Stream On: Precursors to Seinfeld, the show about nothing

By on April 30, 2020

Before there was Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza, there was Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. (IMDb.com)

In 1994, Jerry Seinfeld produced an NBC special about his love of Abbott and Costello. It made a lot of sense–“Bud” and “Lou” played two guys who stood around doing bits when they weren’t engaged in mundane activities that quickly escalated to the ridiculous.

I also see parallels in Seinfeld (which is available on Hulu and Amazon.com) to the fiction of P.G. Wodehouse, the English writer who wrote comic stories about directionless young people in the first half of the twentieth century.

I’m not alone; writer Brendan Boyle compared Seinfeld co-creator Larry David’s work to that of Wodehouse in a film review. Fortunately, many of Wodehouse’s stories have been made into TV series and films.

THE ABBOTT AND COSTELLO SHOW ($1.99/episode on Prime Video; Amazon.com; also on YouTube) 1952-1954 [TVG]

Comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, who had teamed up in 1936 to play in vaudeville, and gained national exposure on radio and made several popular movies, took a swing at the new medium of television in 1952. Entertainment Weekly called their show one of the “100 Greatest TV Shows of All Time” in 1998, and well they might. Bud and Lou played unemployed actors who hung around their apartment house, a threadbare “situation” indeed. Absurd and hilarious adventures ensued, involving the cast of regulars which included the neighbor on whom Lou had a crush, Hillary Brooke; the landlord, Sid Fields; Mr. Bacciagalupe, who had a vegetable cart in front of the apartment house; Mike the cop; and 50-year-old Joe Besser, who would later go on to replace Shemp Howard in the Three Stooges, as Stinky, a strange, cranky man-child, who dressed like Little Lord Fauntleroy.

For example, Lou planned to begin selling pots and pans door-to-door, using them to cook dinner in his prospective customers’ kitchens. He invites the others to Mr. Field’s kitchen, hoping to make his first sale, and by the end of the episode, has to shoot a floating roasted chicken out of the air, crashing out of the kitchen, where the gang are breathing bubbles, a result of Lou mistakenly grating soap onto the spaghetti side dish.

Even knowing the climax of the episode is no hindrance to its enjoyment (What’s up with the flying chicken?). You should still be ROTFL. Here’s a link to the full episode on YouTube.

From 1908 to 1974, P.G. Wodehouse wrote stories to amaze and delight. He characterized them as “musical comedies without the music.” (IMDb.com)

WODEHOUSE PLAYHOUSE (Amazon.com and YouTube) 1974-1978 [unrated]

P.G. Wodehouse himself introduced first-season episodes of this fun series, which were based on his own short stories, one episode per story. A British troupe comprising John Alderton, Pauline Collins, Geraldine Newman, Sally Thomsett and Liza Goddard appeared as various characters in Wodehouse’s delightful tales of young, upper-crust slackers in his own nostalgic world of the 1920’s and ’30’s (which, he admitted, never actually existed).

In “The Rise of Minna Nordstrom,” everyone wants to get into films in Hollywood, including Vera Prebble, a parlour maid. She is fired in succession by producers Jacob Schnellenhammer, Isadore Q Fishbein, and Ben Zizzbaum. In revenge, she blackmails them by threatening to tell police that they are drinking alcohol on their premises during Prohibition.

In “Tangled Hearts,” Smallwood Bessemer, indefatigable know-it-all and golf club bore (although he doesn’t play), and Carter Muldoon, are both dumped by their fiancées. The “Oldest Member” of the club tries fruitlessly to reconcile them, and the two men eventually become engaged to their opposite former girlfiends (Wikipedia).

If these Seinfeld-esque escapades remind you of Cosmo Kramer in Hollywood or playing golf with “the Caddy,” there’s a reason. Grown men and woman getting into hot water with parents, aunts and uncles (think Mr. and Mrs. Seinfeld, the Costanzas, Elaine’s father and Uncle Leo) reinforce the comparison. And the comedy is “gold, Jerry! Gold!”

Farce and the the comedy of the mundane, such as exactly how high one’s trousers should break over one’s shoes, were at the heart of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster. (IMDb.com)

JEEVES AND WOOSTER (Amazon.com and YouTube) 1990-1993 [TVPG]

What if Jerry Seinfeld had had a butler on his series? A genius butler who could save him from the follies in which he and his friends invariably found themselves? Before Jerry, there was Bertie Wooster (Hugh Laurie), a dimwitted aristocrat in 1930’s London who enjoyed partying, gambling, and hanging out at his club. Among his pals he counted Tuppy, Oofie, Gussie, Honoria, and Barmy Fotheringay Phipps, slackers all, and their eccentric parents, aunts and uncles, with which they struggled comically in their mundane but idiotic adventures, such as making book on the length of various ministers’ sermons in nearby parishes.

But Bertie and his pals had Jeeves (whose first name is only discovered by chance, in another Seinfeldian trope), to rescue them from their comic misadventures. He is the gentleman’s personal gentleman’s gentleman’s personal gentleman as it were. When Bertie first interviews him for butler, Jeeves (Laurie’s comic partner Stephen Fry) effortlessly cures Bertie’s vicious hangover, ensuring his hire, and ensuring delight for generations of readers, moviegoers and couch potatoes.

Next time, what’s Jerry Seinfeld done for us lately? Email me and follow Stream On OBX on Twitter and Pete Hummers on the Outer Banks Network.

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