This essay is part of our series Episodes, a bi-weekly column in which senior contributor Valerie Ettenhofer digs into the singular chapters of television that make the medium great. This entry looks at the darkly uproarious episode of Seinfeld titled “The Junior Mint.”
If you only know one thing about Seinfeld, it’s probably that it’s “a show about nothing.” The de facto tagline for the sitcom, which George Costanza (Jason Alexander) himself used in a pitch for a failed show-within-a-show, is the descriptor that history has chosen for one of TV’s best-ever comedy series.
It’s also not entirely true. Sure, Seinfeld is, as Saul Austerlitz writes in his book Sitcom, “A masterful exploration of minutiae.” From the start, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld’s series hones in on the quirks and pet peeves and neuroses that make up everyday experiences. But as it grows bolder with each season, mixing absurd situations with comically mundane moments, the series in some ways becomes the opposite of a show about nothing. Seinfeld pulls off several of the most hilariously complex self-contained plotlines ever seen on a sitcom, the comedy series equivalent of spinning a half-dozen plates atop poles without letting any drop to the ground.
The series often weaves together outlandish scenarios that’ll put you in stitches just to describe aloud (I think often of George’s custom napping desk) and turns schadenfreude into high art by giving its characters an amoral shrugginess that makes nearly every twist of fate, even the bad ones, enjoyable. Seinfeld often gets lumped in with its ‘90s contemporary, Friends, but unlike any other traditional sitcom of its time, it refuses to give in to sentimentality and always makes a stranger, funnier choice than viewers expect. For a show about nothing, it’s got a lot going on.
Which brings us to “The Junior Mint.” Though it’s a less-referenced entry in the Seinfeld canon — perhaps because, unlike classics including “The Contest” and “The Soup Nazi,” it doesn’t have a pithy catchphrase — ”The Junior Mint” is nonetheless spit-take-level uproarious. The titular candy doesn’t appear until midway through the half-hour, but the episode, written by Andy Robin, is on its game from the start. In the opening scene, Kramer (Michael Richards, who won an Emmy for this episode), making a heavily applauded entrance, gets passionate about his log cabin wallpaper. “I need wood around me. Wood, Jerry.” He snaps his fingers, then once more for emphasis: “Wood!”
Jerry talks about meeting a woman (Susan Walters) in the produce section of the grocery store. George mulls over the idea of putting down $1,900 in “found money” on a bet, then rents Home Alone since he’s only seen (and hated) the sequel. We’re in classic Seinfeld territory here, with the gang riffing on topics both familiar and niche alike. It’s a fun guessing game for viewers, trying to determine which of these riffs will tie into the episode’s usually interwoven main plot, and which are equally funny one-offs.
Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) enters and asks the others if they remember an artist she dated, a guy named Roy. In the mythologically dense New York-set series’ fourth season, it’s possible that we’d know this minor character, but the audience hasn’t met him yet. He’s an artist known for paintings of triangles, and Elaine says she dumped him because he was fat. This is a jarring moment to watch in 2020; Elaine’s fatphobia bristles against our retrospective sensibilities even as other unconscionable moments within the episode still warrant belly laughs. Roy’s in the hospital awaiting surgery, she says, so the gang decides to visit him.
At the hospital, disasters are set into motion in a typically Seinfeldian way. Kramer side-eyes the surgeon (Victor Raider-Wexler), worried he’ll use a faulty retractor he heard about on 20/20. Roy (Sherman Howard) has lost weight and tells Elaine it’s because he didn’t eat for weeks after she dumped him. Of course, she’s into him again.
Austerlitz, describes the structure of the series in his book: “If there is a platonic ideal of the Seinfeld episode, it is the foursome encountering a new patsy and promptly proceeding to destroy his or her life.” This week, Roy’s the patsy, and his destruction is multi-pronged and morbidly funny. As Kramer tactlessly describes the guts and gore of surgery like a grisly horror movie and Elaine single-mindedly hits on Roy, the two have no regard for his personhood. Across Seinfeld’s nine seasons, most of the people they meet are treated as props, and Larry David — like Kramer swimming the East River — continuously plunges deeper into the depths of their selfishness, returning each time with bigger and more surprisingly callous laughs.
Roy heads into surgery in an operating theater. Kramer and Jerry watch from an overlooking balcony alongside a group of medical students. Enter: the Junior Mints. Kramer, who has treated this surgery like a cinematic event from the start (“Spleenectomy.” “Isn’t that where they remove the…” “Don’t ruin it for me; I haven’t seen it yet!”), brings candy to share during the show. He tries to force some on Jerry, who pushes them away. A Junior Mint arcs through the air in slow motion, falling down, down, down through the operating theater before plopping neatly into Roy’s open body cavity. Jerry and Kramer look around them with shocked guilt. No one saw.
How many sitcoms, even nearly thirty years later, have given us plots this audacious and ridiculous? TV lovers are lucky to have witnessed the advent of shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Community, and Arrested Development, each of which stretches the limits of what a comedic misadventure can look like, and none of which would exist without Seinfeld. Yet no shows — except, perhaps, Larry David-driven heir apparent Curb Your Enthusiasm — go as boldly and brilliantly into uncharted comedic territory while still keeping a comfortingly recognizable structure as Seinfeld does.
The Junior Mint, obviously, isn’t great for Roy’s recovery. When Elaine tells the guys that he’s taken a turn for the worse, the episode becomes the most darkly comedic, unnervingly high-stakes bit of product placement imaginable. “Who’s gonna turn down a Junior Mint?” Kramer says in defense of his faux pas. “It’s chocolate, it’s peppermint, it’s delicious!”
Meanwhile, George considers investing in some of Roy’s artwork in case his death makes it more valuable, and Jerry, in a classic B plot, tries to guess and snoop his way into learning the name of a woman he’s already kissed, whose name “rhymes with a part of the female anatomy.” This episode takes place seasons before George shrugs off his fiance’s death at the hands of cheap envelope glue, but the conceit is similar. We knew the gang was shallow, selfish, and cowardly, but their total disregard for human life is a bleakly hilarious new low.
The Junior Mint acts as a sort of a tell-tale heart, haunting Jerry and Kramer as they decide whether or not to report the excruciatingly embarrassing incident to save a man’s life. They themselves are ultimately saved, however, when it turns out the minty freshness isn’t what caused Roy’s infection, but what staved it off.
In the spirit of Seinfeld, there’s no lesson to be learned here. Elaine dumps Roy yet again when it’s clear he’s back to his overeating habit. George bemoans his useless new triangle paintings. Kramer and Jerry are off the hook, although Jerry’s down a girlfriend thanks to his inability to communicate (“Mulva?” he guesses sheepishly).
The surgeon gets in one wry final joke about the unbelievable events of the episode: “I think there were other factors at play here…something happened during the operation that staved off that infection. Something beyond science. Something perhaps…,” he says, hesitating in reverence, “from above.” Kramer offers him a Junior Mint.