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What's the Deal With "What's the Deal With..."?

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The phrase, "What's the deal with..." is so synonymous with a specific brand of '90s observational comedy, I bet you just read those words in Jerry Seinfeld's voice. Ask someone to do a impersonation of the comedian (don't actually do this), and they'll assuredly whine, "What's the deal with..." before either trailing off or mentioning some quotidian subject of scorn. It's funny because he always said it! Or did he?

After searching through the scripts for every episode of Seinfeld, the phrase, "What's the deal with..." was never used sincerely (i.e. said in the context of genuine observational humor) during the show's entire run, including all the pre-intro stand-up sets.

The closest the series comes is during the season two episode "The Deal," and Jerry doesn't even say it. At Monk's, George asks Jerry, "What's the deal with Aquaman? Could he go on land, or was he just restricted to water?" before they change subjects and venture into a conversation about Jerry sleeping with Elaine.

The phrase wouldn't be said again in the series for another five years, and from that point forward, all instances of "What's the deal with..." are self-referential and used to make fun of the hokey phrase. In all, and not including "The Deal," it's only said in five of Seinfeld's 180 episodes:

1. "The Invitations," Season 7, Episode 24

Jerry decides his fiancé Jeannie (played by Janeane Garofalo) is too similar to himself after she uses the hackneyed joke structure twice:

Jerry: Well it's been quite a night. I could sure use a cup of coffee.
Jeannie: Hey! What's the deal with decaf? How do they get the caffeine out of there, and then where does it go?
Jerry: I dunno.
...
Jerry: (to the waitress): I' ll just have a cup of coffee.
Jeannie: Bowl of corn flakes.
Jerry: More cereal? That's your third bowl today, you had it for breakfast and lunch.
Jeannie: Hey! So what's the deal with brunch? I mean, if it's a combination of breakfast and lunch, how comes there's no lupper or no linner?

Turned off by this, Jerry cancels the engagement.

2. "The Abstinence," Season 8, Episode 9

Jerry bombs at his former junior high school with, "Hey kids. What's the deal with homework? You're not working on your home!"

3. "The Summer of George," Season 8, Episode 22

George pitches a joke to Jerry for use at the Tony Awards—"What's the deal with those guys down in the pit?"—which Jerry rejects: "They're musicians. That's not a joke." Later, when deciding between playing frisbee golf and going to see Jerry, George imagines Seinfeld delivering the stale gag, "What's the deal with airplane peanuts?"

4. "The Butter Shave" Season 9, Episode 1

Jerry sabotages his own act to prevent hack comedian Kenny Bania from riding his coattails:

Jerry: What's the deal with lampshades? I mean, if it's a lamp, why do you want shade? And what's with people getting sick?
...
Jerry: I mean, what's the deal with cancer?
Audience Member: I have cancer!
Kramer: Oh, tough crowd.

5. "The Finale," Season 9, Episode 24

The series ends with Jerry doing a failed set at the prison where he and the gang are serving time:

"So, what's the deal with the yard? I mean, when I was a kid my mother wanted me to play in the yard. But of course she didn't have to worry about my next door neighbor Tommy sticking a shiv in my thigh. And what's with the lockdown? Why do we have to be locked in our cells? Are we that bad that we have to be sent to prison, in prison? You would think the weightlifting and the sodomy is enough. So, anyone from Cellblock D?"

Seinfeld routinely made fun of tired sitcom tropes, so it's no surprise that they went after his would-be catchphrase. Still, it would seem that somewhere between 1991's "The Deal" and 1996's "The Invitations," What's the deal with... became prevalent enough to co-opt. According to Google, the phrase's appearance in magazines and books rose exponentially starting around the show's premier before it leveled out in the mid-2000s (the show ended in 1998):

What's the deal with data journalism?

Beyond searching through old episodes of Seinfeld, I couldn't find evidence of him using the phrase in televised stand-up appearances, either. One place I was able to find it was in his 1993 book of quips and jokes, SeinLanguage. In it, there is only one instance of "What the deal with...":

Can someone please tell me what is the deal with B.O.? Why do we need B.O.? Everything in nature has a function, a purpose, except B.O. Doesn't make any sense. Do something good—hard work, exercise—smell very bad. This is the way the human being is designed. You move, you stink.

So, beyond that example, before he started making fun of it on his own show, Jerry Seinfeld's oeuvre is pretty much completely devoid of the phrase "What's the Deal With...". This raises the question: Who started saying it?

The answer is...Jerry Seinfeld (gasps fill the auditorium).

The culprit appears to be a 1992 Saturday Night Live episode hosted by Seinfeld himself. In a sketch called "Stand-Up and Win," he plays the host of a game show where lame comedians answer questions like, "What's the Deal with Airplane Food?," "What's the Deal With the Black Box?," "What's the Deal With Count Chocula?," and so on and so on.

Naturally, he was in on the joke from the very beginning. Despite this, "What's the deal with..." is still being used by hack headline writers to this very day, including yours truly.

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Big Questions
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
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In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
Astrid Riecken, Getty Images

This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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