Jerry Stiller died this week and mourners are celebrating the comedian’s life by bellowing mispronunciations of “Del Boca Vista” in their homes. But, as much fun as it is to revisit Stiller’s role as the irascible Frank Costanza, there’s another era of his career that also deserves a revisitation.
Stiller’s career began way back in the ‘50s when he and his wife, Anne Meara—who died in 2015—mined comedy from their mismatched backgrounds in clubs around the country. The tall Irish-American Catholic and the short Eastern European Jew found ample success as a comedic duo, going on to appear in a number of ‘60s and ‘70s variety shows where they canoodled, bickered, and imploded. Between 1963 and 1971, they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show more than 30 times.
While some of their appearances have inevitably been lost to time, others have been preserved. Their combustive chemistry and dovetailing punchlines are timeless, but the content was, too. In some cases, like the below clip in which the duo (accurately) predict the awkwardness and inherent distrust bred by online dating, they were downright prescient.
Their insight into relationship dynamics is also on display in this Ed Sullivan clip from 1964, in which a man tries to bypass his girlfriend’s desire to break up by escalating their relationship in the opposite direction.
They were also regulars on The Carol Burnett Show, where the pair engaged in both their finely-tuned brand of one-on-one banter and sketches with Burnett herself. The second clip, in which they play some workaday schlubs infiltrating an upper crust party, is especially hilarious—Stiller’s delivery of “I’m in garbage” is on par with anything he did on Seinfeld.
They were also frequent guests on game shows like What’s My Line? Below, comedians like Soupy Sales and Phyllis Newman try to guess their identities from behind blindfolds. When Bert Convy realizes who they are, he calls them “the most talented people in the world.”
Their chemistry, both comedic and romantic, resonated even in the PSAs and commercials they occasionally filmed.
Just see this ad for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in which Stiller punctuates a minute of comically tense banter with an earnest plea: “If you don’t fasten your seatbelt, I will never talk to you again as long as you live. Because I love you and want you alive.”
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