Hello! Here’s another top picks piece before the year is out. Bruce Kirschbaum is a writer known for his brief stint on Everybody Loves Raymond and Seinfeld. In fact his last name is what inspired Rabbi Kirschbaum, a funny recurring character on Seinfeld from seasons 7 through 9. This list, again, only consists of the writer’s solo credits so Seinfeld’s “The Old Man” (in which he only received ‘Story by’ credit) and his co-credit on season 6’s “The Switch” will not be included. Keep in mind for this post, the episodes listed here are all absolutely excellent so take my rankings with a grain of salt.
I hope you enjoy and everyone have a wonderful holiday!
3. Everybody Loves Raymond “The Ball” (Season 1)
In the series’ first Christmas episode, Debra is getting rid of old stuff for a charity drive and Ray discovers his Mickey Mantle autographed baseball (which was given to him when he was a kid by his father) has mistakenly been thrown in. Ray reminisces with the ball, explaining to Debra how much it has meant to him and how it influenced his career as a sports writer. It wasn’t shortly before this that Ray’s friend Andy stops by and proposes the idea that the autograph might be fake due to a recent story on 60 Minutes reporting that nearly 70% of Mantle’s signed balls were done by various trainers back then. Of course Ray later goes across the street to approach his father on the subject only for Frank to reveal, quite bluntly, that the autograph was a fake.
It’s then in the second act when the story begins to focus more on one’s innocence and the theme of ‘truth vs. lies’ where Ray who is clearly upset over the ball, vows to never lie to his own children. Ally, his five year old daughter, then poses the question of whether Santa exists leading Ray, much to Debra’s dismay, to become dangerously close to giving a truthful answer. It’s at this point, I can’t tell so much if Ray is acting like this as a way to help Debra understand how distraught he is over the fake autograph or if he truly believes this new stance in parenting, but there’s no mistaking how hurt he is and how transparent his own inner-child is on display here. Despite Ray’s line in the opening credits, “It’s not really about the kids”, the adult characters oftentimes do carry a significant amount of their childhood with them and when the actual kids are featured more prominently, it’s actually handled quite well. Particularly in this episode, Ally shines in the spotlight as Robert and Frank both show up as Santa by accident and argue over who’s the genuine article.
“Why did they do that?” – Ally
“Oh honey it’s just because Grandpa and Uncle Robert love you so much and they just want you to have a wonderful Christmas, hmm?” – Debra
“Oh.” (joyfully exits) – Ally
She performs well in the end also when Ray, dressed as Santa, stops by her bedroom in the middle of the night to tuck her in. A scene that makes for a sweet conclusion to the episode, even with the button joke of Ray stubbing his toe on the way out and singing Fa-la-la-la-la in the means to censor his initial expletive, which Ally adorably sings along to.
Of course, this comes after the episode’s emotional climax between Ray and his father, when Ray comes back to confront Frank on the phony autograph he lied about. Frank explains quite matter-of-factly how he waited for five games by the stadium door only for Mickey to never show up so he practiced the signature over and over until it looked real, so as to not to disappoint Ray. It’s a scene that succeeds on its stillness and emotional beat so transcribing doesn’t quite give it justice. It operates like a great, sincere stage play and you can feel the pull of heartstrings from the studio audience in that moment, especially when Ray decides to keep the ball as a memento of his father’s efforts and leans in to kiss him on the forehead. A subtle touch in the development of Ray Romano, the actor, and Ray Barone, the character, as Romano initially felt strongly that the kiss personally wouldn’t translate as honest or real coming from him, but because it felt right for the character in the moment of filming, he went for it.
“The Ball” can arguably be a bit heavy-handed in spots but it’s a great episode regardless and contributes early on to show the range and level of depth the show can reach. What I love about Everybody Loves Raymond is it’s one of the last great sitcoms that commits to a single A story and strictly sits with it, really fleshing an episode out in the process with both comedy and drama. It never pads itself with unrelated subplot which is something that becomes signature to the show. That’s not to say you can’t churn out good television with subplot but keeping to this principle is a style I really admire.
2. Everybody Loves Raymond “The Dog” (Season 1)
On paper, finding a lost dog and falling in love with him/her, only for the owner to show up to introduce the conflict of letting go, is a typical well-trodden sitcom plot. It’s the kind of story that’s easier to stomach in a show’s first season if done right compared to a later season where it becomes glaring the show is desperate for ideas. What makes it work in Everybody Loves Raymond’s first season is primarily the episode is more about Ray’s recently divorced, sad sack brother, Robert and the loneliness he carries which the lost bulldog is simply meant to help establish and complement rather than serve as a cute gimmick. It helps that the bulldog shares similar, physical qualities with Robert’s character and that Robert once had a bulldog named after New York Met, Art Shamsky*, who their parents had to give away when they were younger due to Ray’s allergies.
*It’s nice to see Kirschbaum continue the runner of Robert’s identification/associatioin towards Art Shamsky since it was revealed in the episode “The Ball” that his autograph was from Shamsky instead of Ray’s more prized Mickey Mantle. Something Robert admits to not having a problem with back then considering Shamsky homered his first major league at bat.
“Then after that, right into the dumper” – Robert
The first act shows Ray bring the lost dog home with an endless string of quirky, well-written quips as he tries his hardest to convince Debra why keeping the dog can only be good for them, despite the fact that it’s tough as it is to raise three kids. You can see the child in Ray, who like Robert, would want the dog just as much now that he’s grown and his allergies have subsided. It’s sweet and entertaining, but most importantly makes it all the more of a gracious gesture when he finally decides to give the dog to Robert, who would make for a more compatible and fulfilled owner. However, what raises the stakes emotionally is how instead of Ray just having to give back the dog to its rightful owner (an elderly breeder, Phyllis), he has to go across the street to take back the dog from Robert. After such a warm exchange between these two brothers who are usually at odds with one another, it’s painful to watch and the show is not afraid to allow long pauses to let you feel that.
The stakes are also raised comically though as it turns out Frank and Marie had the dog fixed (“This was probably my mother’s idea. This is sort of a hobby of hers” – Ray). I love that when Phyllis sees the dog she excitedly runs over towards him but Ray intercepts by picking her up and spinning her around as a pathetic way to keep her from seeing the now fixed dog. He awkwardly plays it off as if it’s because he’s excited having reunited them, but what’s funny is that it’s a stall that can only last so long considering she breeds dogs for a living. And just as you might expect, not even a few seconds pass since she’s out the door before she comes barging back in to demand money. I like this twist, both comedically and narratively, because it’s such a turn in the sweet, elderly woman’s character as she completely rejects the dog as useless, but also provides such a push forward in anxiety for the story which ultimately sets up Ray’s next big gesture. A gesture being that he will now pay $2,000 for this “useless” dog in order to make it up to his brother.
This is pretty much what I like about “The Dog” mainly because it doesn’t rely on its fuzzy spectacle (although there’s nothing wrong with that as a secondary effect), but instead is meant to drive a story of a relationship between brothers. It’s a script that doesn’t feel required to return to the status quo by giving the dog up to its owner (Shamsky II is shown in several episodes in the future), but instead fights tooth and nail to keep the dog and naturally explore the depth of character in the process. Altogether, it’s a funny, down to earth episode worth checking out that takes such a traditional premise, risky in its own conventions, but which achieves an impressive authenticity.
1. Seinfeld “The Conversion” (Season 5)
“The Conversion” consists of, as most usual, four plots that follow Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer. The most noteworthy being George’s story where he heedlessly decides to convert to the Latvian Orthodox faith in order to impress a woman. Most closely related, Kramer picks up a romantic vibe from the church’s soon-to-be nun, Sister Roberta, which he attributes to a power he possesses, or Kavorka, which the priest later describes as “the lure of the animal”. The episode has a lot of fun using Kirschbaum’s seemingly made-up religion (he got ‘thank you’ letters from a real Latvian Orthodox church some time after it aired) and uses George to channel series’ co-creator Larry David’s innocent lack of mindfulness towards religious customs. George’s ultimate goal is to woo a woman, played by Jana Marie Hupp, who in the beginning of the episode gives a satirical rendering on the over-dramatized hangups of how one’s parents can needlessly dictate the outcome of a relationship. In the season where George had to move back in with his parents, this is just another fine contribution to George being his own comic foil as he pathetically attempts to weasel his way around the pitfalls of society.
Meanwhile Jerry is dating a girl, Tawni, who is subletting the apartment down the hall while Elaine is dating a podiatrist. Both plots intersect as Jerry peeks into Tawni’s medicine cabinet to find a mysterious tube of fungicide so Jerry suggests that Elaine ask the podiatrist what it might be used for. There’s a subtle story beat that’s planted very early on where Jerry and Elaine get into a discussion of podiatrists vs. doctors after Elaine confides that her boyfriend put his hand on her heart to check her heart rate.
“On your heart?”
“Jerry, the man is a doctor.”
“Doctor… He’s a podiatrist.”
“So? Same thing.
“Anyone can get into podiatry school. GEORGE got into podiatry school.”
It’s this brief exchange that later stews in Elaine’s head when she’s about to inquire about the tube of fungicide, causing her to casually correct her boyfriend when he pronounces himself as a doctor. This leads to an argument that prevents Jerry from receiving any information on the tube. It’s funny how much story is generated over something so trivial but that’s what Seinfeld has always been brilliant at and at the same time the subplot takes hilarious opportunity in traversing the topic of medicine cabinets and the unspoken rule of not opening someone else’s:
What I really appreciate about Jerry’s subplot is the airy naivety in actress, Kimberly Campbell’s performance as Tawni. That, combined with the rare display of seeing the apartment conveniently down the hall in which she’s subletting, sets a soft, feathery tone to a story that revolves around the attempt to discover “the catch” or mysterious flaw in someone. Even when it’s revealed that the fungicide is for her cat, Jerry is never called out for his superficiality or violation of her privacy. Usually we’re shown how his relationships blow up in his face, but here she just kind of evaporates, never to be seen again. Not that we were meant to, but by not explaining it, it helps add to the aura of curiosity that’s emitted from her character.
If anyone was punished, it ironically was Elaine who, throughout the entire episode was against Jerry’s snooping and incessant need to reveal the truth behind the tube of fungicide. After Jerry mistakenly pockets the tube, he gives it to Elaine to pass on to the podiatrist, only for the podiatrist to come across it in Elaine’s medicine cabinet before she had a chance to show him. The comedic payoff is great here as this underdeveloped one-time character looks into the bathroom mirror with the same distraught suspicion that Jerry initially had towards Tawni, thus painting Jerry, and men in general, in the same one-dimensional camp. All in good fun.
It’s tough to place a Seinfeld and an Everybody Loves Raymond episode side by side because both comedies, while similar in having a comedian as the lead, are both completely different from one another. The former being a sitcom showcasing four adult friends that proudly follows the mantra of “No hugging, no learning” while the latter edgily explores family dynamics, superbly embracing sincerity and emotion in its storytelling. Seinfeld is also a show renowned for its use of multiple, often converging subplots so to put “The Conversion” as my #1 almost feels dismissive to Everybody Loves Raymond’s method of building an episode around a singular main plot in which it excels at. I assure you that in my thorough consideration, I do not prefer one style over another.
For me, it comes down to what stands out and packs the most punch, despite them all accomplishing this in one form or another. I take note in the fact that “The Conversion” is an episode that comes from season 5 when the series was at a peak matured state, while the previous mentioned Raymond episodes, while surprisingly well-developed for a show in its first season (definitely above and beyond Seinfeld’s first), is still not quite the best the show will later have to offer. Therefore, they aren’t quite as stream-lined for the rapid-fire humor and narrative that Seinfeld’s “The Conversion” effortlessly provides.
What I think made Seinfeld so successful in its own right is that despite it constantly paddling against the current of social norms and following the seemingly cold “No hugging, no learning” standard, the show at its best still feels warm. The characters are identifiable and are drawn into each other’s lives for a reason. In their day-to-day, Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer choose to meet up ritually and disclose their exclusive conflicts to one another. They might not all be on the same page but they do get together and riff. Even with a sense of withdraw existing between each character, there’s a comedic tension that can only derive from some undefinable sense of warmth. When George vocally pours his heart out and contemplates converting to the Latvian Orthodox faith, Jerry and Elaine are shown more preoccupied with picking from George’s leftover lobster. It’s funny due to the restraint of consolation, but it’s not mean-spirited. It’s still warm. The fact that the show is able to offer this without bringing love and sentiment into it is pretty remarkable. It’s a celebrated trait that I feel is on full display in this particular episode and for that, along with the amount of laughs that would only be tedious to list, I tip my hat.