20 'Seinfeld' Cultural References Explained for Younger Viewers

Image credit: 
Getty Images
Like us on Facebook

Some sitcom writers do their best to avoid penning time-sensitive references into their scripts, since news stories—no matter how widely covered at the time—are often forgotten long before a series goes into syndication. And sometimes characters just happen to mention events or personalities from their youth that haven’t necessarily remained green in the minds of the audience. Case in point: these 20 cultural references made throughout Seinfeld's nine-season run, which may not make sense to younger viewers who are only now discovering the iconic series via reruns or streaming (the entire series heads to Hulu on June 24th).

1. That Dockers Commercial

“Are those cotton Dockers?”
“Oh, I can't begin to tell you how much I hate that commercial.” —Jerry, to his girlfriend Donna, “The Phone Message”

Jerry pretty accurately described this late 1980s ad for Levi’s Cotton Dockers—a bunch of guys talking about nothing (hey, he should relate to that, no?) accompanied by a montage of pants, pants, pants, pants, and more pants. Jerry wasn’t the only person who showed a marked disdain for this style of advertising; the folks at Saturday Night Live also had fun mocking it.

2. That Line Bentsen Gave Quayle

“So I just stood there like—remember how Quayle looked when Bentsen gave him that Kennedy line? That's what I looked like.” —George, “The Phone Message”

When George H.W. Bush selected Dan Quayle as his running mate in the 1988 Presidential campaign, Quayle's age (41) and limited length of service in the Senate (along with his stint with the National Guard, which kept him out of Vietnam) were frequent points of contention in the press. During the televised debate with Democratic vice presidential candidate/senator Lloyd Bentsen, Tom Brokaw pointed out that as Vice President, there was the possibility that Quayle could become President should something happen to the Commander-in-Chief. To defend his qualifications for the top job, Quayle compared his Congressional experience to that of John F. Kennedy. Bentsen responded to this audaciousness by replying, “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.”

3. Serial Killer Joel Rifkin

“Your boyfriend is a normal guy. He just happens to have the same name as one of the worst serial killers in the history of New York.” —Jerry to Elaine, “The Masseuse”

Arrested in 1993, Joel Rifkin is believed to have committed as many as 17 murders over a span of four years, though he was only convicted of nine. His victims were usually prostitutes that he hired in Manhattan and Brooklyn and took back to his home on Long Island. His “trademark” was dismembering his victims with a chainsaw (which detectives found in his garage after his arrest) after killing them and then distributing their body parts in various locations around the city.

4. Sunny von Bülow

“That’s not too bad. It’s not like a Sunny von Bülow coma. The doctor said he should snap out of it anytime.” —Jerry, “The Suicide”

Sunny Crawford von Bülow, the only child of Columbia Gas & Electric Company founder George Crawford, inherited an estimated $100 million upon her father’s death when she was just four years old. In 1966 she married her second husband, British socialite Claus von Bülow. By 1979 the marriage was in serious trouble and Sunny started hinting at a possible divorce. On December 21, 1980, Sunny appeared to be confused and disoriented during dinner and ultimately retired to her bedroom. Early the next morning she was found unconscious on her bathroom floor. She was taken to the hospital but never regained consciousness, remaining in a persistent vegetative state for the next 28 years. Her husband was charged and convicted of attempted murder (allegedly by injecting her with an overdose of insulin) but his conviction was later overturned.

5. Abscam

“Wait, there is one way to find out. We set up a sting. You know like Abscam. Like Abscam Jerry.” —Kramer
“What are you gonna do? You gonna put on a phony beard and dress-up like Arab sheiks and sit around in some hotel room?” —Elaine, “The Sniffing Accountant”

Abscam was the code name for the two-year FBI undercover operation that began in 1978 to unearth political corruption (the same one dramatized in David O. Russell's Oscar-nominated 2013 film American Hustle). A fake company, Abdul Enterprises, was used as a cover and FBI agents donned disguises to bribe several government officials in exchange for political favors. The mayor of Camden, New Jersey—along with six members of the House of Representatives and one senator—were all caught on video and ultimately convicted of accepting money for offering to provide the “sheiks” with everything from casino licenses to green cards.

6. Ayatollah Khomeini

“You believe this guy? He holds a grudge like Khomeini.” —Jerry, “The Baby Shower”

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was the leader of the Iranian Revolution and was responsible for turning Iran into the world’s first Islamic Republic. Khomeini denounced the United States for providing sanctuary for the exiled Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and supported the students who stormed the American Embassy in Tehran in November 1979. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage in Iran for a total of 444 days.

7. Mary Hart’s Seizure Effect

“That is it! Mary Hart's voice, don't you see? There's something about Mary Hart's voice that's giving you seizures. Just like, just like, just like that woman in Albany!” —Elaine to Kramer, “The Good Samaritan

Longtime Entertainment Tonight host Mary Hart earned a mention in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1991, when a neurologist determined that the sound of her voice triggered epileptic seizures lasting from 30 seconds to two minutes in a female patient. Hart had previously made headlines when her manager, Jay Bernstein, got Lloyd’s of London to insure her legs for $1 million each.

8. Abbie Hoffman

“Yeah, '71. That was my first year on the job. Bad year for libraries. Bad year for America. Hippies burning library cards, Abbie Hoffman telling everybody to steal books.” —Lt. Bookman, “The Library”

Activist Abbie Hoffman co-founded the radical Youth Independent Party (the “Yippies”) with Jerry Rubin in 1967. Both men were defendants in the Chicago Seven trial a year later after protesting at the Democratic National Convention. In 1971 Hoffman published a counterculture treatise on methods to overthrow the government and defeat Big Business entitled Steal This Book. Despite Hoffman’s aversion to the Pig Empire, his book became a bestseller, essentially making him a member of The Establishment he so despised.

9. The Dingo Ate Your Baby

“Maybe the dingo ate your baby.” —Elaine, “The Stranded”

Much like “Play it again, Sam”, the oft-repeated line “a dingo ate my baby” is a frequent movie misquotation. It was originally attributed to Lindy Chamberlain, whose two-month-old daughter Azaria was snatched from her tent by a wild dog while the family was camping at Australia’s Ayers Rock. At the time of the 1980 incident, witnesses heard Chamberlain call out either “That dog’s got my baby!” or “My God, a dingo has got my baby!” Which didn't stop investigators from believing it was Chamberlain herself who murdered her child (she was convicted of the crime, but her sentence was overturned eight years later when new evidence proved the veracity of her claims). In the 1988 film adaptation of the incident, A Cry in the Dark, Meryl Streep cried out, “The dingo took my baby!”

10. Boutros Boutros-Ghali

“Boutros Boutros-Ghali” —Jerry (upon seeing George’s topless girlfriend), “The Hamptons”

Boutros Boutros-Ghali was the Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1992 until 1996. What does he have to do with nudity? Nothing. But his name sure does have a poetically leering sound to it. 

11. Actress Loni Anderson

“So who're you looking for, Sophia Loren? How about Loni Anderson?” —Jerry’s parents, “The Stakeout”

Most viewers probably know that Italian actress Sophia Loren was the iconic international sex symbol in the 1950s and '60s. The statuesque beauty was more than just a pretty face, though; in 1962 her performance in Two Women earned her a Best Actress Academy Award, making her the first artist to win an Oscar for a foreign language performance.

Perhaps lesser known, at least by today's younger audiences, is actress Loni Anderson, who first gained fame as the smart and sexy receptionist on TV’s WKRP in Cincinnati and later received a lot of press during her contentious divorce from Burt Reynolds.

12. The Chappaquiddick Incident

“We went to their wedding. You should have heard him talking about Chappaquiddick—trying to blame the whole thing on bad directions.” —Jerry, “The Baby Shower”

Chappaquiddick is an island connected to Martha’s Vineyard and the site of a party hosted by former Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy on July 18, 1969, for friends competing in the Edgartown Yacht Club Regatta. Also in attendance were a group of young women who had worked on his brother Robert’s 1968 presidential campaign, including 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne. Kopechne left the party at 11:15 p.m. with Kennedy, who would later claim that he was driving her to the ferry dock so that she could catch the last boat back to her hotel. Kennedy’s Oldsmobile Delmont skidded off the narrow wooden Dike Bridge and landed upside down in Poucha Pond. Kennedy was able to escape the vehicle, but Kopechne remained trapped inside (and was found dead by fishermen the next morning). The tragedy turned into a full-blown scandal when it was revealed that Kennedy did not contact the police until 10 hours after the incident had occurred.

13. Mennen

“By Mennen!’” —George

The very simple yet memorable slogan “By Mennen” was coined by advertising executive Richard J. Mercer. Mercer also came up with the equally catchy “How do you handle a hungry man?” jingle for Campbell’s Manhandler Soups.

14. Farfel the Dog

“Would you take care of Farfel?”
“Farfel?”
“It's his dog. We're landing in Chicago to get him to a hospital, could you take his dog to New York?” —Flight attendant to Jerry, “The Dog”

“Farfel” wasn’t just some random wacky name Gavin Palone made up for his pooch; he was, in fact, named after the famous floppy-eared puppet who used to advertise Nestle’s Quik in the 1960s. Ventriloquist dummy Danny O’Day ended each commercial by singing the company’s jingle: “N-E-S-T-L-E-S, Nestle’s makes the very best" and then Farfel would chime in, off-key, “Chawk-lit!” with a distinctive snap of his mechanical jaw.

15. Nobody Beats The Wiz

"Nobody beats me, because I'm the Wiz! I'm the Wiz!"
"That is the guy!"
"Elaine's in love with the Wiz guy?" —Jerry and George, “The Junk Mail”

Nobody Beats the Wiz was an actual chain of electronics stores located primarily in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. In the early 1990s they were a major sponsor of most of the local professional sports teams, including the Yankees, Mets, Devils, and Islanders, though the company went out of business in 2003. The Wiz never had an official spokesman, but Elaine dated a fictional version of what he might be who was most likely based more on the multitude of Crazy Eddies and Insane Floyds across the country.

16. Comedian Dick Gregory

"I understand, I like a good breakfast. As long as you don't wind up trapped in a room with bib overalls and pigtails being counseled by Dick Gregory." —Jerry to overweight naked passenger, “The Subway”

Comedian-activist Dick Gregory has been following a somewhat extreme food regime that's comprised almost solely of raw fruits and vegetables, supplemented by a powdered drink mix, since the mid-1970s. He calls it the Slim-Safe Bahamian Diet. In 1984, Gregory inked a $100 million deal with Cernitin America Inc. to market his 4X Formula nutritional drink.

17. The Bubble Boy

“I was watching the show with my son Donald. He's got this rare immune deficiency in his blood. Damnedest thing. Doctors say he has to live in a plastic bubble. Can you imagine that? A bubble.” —Mel, a fan, meeting Jerry in “The Bubble Boy.”

The original “Bubble Boy” was David Vetter, born in 1971 with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID). His parents had previously lost another son from the same disease at age seven months, and they were warned that any other male children they had would have a 50 percent chance of inheriting the disease. Less than 20 seconds after Vetter was born he was placed in an isolator bubble to protect him from germs. He would spend the next 12 years of his life inside similar “bubbles” variously at the Texas Children’s Hospital and at home. In 1977 NASA provided him with a protective “space suit” that allowed Vetter to walk around his house for the first time. Sadly he outgrew the suit and went back to the isolator unit until he underwent an experimental bone marrow transplant in 1983 as an attempt to treat his disease. His sister’s bone marrow contained an undetected Epstein-Barr virus, however, and Vetter passed away from the resulting infection four months later.

18. The Guatemalan Coup d’état

“Yeah, they should've taken care of Castro when they had the chance. Like we did in Guatemala in ’53” —Alton Benes, Elaine’s father, “The Jacket”

The Guatemalan coup d’état, a CIA operation that deposed President Jacobo Árbenz and effectively ended the Guatemalan Revolution, actually occurred in 1954. But who is brave enough to correct Alton Benes when he’s worked himself into a froth?

19. Actress Shirley Booth

“If you could imagine uglier and fatter version of Shirley Booth. Remember Shirley Booth from Hazel? Really embarrassing, ‘cause you know I had the only mother in the whole neighborhood who was worse looking than Hazel.” —George, “The Subway”

Shirley Booth won both a Tony and an Oscar for her role as the frumpy, lonely housewife Lola in Come Back, Little Sheba. From 1961 to 1966 she starred in the TV sitcom based on Ted Key’s comic strip Hazel, and added an Emmy to her trophy shelf. True, she was not the glamorous leading-lady type, but George Costanza was no oil painting, either.

20. Last Tango in Paris

“Besides, you had a summer ‘me’. Whitey Fisk, the guy who snuck you into Last Tango in Paris."
"I made him up."
"So you never saw Last Tango in Paris?"
"No."
"Too bad. It was erotic." —Jerry and George, “The Junk Mail”

Marlon Brando was 48 years old when he co-starred with 19-year-old Maria Schneider in Bernardo Bertolucci’s X-rated erotic drama. Time magazine warned moviegoers that they would be “shocked, titillated, disgusted, fascinated, delighted or angered” by what ABC news anchor Harry Reasoner called the film’s “pornography disguised as art."

More from mental_floss...

June 9, 2015 - 2:00pm
submit to reddit