Against all odds, O.J. Simpson has become the biggest TV star of 2016. He is the main attraction in the two best TV series this year, FX’s excellent drama The People vs. O.J. Simpson and ESPN’s currently running documentary O.J.: Made in America. The latter is so good that even though I watched the FX show twice through, I’m still riveted by every second. Simpson’s story is so layered, so Shakespearean, so laden with the massive issues of race and class and gender, that it bears repeated tellings.
But back in the ’90s when Simpson’s trial was dominating TV for the first time, it inspired lighter cultural offshoots, the parodies that usually serve as our first mass processing of major events. The trial was rife with characters so huge that they often seemed like parodies already: the permissive Judge Ito, the brittle Marcia Clark, the preacher-like Johnnie Cochran, the bumbling Chris Darden (alas, his biggest moment was one of the prosecution’s biggest downfalls, the disastrous glove demonstration). There were the standard Saturday Night Live sketches, of course, but one of the most fully realized—and, it turns out, enduring—depictions came from Seinfeld.
Seinfeld often took inspiration from real life, but for the most part it stuck with the little irritations its writers encountered in the course of mundane tasks: the valet with body odor that lingered in your car, the coworker who liked to insult you during meetings, the girlfriend whose name you can’t remember, the cranky chef whose soup is so delicious you’ll put up with his yelling to get it. There were a few famous-name characters, most notably George Steinbrenner, the back of whose head was played by an actor and whose voice was provided by creator Larry David. But that portrayal was hardly a hot topical bit; it was simply a nod to the real New York City, which the show depicted so perfectly despite shooting in Los Angeles.
In fact, the arrival of the Johnnie Cochran-like Jackie Chiles on Seinfeld was Los Angeles’s way of sneaking into the show. The entire nation was mesmerized by the case, but it was beyond inescapable at its Los Angeles epicenter. And so a little piece of the Simpson trial made its way onto Seinfeld in the form of Chiles. (This was in addition to a one-off joke about Kramer participating in a low-speed police chase in a Ford Bronco during the 1994 episode “The Big Salad.”) He first showed up in the episode “The Maestro,” in which Kramer sues a restaurant for making his coffee too hot. The episode was shot in August of 1995, but it aired at a perfect time: October 5, just two days after the incendiary not-guilty verdict in the Simpson trial.
David and Jerry Seinfeld had, like most of America, been obsessed with the Simpson trial. In interviews for my book Seinfeldia, many of the writers mentioned them watching it or talking about it on the set. And it makes sense that they’d become particularly enamored of Cochran. Other trial characters were entertainingly bumbling, excitable, dramatic, and pompous, but Cochran had a speaking style that made him perfect for Seinfeld. He exclaimed. People in real life do not often exclaim. If a writing student of mine tried to use “exclaim” as a verb in a stretch of dialogue, I would likely question it … unless that student were describing the speech of Johnnie Cochran or a Seinfeld character. George exclaims almost constantly. So do his parents. Elaine and Jerry are known to exclaim. So is Kramer, in his own way.
Significantly, though, Cochran also had something special to bring to the exclamation party, a key factor in making it as a recurring character on Seinfeld. He rhymed. He had his own distinctive rhythm. He seemed to almost always be speaking in verse, a quality he obviously borrowed from Baptist preachers, to great effect. David and Seinfeld have a particularly musical sensibility to their comedy. (This is what brings humor to a line as simple as, “These pretzels are making me thirsty,” or to repeated phrases like “master of my domain.”) This gave Jackie Chiles, the character based on Cochran, license to deliver such classic monologues as this balm-related directive:
Actor Phil Morris has discussed his secret to nailing the character: He used to go to the same barbershop as Cochran, so he had his speech patterns down. The character soon took on a life of his own, returning for law-related shenanigans in six episodes. He essentially starred in the controversial finale, defending the four main characters in their trial for violating the Good Samaritan law. I’m a fan of the finale — another argument for another time — and one of its greatest moments is Chiles’s “innocent bystander” speech during opening arguments. It is both very Cochranian and very Seinfeldian:
In retrospect, it seems right that Seinfeld and the Simpson trial would remain linked, not only in our memories of the time but also through a specific character who lives on forever in reruns and Hulu streaming. Both the show and the trial helped to define the decade. So much so that Seinfeld showed up in an excellent scene in The People vs. O.J. Simpson, in which the jury differs along racial lines as to what they want to watch while sequestered: Seinfeld or Martin. They vote and Martin wins, a nice foreshadowing of the trial outcome.
In fact, Simpson’s infamous house guest Kato Kaelin showed up at the wrap party for Seinfeld‘s finale. Given how David’s friend Kenny Kramer described David’s reaction to Kaelin, it’s no surprise that he didn’t get the homage treatment Cochran did.