By Adam Borch
The comedian Jerry Seinfeld is fond of cars. One need not look further than his successful show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (2012-) to get a sense of the enthusiasm that has led him to create a collection worth millions of dollars. However, when back in January 2021, the Metropolitan Transport Authority presented Seinfeld as one of twenty-five famous New Yorkers to voice the service announcements throughout the city’s public transit (PT) network, I was reminded that PT has also been a prominent part of his career. The show that made him truly famous – the eponymously named Seinfeld (1989-1998) – included plenty of cars, but there were also several memorable scenes which took place on different kinds of PT in New York, especially on the city’s subway system: the hunt for gyros at Queensboro Plaza in “The Cigar Store Indian” (season 5, episode 10), Kramer and Newman’s game of RISK in “The Label Maker” (s.6, ep.12) and Jerry dumping Ramon in “The Pool Guy” (s.7, ep.8), came to mind. So did, of course, that one episode which is set almost entirely on the subway and carries just that title, “The Subway” (s.3, ep.13).
Back in 2013, Jonathan Zeller wrote a piece for the Official Guide to New York commemorating the 15th anniversary of the airing of Seinfeld’s final episode. To mark the occasion, Zeller picked the “15 New Yorkiest episodes” of this “the New Yorkiest show of all time”. At the top of the list: “The Subway”. Obviously, Zeller’s article is only meant as a bit of fun which simultaneously celebrates the show and the city, but as the episode’s accredited writer, Larry Charles, tells on the DVD commentary, the aim was to capture something characteristic about life in New York: “I was very much interested in, could you tell a story that totally took place on a subway? It seemed like an urban, New York kind of a story.” That this, “the New Yorkiest show of all time”, should come closest to capturing the essence of the metropolis when the writers chose to tackle its PT system head on is a fascinating notion which deserves closer consideration.
“The Subway” first aired on 8 January 1992. It begins in media res. The four friends, Jerry, Elaine (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus), George (Jason Alexander) and Kramer (Michael Richards), are gathered over breakfast at their regular café, Monk’s, and, in what is perhaps one of the show’s most famous openings, we hear Kramer explain:
All right, Coney Island. Ok, you can take the B or the F and switch for the N at Broadway Lafayette, or you can go over the bridge to DeKalb and catch the Q to Atlantic Avenue, then switch to the IRT 2, 3, 4 or 5, but don’t get on the G. See that’s very tempting, but you wind up on Smith and 9th street, then you got to get on the R.
I will return to these rather perplexing directions a little later, and here only note that it’s Jerry who needs to go to Coney Island to pick up his car from the compound after it was stolen in a previous episode (”The Alternate Side”, s.3.ep.11). The three others also have appointments that require them to use the subway: Elaine is “the best man at a lesbian wedding”, George has a job interview and Kramer is going to court over a remarkable series of car fines. After a short ride on the subway together, the four split up and for the rest of the show we jump back and forth between their various journeys until they all finally reconvene in Monk’s.
Narratively, the initial scene in Monk’s and the first short ride on the subway work to set the scene for the episode while the final gathering acts as a sort of conclusion. (As was normal during the first seven seasons of the show, the main story is also enveloped by two scenes showing Jerry doing a standup routine in front of a live audience.) In between, we follow the four characters along entirely separate storylines, each of which is made up of a larger plot as well as one or two smaller comic incidents.
For example, on the way to his job interview, George meets an attractive woman (Barbara Stock) who manages to convince him to skip his appointment in favour of a bit of sexual dalliance at the Hotel Edison. The encounter turns sour as the woman is revealed to be a confidence trickster who, after having handcuffed her victim to the bed, robs him of his only suit, acquired, as George desperately declares, for “350 dollars […] at Moe Ginsburg!” That’s George’s main story. The smaller comic incident involves him getting stuck in the subway’s closing doors as he is leaving with the confidence trickster. As in George’s case, some of the smaller incidents are linked to the main story while others are more independent in nature (e.g., Kramer’s struggle to get a seat).
Giulio Mattioli says that “[a] defining feature of the public transport experience is co-presence with strangers” (2014: 58) and a red thread running through “The Subway” has to do with the comic incidents such co-presence can cause. And, particularly, the episode plays with situations where striking up a conversation with an anonymous subway traveler turns the table on everyone involved. In George’s case, for instance, the woman turns out to be a confidence trickster. But, of course, she has been played as well. When going through George’s wallet, she learns that he is not the successful, maverick stockbroker he claimed to be on the subway and that she has “wasted [her] whole morning […] for eight dollars” – plus the Moe Ginsburg suit.
In some respects, George and Jerry’s experiences can be seen as each other’s foil. George’s journey is characterized by deceit and dissimulation while Jerry’s trip is marked by a kind of transgressive honesty. Having boarded a train to Coney Island, Jerry falls asleep, much to the annoyance of the man next to him. On the seat opposite, a well-dressed, corpulent man (Ernie Sabella) also makes his opinion noticeable through a series of disapproving glances. This small comic anecdote about sleeping on the subway then merges into Jerry’s main story: waking up, he discovers that the corpulent man has stripped naked and that all the other passengers have cramped together in one end of the compartment. The ensuing exchange between the two is frank:
Jerry: O-K. You realize of course, you’re naked?
Corpulent man: Naked, dressed. I don’t see any difference.
J: You oughta’ sit here. There is a difference.
CM: You got something against naked body?
J: I got something against yours. How about a couple of deep knee bends, maybe a squat thrust?
CM: Who’s got time for squat thrusts?
J: All right, how about skipping breakfast. I’m guessing you’re not a ‘half-grapefruit and black coffee’ man?
CM: I like a good breakfast.
J: I understand, I like a good breakfast. Long as you don’t wind up trapped in a room in bib overalls and pigtails, being counseled by Dick Gregory.
CM: I’m not ashamed of my body.
J: Exactly. That’s your problem. You should be.
Surprisingly, this confrontation does not lead to further hostilities but friendly companionship. The next scene sees them bond over baseball – a discussion which ends with Jerry declaring that “If they [the Mets] win the pennant I’ll sit naked with you at the World Series” – before they leave the subway together to do the rides on Coney Island. The story concludes back in Monk’s where Jerry enthusiastically tells Elaine and Kramer about his trip:
Jerry: No, I never got the car. We were having such a good time, by the time I got to the police garage, it was closed.
Elaine: Too bad.
J: You wouldn’t believe what this guy put away at Nathan’s. Look at what we won!
[Waves around a stuffed monkey]
J: You want him?
E: Get that out of my face.
The reason for Elaine’s disgruntled response is that her own trip has been less positive. She missed the lesbian wedding because the train broke down, an incident captured in three amusing scenes constructed around her increasingly panicky internal monologue. On top of that, she has also had an encounter with a stranger which, like George’s, was not pleasant.
Before the breakdown, Elaine is approached by an elderly woman (Rhoda Gemignani) whose dark, fancy clothes and puffed hair turns out to match her rather conservative opinions. After an initial exchange about the loss of male gallantry on the subway, the woman takes an interest in Elaine’s wedding present:
Woman: Where are you up to, with such a nice present, birthday party?
Elaine: A wedding.
W: A wedding?
W: Hah, I didn’t know people still get married. It’s hard today with men and women.
E: You’re telling me.
W: So, are they a nice couple?
E: Oh, very nice.
W: What does he do, if you don’t mind me asking?
W: She? She works, he doesn’t. He sounds like my son.
E: There is no he.
W: There is no he. So, who’s getting married?
E: Em, two women. It’s, eh…a lesbian wedding.
W: Lesbian wedding?
E: Aha, yep. I’m the…eh…bestman.
W [talks to man next to her]: My luck. I don’t talk to a soul in the subway for 35 years. I get a best man at a lesbian wedding. [leaves]
E: No, no, no, you don’t understand! I’m not a lesbian! I hate men, but I’m not a lesbian!
The encounter has a negative outcome, as it does for George. But, unlike George, there is no deceit here. Both parties are as honest as Jerry and the corpulent man, but, ultimately, their differences can’t be reconciled in a similar manner.
The noteworthy thing about Elaine’s encounter with the elderly woman is how it moves from a seemingly private conversation to engaging the other passengers in the compartment. To begin with, when the woman laments how, in the forties, “a man would give up their seat for a woman”, she gives a blatant disapproving look to the man sitting next to where she’s standing. Similarly, as she learns where Elaine is going, she turns to another man with that disgruntled remark “My luck. I don’t talk to a soul in the subway for 35 years. I get a best man at a lesbian wedding.” As Elaine’s behaviour and the tone of her voice clearly indicates, this move, which turns the conversation from private to public, makes her highly uncomfortable and, although directed at the woman, her loud response – “No, no, no, you don’t understand! I’m not a lesbian! I hate men, but I’m not a lesbian!” – seems as much addressed to her as the rest of the compartment. Beyond capturing well the blurred distinctions between public and private on the subway, the scene also says a lot about Elaine’s character, her impulsive need to set the record straight to a group of strangers indicating that her own values might not be as progressive as her status as the best man at a lesbian wedding would otherwise suggest.
A Scary Ride
As noted, “The Subway” is enveloped by two scenes showing Jerry doing his standup routine. The first has nothing to do with PT, but the second does and it highlights another trait of the episode’s way of portraying the New York subway:
So I take the subway down to Coney Island to go on the Cyclone. I’m riding on the subway and I’m sitting on the D-train for an hour and fifteen minutes to go on a scary ride. Okay. How dumb is that? You know that first sharp drop on the Cyclone? Fell asleep.
The episode is a comic take on the experience of riding the New York subway, but several scenes evolve around incidents which could be said to be no laughing matter. The most striking example occurs during Kramer’s trip.
Like Jerry, George and Elaine, Kramer’s story evolves around encounters with strangers, although it is based less on dialogue than Michael Richards’ excellent physical comedy. In his main storyline, one such encounter also ends up turning the table on everyone involved. Kramer overhears two men discussing a horserace tip and, subsequently, decides to drop his appointment in court to place the bet. Having won, he is tracked by a thuggish looking man (Christopher Collins) from the bookie on to the subway where the inevitable robbery is prevented by an undercover cop. The surprising turn of events: the cop is the blind beggar Jerry, Elaine and Kramer tipped at the beginning of the episode and who, ironically, George correctly declared not to be blind. (The irony being that George’s ability to spot an imposter deserts him as soon as he is flattered by an attractive woman.)
An attempted robbery is highly unpleasant, as are several of the other incidents that occur during the episode. Falling victim to a confidence trickster (George) is something most people would find distressing. Likewise, I imagine most prefer to travel on PT without getting caught in the closing doors (George); being stuck in an overcrowded compartment (Elaine); or seeing one of their fellow passengers strip naked (Jerry). The seriousness of these incidents is, of course, undercut by the comic nature of the show. For example, it is possible to laugh freely at George getting stuck in the subway’s closing doors because, basically, it exposes him: the mask of the successful, maverick stockbroker drops to reveal his true, panicky, neurotic self. Elaine’s story works somewhat similarly whereas the comedy of Jerry’s scenes is built more on his wit. However, the attempted robbery on Kramer pulls in the other direction. The scene strikes a curiously grave, almost sentimental note which feels incongruous with what the episode (and indeed the entire show) has to say about life in New York.
‘The New Yorkiest of Episodes’
At the beginning, I noted how, in 2013, Jonathan Zeller described “The Subway” as the “New Yorkiest” episode of “the New Yorkiest show of all time”. To illustrate what is so quintessentially New York about the episode, Zeller pointed to Kramer’s perplexing directions at the beginning, claiming they show that “native New Yorkers must have been behind the episode”. This is true, of course. Seinfeld and his co-creator Larry David as well as Larry Charles were all born and raised in Brooklyn. Also, Kramer’s directions are correct and so is Elaine’s terse response: “Couldn’t he just take the D straight to Coney Island?”. However, the portrayal of the subway isn’t always accurate. For example, the station footage and train décor suggest that the four friends split up at the Grand Central-42nd Street station with Kramer continuing on line 1 to South Ferry and Jerry on a non-stop train to Coney Island. But, line 1 does not pass the Grand Central-42nd Street station and neither are there trains straight to Coney Island from there. Likewise, after having won on the horses, Kramer reenters line 1 to South Ferry, but, when chased by the thug, he suddenly goes to being on line 5 to Utica Avenue, seemingly without having left the train. Moreover, the compartments do not resemble New York trains, a result of the episode not being shot on location but at CBS Studio Center in Los Angeles. The point here is not to nitpick, because, overall, I think the episode works very well. Rather, I want to suggest that what is so particularly New York about the episode has less to do with factual accuracy than with how it captures the experience of travelling on the subway.