Remembering comedy legend Jerry Stiller
It doesn’t matter your age, you’ve probably been touched by the comedy of Jerry Stiller. Maybe you know him as Ben Stiller’s dad or maybe you know him as Frank Costanza. No matter how you remember him though, he was undeniably a comedy legend.
He had the material that made Emmy winners break character and crack into uncontrollable laughter, only to then try recover to work the scene.
He was so adept at playing different iconic characters with complete authenticity that it often created a mystery around who he really was as a person. But Stiller was a New Yorker through and through, and he came correct in every turn with that amazing “chutzpah” that guaranteed anyone who met him would remember him.
Most comedy fans of our time are familiar with the notorious Second City improv, a comedy company that opened on the cusp of the sixties. The company nurtured big names such as Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, Mike Meyers, and more recently Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Stephen Colbert. This is the Ivy League of comic talent and Stiller was right there from the beginning.
Before Second City there were the Compass Players. This is where Stiller got his start and also brought in his wife and comedy partner, Anne Meara. Although she was an aspiring actor that didn’t consider herself much of a comedic talent, the pair proved to be a comedic success as a duo in comedy clubs across New York and eventually on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Their ongoing shtick of “Hershey Horowitz and Mary Elizabeth Doyle, a short Jewish man and a tall Catholic woman who had virtually nothing in common except their love for each other” was exactly the crowd needed to fall in love with the pair.
They carried on their comedic duo in radio commercials, a short radio sketch comedy bit called “Take Five with Stiller and Meara” and even a 1986 sitcom named “The Stiller and Meara Show.”
But then there was Frank Costanza — a character that was developed and played by Jerry Stiller on perhaps one of the greatest sitcoms ever, Seinfeld.
Talking to Esquire, he described his entrance into the character.
“I was not the first father on Seinfeld. There was another father, whom I replaced. I was out of work at the time. My manager had retired. I was close to seventy years old and I had nowhere to go. I get this chance on Seinfeld. I hadn’t even seen the show. The idea was for Estelle Harris, who was the screamer, to be the boss lady of the Costanza family. And I was supposed to be her Thurberesque husband.
The part called for me to wear a bald wig to look like George and to act very meek. But after a couple of days I realized that acting meek was going to get me fired just like the last guy. On the fourth day, I said to Larry David, “This ain’t workin’. Can I do it my way?” The scene started and Estelle began screaming at me, “You’re the one who ruined his life! You’re the one who wasn’t a good role model! You’re a lousy father!” Only this time I shot back, “You’re the one who made him sandwiches in bed! You’re the one who coddled him and treated him like a baby!”
All the cameramen broke out laughing. Then Jason [Alexander] came over and said, “Don’t be afraid to hit me.” I said, “But you’re my son. You’re thirty-five years old! I can’t do that.” What the hell. The next time Jason said, “Dad, can I have the keys to the car ?” Bang! I gave him this whack. Everybody screamed. Then Estelle went over to Larry and said, “Can I hit him, too?”
In light of Stiller’s passing, Julia Louis-Dreyfus shared a moment on Twitter that showed us just the type of person he was.
Seinfeld fans will always remember “The Little Kicks” episode for Elaine’s unusual dance moves. But there’s another thing we learned in this episode about Jerry Stiller. He was without a doubt hilarious both on and off set.
Originally published at https://themilsource.com on May 14, 2020.