying to suss it out by the vague clue she mentions off the cuff about it rhyming with a female body part (Mulva is still not a good guess, Jerry). Seinfeld season 4 was the show's only win for Outstanding Comedy at the Emmys, and “The Junior Mint” is right up there for best examples of the show at its peak.
“The Puffy Shirt” (season 5, episode 2)
Seinfeld has shown us examples of a close-talker and a high-talker in its run, but probably the best style of speech featured was the low-talker, if not only for it giving us the puffy shirt. When George and Elaine go out to dinner with Kramer’s new fashion designer girlfriend, Kramer leaves for a moment and Jerry isn’t able to hear what the low-talker is saying. Not wanting to appear rude, he nods his head in agreement. He soon learns that what he has unknowingly agreed to is to wear her pirate-inspired puffy shirt on The Today Show, leading to the iconic line of “But I don’t wanna be a pirate.” The puffy shirt is now in the Smithsonian. If that doesn’t speak to the legacy of Seinfeld (and, in turn, this episode) I’m not quite sure what does.
“The Marine Biologist” (season 5, episode 14)
“The sea was angry that day my friends, like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli.” That begins one of the greatest monologues in TV history, as George recounts his incredible rescue of a beached whale. How we got there involves Jerry trying to impress an old high-school crush for George by saying he became a marine biologist and Kramer’s misadventures practicing his golf game. Up until those final moments, “The Marine Biologist” is a good episode of Seinfeld, but, when George pulls out the golf ball and Kramer sheepishly asks if it is a Titleist, it took on iconic status. No less impressive is Jason Alexander recounting how the monologue came to be recently on a podcast.
“The Opposite” (season 5, episode 22)
By the end of the fifth season, Seinfeld had firmly planted itself as one of the best sitcoms on TV, and the audience had a pretty good sense of the characters and what we can expect to happen to them. That’s what makes “The Opposite” so good. It takes George — someone who always tries to cover up his worst impulses only for everything to blow up in the end anyway — and sees him go against his nature and finally succeed. This leads to his job at the Yankees, which would give us plenty of good jokes for the next couple of seasons. It also is wondrously mirrored by Elaine, who comes to the ghastly realization at the end of the episode that after she has been fired is now the George of the group. Of course, all this lasts the course of the episode and everyone reverts back to their old ways, but the half-hour upended what audiences came to expect of Seinfeld’s main characters.
“The Soup Nazi” (season 7, episode 6)
You probably don’t know who Larry Thomas is offhand, but if I were to mention the Soup Nazi, you know exactly who I am talking about and there’s about a 90% chance you blurted out “No soup for you!” Thomas played Yev Kassem, the demanding chef better known as the Soup Nazi on the eponomously named Seinfeld season 7 episode. While there have always been great supporting characters on Seinfeld, it is an extremely rare occurrence when one of those supporting characters so dramatically overshadows the main quartet. It’s not easy even remembering the other plots of this episode (for some reason Elaine needed a new armoire while Jerry and his girlfriend for the episode call each other an annoying pet name). The Soup Nazi demanded perfection from his customers, but he delivered it as a character.
“The Yada Yada” (season 8, episode 19)
After first being widely featured in this episode of Seinfeld, the phrase “yada yada” has become commonly used in people’s conversations as a great way to skip over the boring or routine parts of a story. Of course in this episode it becomes an annoyance to George when he thinks the woman he is seeing used “yada yada” to omit an instance of cheating. We also get a pair of fun repeat guest appearances from Bryan Cranston’s Tim Whatley and Debra Messing’s Beth Lukner, long a romantic pursuit of Jerry’s, plus an always reliably funny dynamic between Kramer and Mickey. You need a lot of great things to have a great Seinfeld episode, yada, yada, yada, this is one of the best.
“The Strike,” (season 9, episode 10)
Kramer’s strike of H&H Bagels may be the inspiration for the title of this Seinfeld season 9 episode, but it will always be known as the Festivus episode. When Kramer learns about the holiday Frank Costanza has created, featuring a bare pole for decoration (he finds tinsel distracting), the airing of grievances and ending with the traditional feats of strength, he is immediately intrigued and convinces Frank to host a celebratory dinner, much to George’s chagrin. While there are some fun other subplots, particularly George attempting to create a fake charity in order to get out of giving office Christmas gifts, it all comes back to Festivus.
Every mocking wish of “Happy Festivus” to George, allusions to Festivus’ legendary beginning and the final climactic dinner that Frank begins with the all-time classic line “I’ve got a lot of problems with you people!” is the Christmas (or Festivus) gift that keeps on giving for Seinfeld fans.
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Michael Balderston is a DC-based entertainment and assistant managing editor for What to Watch, who has previously written about the TV and movies with TV Technology, Awards Circuit and regional publications. Spending most of his time watching new movies at the theater or classics on TCM, some of Michael's favorite movies include Casablanca, Moulin Rouge!, Silence of the Lambs, Children of Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Star Wars. On the TV side he enjoys Peaky Blinders, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Saturday Night Live, Only Murders in the Building and is always up for a Seinfeld rerun. Follow on Letterboxd.