Early in the week, after Jerry Stiller died, a clip from his time on “Seinfeld” resurfaced and went viral. Part of a blooper reel, it features Stiller’s Frank Costanza aggressively asking Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Elaine, “What the hell does that mean?” and then, “You saying you want a piece of me?” Every time he says one of the lines, Louis-Dreyfus and Jason Alexander crack-up uncontrollably and can’t stop. They break character, over and over, loving Stiller’s delivery so much they’re unable to continue filming.
I love them, those trails of infectious and unplanned laughter from a movie or TV set, with actors showing just how human, fallible, and silly they can be. If I fall into a rabbit hole on YouTube, wasting all kinds of time digging for diverting clips when I should not be, I often find myself cruising blooper reels. When that Stiller “Seinfeld” snippet started going around, linked to appreciations of the late comic actor, I’d already seen it. “Seinfeld” bloopers have been there for me for years now, making me laugh out loud just when I’ve needed to.
The “Seinfeld” blooper footage of Louis-Dreyfus laughing uncontrollably as John O’Hurley’s Mr. Peterman eulogizes a woman named Susie at her funeral, even though Elaine made Susie up — it’s my happy place. Of the 873,000-plus YouTube views on the “Seinfeld” season 8 blooper reel, some 500 of them are probably mine. In Britain, by the way, breaking character is sometimes called “corpsing,” since not laughing when playing a dead body is a particular challenge.
Maybe you like bloopers, too? They never fail to cheer me up, not least of all during this pandemic, as I spend even more hours than usual at my computer. I’m not talking about the token blooper reels, mostly from big-budget movies, that contain only a series of actors screwing up their lines or mangling words and cursing; those reels don’t have the boisterous spirit of the clips that show performers getting carried away in the moment. They don’t give us a film set spiraling out as the pressure not to laugh meets the need to laugh — and the latter wins. Filming movies and TV shows is expensive, and extra time and extra takes equal extra money, so mistakes, no matter how humorous they may be, are discouraged.
Most of us have been in a similar position to the actors in blooper reels, fighting to hold it together — at a religious service, in an important meeting, during a class — and nonetheless losing it big-time. The harder you fight, the more you lose it. It’s an unalloyed release as the tension fuels the laughter and dissipates. If you saw the “Chuckles Bites the Dust” episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” where Mary laughs hysterically at a funeral, then you know the deal. It’s the reverse situation from those times when someone is showing you something they think is funny and you feel pressured to laugh and therefore can’t.
Part of the pleasure of bloopers is in sensing that the actors actually had good times making something that I love. Watching your favorite cast members giggle feels like you’re getting a glimpse of the on-set vibe (even if you’re not, I suppose). If you’re a fan of “Parks and Recreation,” for example, I challenge you to watch the show’s blooper reels without feeling the happy energy, particularly from Chris Pratt, who seems to have made the cast break most of all. It’s also nice to see a strong set of bloopers from the set of an awful movie; maybe a good time was had by all, despite the poor result. Give me “Bad Moms” bloopers — with Kathryn Hahn — over “Bad Moms” any day.
Oh, by the way, Paul Rudd is a blooper superhero. He’s the guy behind some of the best reels out there, for movies such as “I Love You, Man” and “This Is 40.” When Rudd cracks up, as Leonard Cohen wrote, “that’s how the light gets in.” Oh, and of course Robin Williams is the engine on many, many blooper reels, from “Mork and Mindy” on — and including the insipid “Patch Adams.”
It’s often a kick when a comic breaks on “Saturday Night Live,” an unprofessional but giddy moment that makes it into our homes. Rachel Dratch and the others in her “Debbie Downer at Disney World” sketch from May 2004 have an all-time great break; by the time Dratch’s Debbie says, “It’s official, I can’t have children,” she can barely get the words out. As Stefon, Bill Hader made breaking part of those segments. But it’s live TV, and these mistakes are expected. Generally speaking, though, most of the pre-recorded entertainment products that come our way are extremely carefully put together. That makes the good blooper reels even more precious; they’re accidental slip-ups, and thoroughly human.