تیم والتلی

کتاب: زندگی در چند بخش / فصل 43

تیم والتلی

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Tim Whatley

When I got the role of Tim Whatley, “dentist to the stars,” I was already a big Seinfeld fan, and I was thrilled that I’d get to play a small part in one of the best comedy shows of all time. Seinfeld was revolutionary, really, in that instead of breaking down the story lines into A-plot and B-plots (major and minor stories), each episode gave all four main characters a major narrative, and somehow all of them intersected. Most other shows use guest stars to inject an element of humor. Seinfeld used guest stars to facilitate and spotlight the show’s stars. A superb construct.

The first episode I did was called “The Mom and Pop Store,” which was kind of an homage to Midnight Cowboy. Tim is having a party on the Upper West Side, and Jerry isn’t invited. Or is he? Jerry can’t tell! George Costanza meanwhile buys a used car he thinks might belong to Jon Voight, the actor. George is really getting off on the romance and glamour of driving around in a car that belonged to a celebrity. But Jerry plants a seed of doubt in George’s mind about the provenance of the Chrysler LeBaron. Did it really belong to Jon Voight? Then George finds a pencil in the glove box. It has teeth marks. Kramer tells George: “If you take the pencil to Tim Whatley’s party, you’ll find a dentist who can match the teeth marks to Jon Voight’s bite.” Did I mention that Jon Voight had recently bitten Kramer on the arm? As luck would have it, Tim knows Jon Voight! George exults in his good fortune. But then Tim continues: Jon Voight the periodontist.

Seinfeld has become a touchstone for so many people. Seinfeld superfans, who’ve seen every episode umpteen times, roam the streets, and when they see me invariably shout out: WHATLEYYYYYYY. Many people think my recurring presence on the show was part of some grand plan. In fact, I appeared in only six episodes, and each one was, for all I knew, the last time I’d be on.

On each episode, I got to see Jerry Seinfeld’s legendary comic genius up close. His knowledge of comedy is unmatched. Several times he’d tell me to adjust a joke here or there, and wham, the moment was transformed from pedestrian to uproariously funny. But all the major players on the show were brilliant. Going to work was like attending an intensive comedy seminar.

Larry David, the cocreator, an incredible comedian, never put characters first. It was always story first. Then find characters that suited the story. What if Kramer is mistaken for a mentally challenged person? He’s drunk. No. What about if he’s just come from the dentist? He’s got a mouthful of Novocain. Let’s bring Tim Whatley back. Thus was born a classic episode called “The Jimmy.”

Jerry had a rule about jokes: If you’re in the group, you can make the joke. If you’re not in the group, steer clear. So Larry David and Jerry said: “We need someone WASPy, who gets under Jerry’s skin, to convert to Judaism and abuse the ‘in-group’ privilege. Whatley!”

Tim converts to Judaism and immediately starts making Jewish jokes. When Jerry looks at him askance, Tim says, “Jerry! It’s our sense of humor that sustained us as a people for three thousand years.”

Jerry sneers. “Five thousand.”

Tim: “Five thousand, even better. Okay, Chrissie. Give me a schtickle of fluoride.”

The fact that Tim had been Jewish for a few days, and he was already telling Jewish jokes, offends Jerry not as a Jew but as a comedian. Hilarious.

In a famous sequence from “The Jimmy,” Jerry is distressed to see that Whatley has Penthouse magazines scattered in his waiting room. It’s a dentist’s office! Then, with Jerry in the chair, Tim says that his regular hygienist is at Dr. Sussman’s. “We find it fun to swap now and then,” Tim says saucily, sleazily.

Later, as Jerry wakes from the gas, he has a sense that his hygienist and Whatley have molested him. Was his shirt untucked before he went under? He can’t remember. Between the Penthouse magazines and the untucked shirt, Jerry suspects Whatley is a dental Caligula.

We rehearsed that scene, and then the other actors went on to do another scene. I stayed behind to get comfortable on the dentist’s office set. An electrician was adjusting a light, and he called down, “Hey, you know what would be funny?”

I was a bit confused. Was he talking to me? “What?” I asked.

“It would be funny if before you put the laughing gas mask on Jerry, you took a hit off it yourself.”

I thought about it and realized he was right.

It came time to shoot the scene. We were rolling, and I said, “Cheryl, would you ready the nitrous oxide, please?” She handed me the mask, and I brought it up to my face and took a healthy hit. Jerry fell over laughing. Larry David was beside himself with joy.

We did a ton of takes. The director, Andy Ackerman, kept saying, “Jerry, you cannot laugh.” But every time I took a hit off the mask, Jerry lost it, and then everyone else would have to laugh. Finally we got one take where Jerry wasn’t sliding out of the chair. That’s the one we used. That’s the only take in which he didn’t lose control.

In the end, when everyone was telling me what a great idea the nitrous hit had been, I pointed out the electrician who told me to try it. Everyone turned to see who it was. The electrician shrugged sheepishly.

You never know who’s going to give you the gift of a good idea.

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