In many ways, Seinfeld paved the way for our undying irony empire – it thrust the highest of stakes upon the most trivial topics, nullifying the meaning of just about everything and thus earning the descriptor of “the show about nothing” – to clarify, the show itself wasn’t ABOUT nothing, its fervent fetish for the banal just happened to neutralize all subjects, grave and trivial alike. From calzones to Junior Mints to marble rye to superlative soup, the show – with its white, middle-class characters – studied the sad existences of four very bored individuals, whose problems were so minute that the loss of New York’s best soup somehow seemed equivalent to the loss of, say, a parent. But while it could impose gravity on molecular problems, the task of tackling an actual, politicized issue was beyond the show’s comedic boundaries: “The Bet,” slated to be the fourth episode of the second season but never filmed, centered on Elaine buying a gun.
Screencrush recently interviewed the episode’s writer, Larry Charles, and director, Tom Cherones, about the origins of the episode and the reasons for its cancellation. Allegedly, “The Bet” centered around two bets – whether or not Kramer had slept with a flight attendant, and whether or not Elaine would buy a gun for her own protection. Obviously the political climate surrounding guns in 1990 was quite different – while gun violence was exponentially more common in New York than it is today, shooting sprees hadn’t yet become such a frighteningly central cultural phenomenon: gun ownership therefore wasn’t quite as polarizing, and Elaine’s possession of a firearm wouldn’t necessarily have connoted partisan loyalty as it does today.
All that being said, the episode’s uncharacteristically controversial subject matter churned participants’ stomachs before it was ever made: it had already been cast and the sets had been made, but after a reading, recalls Cherones, the actors held a mutiny. They didn’t want to do it. Perhaps the most objectionable part was that it would have allegedly required Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) to hold the gun she ultimately purchased to her head and say, “Where do you want it, Jerry? The Kennedy? Or [holding the gun to her stomach] The McKinley?” So, yeah. That didn’t happen.
Looking back, Seinfeld often insensitively handled socioeconomic and racial issues, but it wasn’t particularly aware of what it was doing: the show’s comedic aim wasn’t to push any political or politically incorrect agenda. Its only aim was to make the middle-class people laugh a self-congratulatory laugh at the comfortable futility of their existences. Bringing a gun into the show would have crossed a line into different – and likely unfunny – comedic territory, and would have alienated audiences before the show ever became an iconic cultural phenomenon.
Another misstep that the episode could have taken – and Charles still, weirdly, stands behind this one – was divulging Kramer’s first name (which ultimately wasn’t revealed until Seinfeld‘s 97th episode). Not only would this have prematurely cut off a running joke, but the name they were going to use for Kramer very well could have ruined the show: Conrad. It was Conrad. Based, yes, on Conrad Birdie (the one who goes “Bye Bye”). While it’s undeniable that Michael Richards was the sex symbol of the era, the name pales in comparison to the “Cosmo,” with its implications of extraterrestrial origin.
While it’s tempting to speculate on whether the show could have handled guns (and the name Conrad) in a way that was consistent with its lightheartedly nihilistic humor, and while it would have been surreal to see Elaine purchasing a black-market gun from a guy who lived with his mother (Charles claims to remember this scene in the script), it’s probably best, for the history of television, that this episode never happened. Because Seinfeld didn’t fail, we can go on fervently embracing the trivial: devoting a great deal of thought to potato salad, writing high-stakes pseudo-political analyses of Seinfeld episodes. Guns abound, shooting sprees happen with the consistency of weekends, but did I mention this guy has raised more money than many, many people earn in a year to make a potato salad?