‘Seinfeld’, ‘Frasier’, and the gay-ish, Jew-ish 1990s: Phoebe Maltz Bovy on sitcom codes of yore

Jerry Seinfeld with Dr. Tim Whatley—the dentist who converted to Judaism for the jokes.

On a recent Frasier rewatch, I had a sudden realization that I felt compelled to share, first on Twitter, then elaborated here.

The gist of the 1994 episode in question, “The Matchmaker,” is that a gay man (who happens to be Frasier’s new boss) mistakenly believes that not only is Frasier gay, but so too his father Martin and—why not?—brother Niles. At the end of the episode, Frasier reveals, to a skeptical but understanding boss, that all three Crane men are straight.

But… are they?

In 1994, you couldn’t exactly have a mainstream sitcom about a group of openly gay men. Will & Grace, the show widely credited for introducing the possibility (and tentatively at that, what with Will’s lady-roommate), first aired in 1998. It’s not that there weren’t gay male characters in earlier sitcoms. Indeed, a 1973 episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show has a plot remarkably similar to “The Matchmaker,” wherein Rhoda (Mary’s Jewish neighbour and best friend) starts spending a lot of time with their frenemy Phyllis’s visiting brother. Phyllis is upset because she’d been trying to set him up with Mary. At the end of the episode, Rhoda reveals to a Frasier-level oblivious Phyllis that her brother is gay, and Phyllis is ecstatic, because this means her brother is not in fact dating Rhoda.

Before I digress further—and as someone with three doctorates in Rhoda-ology, believe me, I could—I want to get back to the matter at hand.

As a show, Frasier is and isn’t about a group of gay men. That many of the actors themselves are/were gay (apart from Kelsey Grammer, were any of them straight?), there is the vibe of the show itself. It’s not just the effete, opera-loving thing, which, whatever. It’s their relationships with women. It’s the absence of physical chemistry in Niles’s love of Daphne. It’s the derogatory trope that is Roz.

What existed in 1990s sitcoms was an unofficial Hays Code of sorts. So much couldn’t be said that you can’t really say, with precision, what was happening onscreen.

I will now get to the point: Seinfeld. My theory is that Seinfeld is to Jewishness what Frasier is to gayness. Not a perfect analogy—Jerry is, after all, openly Jewish, in life and onscreen—but bear with me. Both shows exist in universes where the identity category exists, but where the characters are often coded versions of the same.

The obvious example from Seinfeld is the 1997 episode where Elaine supposedly has “shiksappeal.” Her non-Jewishness is a siren call to Jewish men and boys. I have never suspended so much disbelief. There are women out there who read as non-Jewish (and how frustrating for them when they are Jewish). Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Elaine Benes is not one of them.

But the bigger one still is George Costanza. We all know George is Jewish. But technically he isn’t. He is so Jewish! But he isn’t. He’s Italian. Not Italian. Euphemistically Italian. Jewish. George, his “ma” screaming at him from the other room. George, disappointing his parents by converting to “Latvian Orthodox.” George, played by a Jewish actor, based on a Jewish television creator who would, once mega-successful, and once living in a different time, create a different show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, where the Jewishness was out from behind any code. George’s dynamic with on-again, off-again fiancée Susan is straight out of Annie Hall. George is Jewish! Except that he’s not.

Both Frasier and Seinfeld exist in that 1990s world where having too much of an identity was a liability. I say this not to claim that our own times, where the actor has to match the character’s identity lest the actor and show’s creator be called out—and, indeed, where Jewishness and gayness are not always understood as forms of marginalization on the left—are superior. Eras have plusses and minuses. It’s just helpful for understanding where we are now to see where we were before, and why that might not have been satisfactory.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @bovymaltz