The 92-year-old American comedian and actor Jerry Stiller died of natural causes yesterday, his family confirmed. Stiller was one of American television’s most recognisable father figures in the 1990s and 2000s, thanks to his roles as Frank Costanza (father to George) on Seinfeld (1993-1998) and Arthur Spooner on The King of Queens (1999-2007). His rendition of these eccentric, irascible old men struggling with modernity symbolised the breakneck speed of change that came with the dotcom era. Even their catchphrases — “Serenity now!” for Frank Costanza and “How dare you!” for Arthur Spooner — were expressions of righteous outrage against an increasingly unfamiliar world.
In many ways, the Brooklyn-born Stiller was the perfect man to depict these irritable negotiations with change. His earliest inspiration was as old-school as they come: Groucho Marx. Stiller caught a performance by the all-time great when he was an eight year old boy, which sparked his love for show business. Throughout the 1960s, Stiller and his wife, the late actor Anne Meara, performed as the comedy duo Stiller & Meara, including a string of appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show as well as The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Decades later, That 70s Show would parody a number of husband-and-wife acts from the postwar era, like Stiller/Meara and Lucille Ball/Desi Arnaz — affectionate recollections of comedy as family venture, as cottage industry. These were the uncomplicated formative years of Stiller as an actor and a comedian.
Stiller and Meara would often play squabbling spouses or lovers: one particular skit from Carson’s show, depicting computer-matched youngsters on a first date, would gain Internet fame after the Seinfeld years. But, although they remained happily married until Meara’s death in 2015, the two ended their professional relationship in 1970. A latter-day rekindling surfaced in 1986 via the eponymous sitcom The Stiller & Meara Show, but proved to be short-lived. A period of meandering, interrupted only by John Waters’ Hairspray (1988), followed.
For Stiller, now 60-something and in the supposed twilight of his career, that seemed to be all she wrote. However, the producers of Seinfeld came calling in 1993, and just like that Stiller’s second wind as an actor began.
There’s perhaps no better way to understand Frank Costanza than the episode that gave him his catchphrase: ‘The Serenity Now’ from Seinfeld’s ninth season (1998). Essentially a caricature of the male baby boomer, we meet Frank as an old-timer befuddled by the decline of vintage industrial America — his car’s “mechanism” is as busted as his ridiculously anachronistic screen door. Nothing works, nothing clicks into place satisfactorily. Muscle cars and consecutive decades of unfettered economic growth feel like distant memories. Instead, there’s the opaque allure of the dotcom era, to which Frank succumbs wholesale — without a semblance of a plan, he acquires scores of computers, intending to sell them from his garage (by 1997, we were not far from the day the dotcom bubble burst).
This allegory for the decline of classic Americana is backed up by what Kramer (Michael Richards) does in the same episode — having taken the broken-down 70s-style screen door off Frank’s hands, he proceeds to install it outside his own apartment door, alongside firecrackers, azaleas (“you gotta mulch!”) and, of course, the all-important stars and stripes. The simulacrum, which Kramer christens “Anytown, USA”, doesn’t last long because the proverbial “kids from the neighbourhood” destroy it, thus completing a near-perfect sequence of American behaviours — financial recklessness, misplaced nostalgia and inevitably, wanton destruction.
And although Arthur Spooner, Stiller’s character on The King of Queens, was a different, more fleshed-out role, there was a lot of Seinfeld in it, too. Arthur quite plainly inherited all of the flaws associated with the four main Seinfeld characters: he was shallow and narcissistic (Jerry), unable to make commitments (Elaine), perennially insecure (George) and a sucker for get-rich schemes and dubious innovations (Kramer). Like Frank Costanza, Arthur too was a bit of a bumbling All-American Everyman — he had an irrational hatred of “non-American” VCRs and he once claimed that Charles Schulz based Charlie Brown on him.
His rendition of these eccentric, irascible old men struggling with modernity symbolised the breakneck speed of change that came with the dotcom era.
Stiller’s departure, then, is another reminder of the demise of American optimism. As we learn by the end of ‘The Serenity Now’, feel-good corporate doublespeak solves nothing and defers everything — serenity now, insanity later. In 2001, Stiller appeared alongside his son Ben in the movie Zoolander, a satire on the fashion industry directed by the latter. At one point, when Ben’s titular supermodel Zoolander struts onto the ramp, Stiller says approvingly, “I love that kid. Dumb as a stump, but I love him!”
He might as well have been talking about Hollywood, about America, about the sheer fucking egregiousness of it all. It’s a tale much older than the 92 years Jerry Stiller was with us, and by the end of it listeners tend to scream, “Serenity now!”