Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Hand That Rocks the Sitcom

So Seinfeld did meta. This is not debatable. The best example would be the show eating itself in the fourth season story arc involving Jerry’s production of Jerry, a sitcom that parodied Seinfeld. You could and should even argue that this blurring of real-life and TV show fiction continued with last Sunday’s episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, “The Reunion,” which brought the four leads from Seinfeld back together. The tendency for Seinfeld to draw from real life resulted in some more subtle bits, too — some that weren’t apparently intended as “ha ha” jokes as much as in-jokes existing only to tie the Seinfeldverse to something more concrete. Today, I remembered a good example: the other Rebecca Demornay. I’ve been unable to explain her existence since the character first appeared in the episode “The Muffin Tops” back in 1997.

In the episode, Elaine and Mr. Lippman, her old boss at Pendant Publishing, open a bakery called Top of the Muffin To You!, which serves only the tops of muffins. In order to make the products taste good, however, the whole muffin must be cooked and the stump discarded. Elaine decides to drop off the stumps at a homeless shelter, which prompts a visit from an angry volunteer, played by character actress Sonya Eddy.

YouTube, of course, has the specific clip at the ready:

Even as a kid, having seen only Risky Business and Backdraft, I knew about the actress Rebecca De Mornay and thought it was weird that this character would identify herself with the same name. (Or close to it, anyway. IMDb spells the character’s name Rebecca DeMorne, while most other sources list it as Rebecca Demornay, like the actress but without the space.) The clip above features the extent of the character’s appearance in the episode, and she could have easily just not been named and not introduced herself. But she does — and elicits the faintest of chuckles from the audience, even though there’s nothing really funny about her having the name aside from the fact that the real Rebecca De Mornay is blonde and pretty and relatively young and this soundalike is African-American, heavyset and middle-aged. Is that supposed to be the joke?

The matter gets weirder when you consider that Rebecca Demornay — the character, not the actress — appears again in the following season’s episode “The Bookstore,” as a clerk at thrift shop. (IMDb lists the character’s name as Rebecca Demornay and not Rebecca Demorne.) This time she interacts with George and makes a point of clarifying her name. From the episode script, per this website:
REBECCA: What’s the value of the book?

GEORGE: Uh, about two hundred dollars, Miss Demooney.

REBECCA: It’s Demornay. Rebecca Demornay.


REBECCA: (Opens the cover of the book) Oh, wait a second. This book has been in the bathroom.

GEORGE: Wh-what are you talking about? That’s ridiculous.

REBECCA: It’s been flagged. I know. I used to work in a Brentano’s. Mister, we’re trying to help the homeless here — it’s bad enough that we have some nut out there trying to strap ‘em to a rickshaw!

GEORGE: Alright, I’ll just take fifty. Do we have a deal?

REBECCA: Yeah, and here it is: You get your toilet book out of here, and I won’t jump over this counter and punch you in the brain!
No clue on this one, folks. Why take the name of a known person and attach it to an angry bit character with a propensity for helping the homeless? A Google search turned up fairly little, aside from the fact that at least one other person thinks this is strange and bothered to say so online. Most websites just note — often in bios of Rebecca De Mornay the actress — that an almost identically named character appeared on Seinfeld without pressing the matter any further. Admittedly, when the episodes aired, the real De Mornay wasn’t exactly at the height of her career, but she still would have been familiar enough to anyone with an awareness of films from the previous ten years. I mean, this is like if I wrote a TV show today and decided to name an incidental but recurring character Neve Campbell — or, ten years from now, Evangeline Lilly. And it’s not like De Mornay is a common last name, by any stretch.

Anyone? Friends? Pop culture sponges? Helpful people Googling their way here?

EDIT: Years later, I finally asked the writer and got the answer.

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