The comedy world is mourning the loss of Jerry Stiller, who died this week at the age of 92. Stiller’s career in show business spanned half a century, and included work on Broadway, television, and film. Stiller and his wife Anne Meara were a beloved comedy duo all through the 1960s and ’70s; later, he appeared on almost 200 episodes of the popular sitcom The King of Queens.
Still, for me and a lot of people, Jerry Stiller will be remembered as George Costanza’s splenetic father Frank on Seinfeld. Stiller didn’t appear on the series until it was already halfway into its run on NBC; he wasn’t even the first guy to play George’s dad. (That was actor John Randolph, in the Season 4 episode “The Handicap Spot.”) But once Stiller debuted in Seinfeld, it was impossible to imagine the show without him. Frank made George richer and more believable in his neuroses and pettiness. And Stiller made Frank maybe the funniest supporting character on a series with an extraordinarily deep bench of comedic talent.
Jerry Stiller appeared as Frank Costanza in just about 30 Seinfeld episodes, so I decided to honor him today by ranking every single one in ascending order from yadda yadda yadda to the master of its domain — not necessarily by the overall quality of the episode, but by their respective Frank Costanzaness. Watching these loud, abrasive clips will certainly not bring you serenity now. But they will remind you of how hysterically funny Jerry Stiller was — and why he will always be an important part of Seinfeld’s legacy.
“The Merv Griffin Show” (Season 9, Episode 6)
Jerry Stiller made two uncredited vocal cameos over the course of Seinfeld’s nine season run, both involving flashbacks to George’s childhood. Neither one is particularly memorable. In “The Merv Griffin Show,” George, Jerry, and Elaine wind up watching old Costanza home movies (it’s a long story) which involve Frank yelling at George. Duh.
“The Fire” (Season 5, Episode 20)
Stiller’s other vocal cameo is basically the same joke; a brief flashback to George’s 7th birthday party, with Frank yelling “Blow out the candles!” at his shellshocked son. Trust me, the best is yet to come.
“The Andrea Doria” (Season 8, Episode 10)
For all their appearances on Seinfeld, Frank and Estelle rarely showed up at the gang’s beloved Monk’s Coffee Shop. A rare and otherwise unremarkable exception came in Season 8’s “The Andrea Doria,” where George wants to pepper his parents for stories of his childhood to use as part of the interview process for a new apartment. The Costanzas ultimately tell him nothing; they bicker about a draft in the restaurant and George realizes he has all the material he needs. It’s one of the few times Seinfeld totally whiffed on a really good premise — in this case, hearing some stories of George’s disastrous childhood.
“The Finale” (Season 9, Episodes 23 and 24)
The Seinfeld finale was a notorious creative flop, and the Costanzas are just two members of the very large supporting cast in it, returning for what amounts to a big curtain call for the series’ most beloved characters and bits. Frank and Estelle have a couple brief scenes with George before he and the gang head off to Paris, and during the big courtroom set piece, Stiller gets to yell the classic line “How could you give $12 million to Hideki Irabu?!” at George Steinbrenner, a variation of a previous altercation between the two.
“The Opposite” (Season 5, Episode 22)
“The Opposite” is one of the very best Seinfeld episodes, but it’s not much a showcase for the Costanzas, who make a brief, surprisingly muted appearance to show off another element of George’s new philosophy to do the opposite of his instinct in every situation — namely, he tells them he loves them both very much as he moves out of their house.
“The Junk Mail” (Season 9, Episode 5)
One of the Costanzas’ final appearances was this underwhelming appearance where they keep dodging George, and then finally admit they’re sick of him. It’s more out-of-character than George doing the opposite and telling Frank and Estelle he loves him, but it’s at least worth watching for Stiller’s casual delivery of the line “Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to make love to your mother.”
“The Fatigues” (Season 8, Episode 6)
“The Fatigues” is easily the most disappointing of Frank’s showcase episodes, this one involving his past as a cook in the Korean War. Frank served spoiled meat to his men, which left him traumatized for decades. The war flashback, which is one big spoof of Platoon, might have been Seinfeld’s attempt to recapture the magic of its JFK spoof in “The Boyfriend.” Unfortunately, this sequel doesn’t come close to the original, and the usually unstoppable Stiller looks a little lost in his sequences.
“The Money” (Season 8, Episode 12)
A brief glimpse of the Costanza boudoir is the highlight of this Season 8 episode. Beware the Jimmy Arms!
“The Shower Head” (Season 7, Episode 15)
The long-simmering feud between the Costanzas and the Seinfelds escalated in “The Shower Head,” with the former debating whether to move into the latter’s new senior community, and the latter lying to the former about the availability of condos. It’s probably a good indication of this episode’s quality that the actual storyline is less famous than the wonderful outtakes of Stiller fumbling the name of the condo community, “Del Boca Vista.”
“The Non-Fat Yogurt” (Season 5, Episode 7)
George’s feud with his old childhood friend Lloyd Braun first reared its head here, with Frank dazzled by Lloyd’s connections to the Mayor. Stiller’s better when he’s angrier.
“The Little Kicks” (Season 8, Episode 4)
After George is arrested for bootlegging, Frank comes to jail to bail him out. That prompts a fiery confrontation with Elaine building to a full-on fight — but the episode cuts to credits before the actual brawl takes place. That would have been spectacular; without it, this is another one where the outtakes are funnier than the actual scene.
“The Engagement” (Season 7, Episode 1)
George announcing his engagement to Frank and Estelle produced only a so-so scene, with the Costanzas reacting with more confusion than anything else. The whole discussion devolving into bickering is at least on point.
“The Serenity Now” (Season 9, Episode 3)
Frank’s bellowing of “Serenity now!” — supposedly to help him manage his stress level and lower his blood pressure — is basically a one-joke storyline. But Stiller’s caterwauling delivery makes it work.
“The Doll” (Season 7, Episode 17)
Seinfeld typically called upon Jerry Stiller to provide a jolt of manic verbal energy to scenes with George. “The Doll” showcases his physical skills, with Stiller sharing a showstopping sequence with Michael Richards in Frank’s tiny new billiards room repurposed from George’s childhood bedroom.
“The Understudy” (Season 6, Episode 24)
Another trip into Frank’s past — this time involving an doomed affair with a Korean woman whose father would not accept him because he refused to take off his shoes — is funny every single time Jerry Still says the words “foot odor.”
“The Handicap Spot” (Season 4, Episode 22)
Jerry Stiller was unavailable the first time Seinfeld wanted him to play George’s father, so John Randolph performed the role in his first appearance, Season 4’s “The Handicap Spot.” As Jason Alexander notes on the Seinfeld DVD extras, Randolph didn’t look like him or act in a way that suggested he was George’s dad, and so when the character returned in Season 5, and Jerry Stiller was now available, a switch was made. Later, when Seinfeld was getting readied for syndication, Larry David decided Stiller’s Frank was so indelible that he should be inserted into “The Handicap Spot,” so he had Stiller reshoot Frank’s lines from the episode. The results were so seamless most people don’t even realize Stiller wasn’t originally in “The Handicap Spot.” His enunciation of his note to George in this scene meant all that extra time and money spent inserting him was worth it.
“The Chinese Woman” (Season 6, Episode 4)
Frank and Estelle’s estrangement ran throughout Seinfeld Season 6, bearing such bizarre offshoots as “The Chinese Woman,” where Frank seeks counsel from a mysterious man (played by none other than Larry David) wearing a cape. Jerry Stiller’s indignation in the scene where George reveals that Jerry and Elaine spotted him with the Caped Man and didn’t say hello is vintage Frank.
“The Conversion” (Season 5, Episode 11)
Very few actors could convincingly sell a man worrying that “Latvian Orthodox” was a religious sect dedicated to squirrel mutilation. But Jerry Stiller could.
“The Raincoats” (Season 5, Episodes 18 and 19)
Now we’re getting to the crème de la crème of Frank. In “The Raincoats,” the Seinfelds are once again ducking the Costanzas, leading to more and more resentment from the family — and more and more anger from Frank. Don’t reject a Costanza dinner invitation, they made paella! Watch Jerry Stiller play with speed in this first scene; the way he leaps up from the table when he thinks they might have mice (“I will not tolerate infestation!”), and the way he slowly sits back down after Estelle Harris says to give it a rest. (Skip ahead to four minutes into the video below to watch the highlights from “The Raincoats.”)
“The Puffy Shirt” (Season 5, Episode 2)
Jerry’s hideous pirate shirt became a pop-culture icon, but Jerry Stiller stole this episode with two killer scenes. In the first, he berates Estelle for making Jell-O with bananas after George becomes a superstar hand model. After George’s career falls apart, the family is eating together at a restaurant, where Stiller delivers an inspired monologue about his old silver-dollar collection and grows irate at their waiter’s poor service. It’s hard to believe this was Stiller’s first appearance as Frank; from his first line of his first scene, he was already perfect.
“The Cigar Store Indian” (Season 5, Episode 10)
Here’s another home run from Stiller, as Frank confronts George after discovering a condom wrapper in their bed (“What is this, a prophylactic wrapper?”) and then grounds his small adult son. Just beautiful.
“The Caddy” (Season 7, Episode 12)
Jerry Seinfeld often cited Stiller’s voicemail in this episode — “Jerry, this is Frank Costanza. Mr. Steinbrenner's here. George is dead. Call me back!” — as one of his all-time favorite Seinfeld moments. The part where Frank berates Steinbrenner for trading Jay Buhner is even funnier. He had a rocket for an arm!
“The Rye” (Season 7, Episode 11)
The Costanzas meeting their future in-laws was a comedy lay up on paper; Jerry Stiller, Estelle Harris, and the rest of the cast turned it into a backboard-breaking slam dunk. The absolute pettiness of Frank — stealing the marble rye that he’d brought to the dinner party with Susan’s family after they forgot to serve it — shows precisely how George became the man he is.
“The Sniffing Accountant” (Season 5, Episode 4)
Frank gets the unemployed George a job interview for a bra salesman position, prompting an extensive conversation (around the dinner table no less!) about women’s undergarments. Frank lecturing his son about not knowing enough about bras while also having no clue what they’re made out of is the one of the character’s bumbling peaks. Once Estelle produces a brassiere for them to pass around the whole sequence is so cringeworthy it’s practically a backdoor pilot for Curb Your Enthusiasm.
“The Doorman” (Season 6, Episode 17)
Frank’s obsession with brassieres continued in “The Doorman” with Kramer and Frank famously going into business to sell supportive undergarments to saggy men, but arguing over what to call them. Is it the bro? Is it the manssiere? Whatever it’s called, these scenes are incredibly funny. Plus, it’s all capped off with the end-credits scene, where Frank, having nowhere else to turn during his separation from Estelle, winds up sharing a bed with George. Who wants kasha?
“The Strike” (Season 9, Episode 10)
“The Strike” was written by Dan O’Keefe, whose father really invented the holiday of Festivus as a non-commercial alternative to Christmas. Rituals like “The Airing of Grievances” and the “Feats of Strength” — along with George’s horror of having to endure his father’s tirades — made it the ideal celebration for Frank. Decades after Seinfeld went off the air, people still celebrate Festivus every December 23 while mimicking Stiller’s unforgettable delivery of Frank’s opening grievance: “I got a lotta problems with you people!”
“The Fusilli Jerry” (Season 6, Episode 21)
As memorable as the Festivus miracle is, Frank Costanza’s finest hour came in “The Fusilli Jerry,” which put all of Jerry Stiller’s gifts in the spotlight. With Frank and Estelle still on the outs, Kramer drives Estelle home from an eye job appointment, and inadvertently makes “a move” on her. That leads to a screaming match (and a callback to the bro/manssiere argument) and the magical moment when Frank falls on a Fusilli Jerry and it gets stuck in him. Jerry Stiller’s howl of “Assman!!!” at Michael Richards is one of the most beautiful noises ever produced by a human being. Finding a scream of rage funnier than that one would be a million to one shot.