How ‘Seinfeld’ Truly Embraced Nothingness in “The Chinese Restaurant”
‘Genie in a Bottle’ is a recurring feature where each week a different bottle episode (an episode set entirely in one location, often designed to save money) from a comedy series is examined
“Do you ever notice how happy people are when they finally get a table? They feel so special because they’ve been chosen. It’s enough to make you sick!”
It’s hard to talk about Seinfeld without bringing up a number of key episodes through the series’ production run. Installments like “The Contest”, “The Soup Nazi”, and “The Chinese Restaurant” aren’t just exemplary episodes of this heavyweight sitcom, but instances of Seinfeld changing and informing the evolution of the form itself.
Many episodes that have been highlighted throughout this feature so far have experimented with ambitious ideas like conducting their entry in real-time, even the previous Seinfeld inclusion that we looked at, “The Parking Garage.” What makes “The Chinese Restaurant” important in comparison to “The Parking Garage” is that it pre-dates the former episode by an entire year, and while even in Seinfeld’s third season unconventional storytelling might have felt at home, much bigger obstacles were faced when the gang went for broke in their second year.
“The Chinese Restaurant” spends the entire episode taking Jerry, George, and Elaine out for dinner while they wait to catch a movie. It really is as simple as it sounds. Like the impetus behind most bottle episodes, this one actually did save time and money and thanks to the singular location, the episode was filmed in about half the time it usually took (as opposed to the grueling production schedule that Seinfeld’s “The Parking Garage” ended up requiring). Notably, the episode is also entirely Kramer-free, in a move that keeps it feeling different from “The Parking Garage” as well. The reasoning behind this decision was a rather calculated move explaining that at this point in the show’s run Kramer was never thought to leave his apartment. He was not someone who regularly went out with Jerry, George, and Elaine, as crazy as that might sound now. David even elaborates on this on the episode’s commentary track, saying that if this episode happened a season later, Kramer would have been involved.
The beautiful thing here is that when the episode begins, you really have no idea that the restaurant’s lobby is going to act as the gang’s holding cell for half an hour. We’re repeatedly told that the experience will simply take, “five, ten minutes” by the maître d’. We’re teased with the tempting proposal of everyone seeing Plan 9 From Outer Space and feel like maybe we’ll get a subversive trip to the cinema, but with each passing minute it becomes increasingly clear what’s going on. Just as Elaine tries to come up with constant excuses to leave the restaurant and get on with her night, inevitably the audience is put through the same process. Is really “nothing” going to happen? Should I just change the channel and watch people who are actually doing something? It takes tremendous guts to pull off such a move, especially this early in a show’s life. Of course, this episode acts as a reminder that much like in real life, when a crazy night like this takes place, it’s not the movie or the “event” that you’re thinking about when it’s all over, but the absurd time you spent waiting to get going the entire time. It’s a lesson that Friends was even able to replicate nearly seamlessly in their everybody’s-getting-ready ep, “The One Where No One’s Ready.”
Unsurprisingly, the episode was based on a real experience from David and Seinfeld’s life, but the executives at NBC were actively concerned about the lack of a story in the episode (essentially the episode chronicles the gang not getting dinner and a movie). NBC’s Warren Littlefield even thought the script was missing pages when he originally read it. Seinfeld has elaborated on the network’s worry over the episode by stating, “[‘The Chinese Restaurant’] was the point where the network said, ‘You know, we really don’t understand what you’re trying to do with this show, and we think it’s wrong.’”
In spite of the simple nature of the episode, there are still a number of plots coursing through this outing quite adeptly. We see Jerry worrying over lying to his uncle about his plans for the night and then fearing that he’s gotten caught in his lie by a stranger he can’t place. George is desperate to get to use the restaurant’s pay phone so he can reach his girlfriend and correct a faux pas. Elaine is simply at the point of starvation and desperate to eat as quickly as possible.
Contrary to NBC’s concerns, series co-creator Larry David emphasized the significant amount of story that was going on, and when NBC was still hesitant, it was Seinfeld veteran Larry Charles who came up with the Plan 9 From Outer Space angle that added some more urgency to the episode. Still, NBC was unsatisfied and it took Larry David threatening to quit the show (with Seinfeld backing him up) to force NBC to finally allow the episode to be produced. Even still, the network was quick to mention that they still thought it was a bad idea and were going to hold off airing the episode until the end of the season (rather than airing it sixth, where it was originally slotted).
What’s most fascinating here is that in spite of each character having a storyline to keep them busy, you almost don’t realize it because of everything else that’s going on. It’s what bothered Littlefield and company, but it’s exactly why the episode is so exceptional. Seinfeld has become known and self-defined as a “show about nothing,” but before that disclaimer became commonplace, it was episodes like this that invited the label in the first place. This show can work and these characters can be wonderful simply waiting or discussing their plans for the evening. It’s no coincidence that when Jerry and George are pitching the fictional version of Seinfeld, “Jerry,” within the show seasons later that “The Chinese Restaurant” is one of the few episodes that they single out.
“The Chinese Restaurant” is amazing to watch unfold for the first time. It’s truly an exercise in elongation and minimalism as it keeps so many plates spinning while training you to stay focused on the ground instead. It’s inspiring to see David and Seinfeld learn that bottle episodes could be the perfect conduits to illustrate their “show about nothing” idea, but it’s even more encouraging to see these people master the subject down the road without resorting to such a structure, too. While other episodes would broaden their bottles and extend their perimeter, they’d still feature the claustrophobia and anxiety of a bottle ep. This series is all about people getting trapped in social contracts and not being able to escape. The show is telling you that New York City, or even humanity in general is just one big bottle that we’re trapped in. It’s a bewildering perspective, but one that makes increasing sense after studying Larry David for just a few minutes.
In a moment of perfection that would become traditional for Seinfeld, but was still currently cementing its place in the show’s voice, the gang, defeated, decide to cut their losses and all split up, foregoing their dinner and movie plans. Naturally, as soon as they all exit, the maître d’ calls their name.