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“Hello, Newman”: The enduring genius of TV's greatest sitcom antagonist

Here's to the funniest character to ever exist almost entirely within the realm of villainy

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Wayne Knight as Newman and Sheree North as Babs Kramer in Seinfeld episode 11:?“The Switch” (Photo: Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)
Wayne Knight as Newman and Sheree North as Babs Kramer in Seinfeld episode 11:?“The Switch” (Photo: Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)
Graphic: Libby McGuire

It’s difficult, painful even, to ponder everything lost in the repeated failure to bring A Confederacy Of Dunces to the big screen. At various points, John Belushi, John Candy, Chris Farley, Will Ferrell, John Goodman, and Zach Galifianakis were slated to star as Ignatius J. Reilly, the sour spoiled boy tilting at windmills in John Kennedy Toole’s picaresque romp through 1960s New Orleans. The likes of Harold Ramis, John Waters, and Steven Soderbergh were each attached as potential directors. Scott Rudin was once set to produce. Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin were possible co-stars. Consider what we all lost by not getting to see any of the aforementioned mutter, in a Nawlins drawl, the likes of “when my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.” Or to see the offensive spectacle brought to life, a character whose lip corners are “filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs.”

Nick Offerman played the part in a 2015 theater production, but aside from that, the Pulitzer-winning book has largely been considered a cursed project. Almost as if Ignatius’ pummeling laziness and knack for self-sabotage continue to haunt, to hang in complaint like so many of the character’s yellow-stained sheets that were repurposed as protest banners in the book. But perhaps we haven’t been left entirely without visual traces of the spirit of Ignatius. Maybe another portly master of over-the-top self-derision already pulled off just such a role on the small screen: Wayne Knight as Newman.


Continuing the Jurassic Park and Basic Instinct actor’s penchant to exist as both the most lovable and most repulsive person in anything he sidles or climbs like a “ring-tailed lemur” into, in Seinfeld he also may be the funniest character to ever exist almost entirely within the realm of antagonism. Like Ignatius, Newman is part pedantic philosopher-poet, part half-assed Holden Caulfield Reddit-rabble-rouser. A sweaty, piddling outsider, he is quite capable of hitting all of Ignatius’ multitudinous beats between pitiful (slinking behind bookshelves, getting ditched on a rural road by his “buddy”) and disdainful (plotting to baste and eat said “buddy”). Crying-on-the-inside self-serious clowns, both are depressive, maybe suicidal, but armored by an acerbic tongue and Epicurean bent. To fully encompass the very idea of either being, you’d need, as Newman looks for while the Soup Nazi is giving away last vestiges, a “big pot.”

Kramer Plays Risk With Newman | The Label Maker | Seinfeld

Shaggy and ambling, sometimes pointless, the thrust of Seinfeld was much like the largely plotless Dunces, perfect for tangential arrows, for misanthropic screeds against modernity, for a near ceaseless airing of grievances, for forays into the absurd ennui of day-job trappings, of getting lunch from said day jobs, of arguing $75 speeding tickets with fictional suicide attempt defenses, of plotting a Michigan bottle refund scheme, of exploiting the unhoused for rickshaw conveyance, or for tapping the mythic rivalry of postal workers and dogs in a wondrously over-cooked scheme of revenge porn. This is all well beyond mere misanthropy. Years past any Bond-y boilerplate baddie (although, when he’s shrouded in shadow and smoke, going on about the “vile and useless,” there is something more than familiar). At heart is the skewed inspiration of some type of spited artist. A mewling, cackling, pontificating “unknown twentieth-century poet.” For Ignatius, all such cunning and self-victimizing might be about finding more time for self-flagellation. For Newman, it may be about scoring a calzone. And a slice of pepperoni pizza. And a large soda. And three times a week, a cannoli. Or it might just be about not going to work when it rains. “I was never that big on creeds.”


This itself is a bit of a creed, a code, one of unrepentant slackerdom. There is a definite thread of anti-establishment in everything he does, or doesn’t do. Holed up in his apartment, ripping cigs, pulling wedged forks from chair cushions, planning a used-record sale on Bleecker Street, it actually isn’t that hard to see Newman as maybe a few bong rips or Creedence jams from becoming a sort of slothy, insouciant antihero. A Lebowski. Purposeful or not, there is a motivation of revolt against, a refutation of, society, capitalism, the man. Of course he asserts “as a federal employee, I believe the law is all we have; it’s all that separates us from the savages who don’t deserve even the privilege of the daily mail. Stuffing parcels into mailboxes …” Either way, there’s an acknowledgment that the world is mad, and an appropriate response is one of retreat, of active remonstration. Much of his stance aligns with Ignatius’ “indictment against our century.” And it is all perfectly in the literary lineage of Cervantes, of Joseph Heller. Or, more directly, with the id of Larry David: Society is absurd.

But there is also a villainous, toddler-ish self-interest. For all the bluster and buffoonery, Newman is a manchild, a devotee only of his appetites—Drake’s Cakes, jambalaya, any food but fruit, Elaine, the Mets. Caught in an epic struggle for board game world domination, the chase for Super Bowl tickets, a wish to control information, all of his own flavor notes are applied to the bad-guy playbook. “I still have armies in the Ukraine!” he says presciently, cosplaying the ultimate strongman; “moving on her like the stormtroopers into Poland,” is how he describes a voyeuristic Jerry makeout session; “an evil wind will blow through your little playworld,” he threatens in the apotheosis of turpitude. One notch further, there are even tangible ties to David Berkowitz, the New York serial killer whose mail route Newman took over, whom he quotes when finally arrested for dog-napping: “What took you so long?” Online conspiracy theory has taken this connection to the extreme. Is Newman himself a serial murderer? It is all a bridge too far. Or is it?

Best Of Newman | Seinfeld

Either way, why is it common and joyous to root for the type? Why is it that we find ourselves siding with John Candy’s messily obnoxious Del Griffith in Planes, Trains, And Automobiles? Why is Cliff Clavin still so welcome next to Norm—and on our screens? Why do we return to Toole’s 40-year-old masterpiece, as close to the great American novel as we might have, with as odious and defiled a character as has been committed to page? Is it simple humanity? The fact that they are so often kind of right? Is it the simple tenderness of vulnerability? (How did poor Newmie get fleas!?)

Moreover, what is it about Newman that inspires such glee? The tucked plaid accentuated girth, head-cocked maniacal mouth open grin, the hyper verbosity, the rising-voice soliloquies necessitating an outside shutoff, the madcap pitter-patter high knee steps. In a story with almost no redeeming characters, Newman still transcends, goes full heel, chooses transgressing as a way of life, stands anti-Jerry as an ethical standard. But maybe he too represents something universal, recognizable. After all, he is the one already in your apartment building. This is your friend’s friend, your recurring local public servant, the one who warrants either an awkward head nod or an equally awkward stop-n-chat, frequent enough for both familiarity and annoyance. A peer, nemesis, neighbor, all of it rolled together, the one who, when things are going well, or going poorly, no matter—when things are just going—darkens your door. The one embodying all the exasperation of the world’s injustices, standing with a Schadenfreude smirk or a snarl, a scowling meatball of all the inanity of toiling in a society. A society of “other drivers.” And yet, still, he is a man, almost “merry,” enough to necessitate a greeting, a shrugged acceptance of humanity and her shortcomings. He is owed an acknowledgment, that here is somebody else, with a worldview a smidge skewed, approaching life from behind a different door—on the east side of the building, no less—one who deserves, at least, a “Hello, Newman.”