Today brought the sad news that veteran actor Liz Sheridan died. She’d had a long career — working everywhere from Broadway to the small screen — but the world will always know her as Helen, Jerry’s mom, on Seinfeld. As soon as Sheridan’s passing at the age of 93 was announced, social media was flooded with references to probably Helen’s most famous line, which occurred after she learns that “Crazy” Joe Davola doesn’t like her son. Flabbergasted, Helen tells Jerry, “How can anyone not like you?! … You’re a wonderful, wonderful boy! Everybody likes you! It’s impossible not to like you. Impossible!”
In that moment, Helen was exactly the mom we all want — endlessly supportive, our biggest champion, impervious to the idea that her boy isn’t perfect.
It’s a great moment from a great sitcom, but watching the scene today, I realized that there’s something quite poignant about Sheridan’s passing. She was the last of the Seinfeld parents or older family members to still be alive, and with her gone, it now means that all of the show’s “grownups” are no longer with us.
I’ve heard people say that you don’t really become an adult until you lose your parents — suddenly, you realize you’re not a kid anymore. (“You really do feel like an orphan,” someone once said to me.) If so, it’ll be strange for Seinfeld fans to watch the show from here on out. Jerry, Elaine, Kramer and George were the main characters, but it always felt like they were the kids, with their parents and uncles serving as the series’ real grownups. Now, Jerry and his buddies are on their own.
We briefly met Elaine’s dad (Lawrence Tierney, who died in 2002) and Kramer’s mom (Sheree North, who died in 2005), but the key Seinfeld parents were Jerry’s and George’s. Both couples were in their sons’ lives more than their kids would have liked — especially in George’s case. But what was always so entertaining about Estelle Harris (who died earlier this month at the age of 93) and Jerry Stiller (who died in 2020), who played George’s folks Estelle and Frank, and Sheridan and Barney Martin (who died in 2005), who played Jerry’s mom and dad Helen and Morty, is that they embodied all the endearing annoyances of one’s own parents.
Jerry’s and George’s parents loved them — all evidence to the contrary, I think George’s parents really did love him — but they could also be exasperating and nosy and stubborn. They offered their opinions when they hadn’t been requested. Even though Jerry and George had their independence — except for when George briefly had to move back home — they still seemed to be like teenagers desperate to escape their parents’ control over their lives. When Helen and Morty came up to visit Jerry from Florida, they were underfoot, cramping his style. (Listen, Jerry only made out with his girlfriend during Schindler’s List because it was the first time they’d been alone in a long while.) And when he and Elaine visited his parents down in Del Boca Vista, Jerry seemed to revert in some ways to being a child, the way we all do when we go see our folks.
But Seinfeld’s four main characters all behaved that way around the Seinfelds or Costanzas — they play-acted the role of good kids being polite to the grownups. Larry David and the show’s writers never treated the parents like doddering old fools — Jerry’s meddling Uncle Leo (played by Len Lesser, who died in 2011) was a little more like that — but, rather, like hall monitors or guidance counselors. Everybody who Jerry and his friends encountered on Seinfeld was meant to be an irritant, and the Seinfeld parents were no different, but what made the depiction of the parents so much more nuanced was that they could be just as funny and likable as the main characters — except, because they knew Jerry and George so well, they could get under their skin in a way that, say, Bania never could.
Jerry and George did lots of terrible things over the show’s nine seasons, but the only people who could truly put them in their place were their mom and dad. For critics who thought Seinfeld was too mean-spirited or somehow approved of its characters’ bad behavior, the Seinfelds and Costanzas were a humanizing factor. Even monsters have parents who are a handful that can cut them down to size.
But the Seinfeld parents also bolstered the show’s impish, almost anarchic spirit. You always felt like Jerry and the gang were getting away with something when they acted selfishly — overgrown adolescents let loose in an adult New York without a chaperone. For as grumpy and cynical as the characters often were, they were young men and women, unencumbered by romantic commitments or children, free to do basically whatever they want. Seinfeld was like a dream of what post-college life could be like: Other than a job, you didn’t have any responsibilities tying you down. Outside of a Peterman or a George Steinbrenner, Jerry’s pals didn’t have to answer to anybody — except the show’s parents.
Now that all those older actors are gone, it only underlines how alone Jerry, Elaine, Kramer and George are in the world of Seinfeld. Elaine and Jerry apparently each have a sister, but we never see them and they just about are never mentioned on the show. Nothing dilutes the focus on Jerry and his pals, who see in the Seinfelds and Costanzas a version of domestic mediocrity that seems quaint and stifling. (The parents always bickered, rarely seemed to be in love.) In Helen and Morty and Estelle and Frank, we got a glimpse of what marriage looked like — something you’d eventually resign yourself to doing, but only after you’d had a lot of fun. It was something you’d consider after you were tired of being young and free.
The death of Liz Sheridan, as with the death of the other Seinfeld parents, is a shock because it disrupts the naive notion that Jerry and his friends had that these argumentative, impossible, deeply lovable older characters were always going to be in their lives. Part of what makes Seinfeld great is we relate to the main characters — we got to be big kids, too, living vicariously through the awful things they did. The parents were moral arbiters, the people who forced Jerry and his friends to behave appropriately. (Not that the parents didn’t act terribly, too — after all, Jerry and George had to have learned that behavior from somewhere.)
The Seinfeld adults made you feel like all the really scary aspects of adulthood — regret, loss, aging, death — couldn’t touch you. That was the stuff the Seinfelds and Costanzas constantly worried about. They shielded us from that reality, but now they’re not around anymore. Critics sometimes wondered when Jerry and his immature friends would grow up. Weirdly, with Sheridan’s passing, I feel like they have.