What’s in a name? When it’s Joel Rifkin, the name of a notorious New York serial killer whose brutal four-year murder spree ended when he was caught in June 1993, it was grim grist for an episode of the hit NBC sitcom “Seinfeld” that premiered just five months after his arrest.
Tragedy plus time equals comedy, so it’s been said. The “Seinfeld” team wasted no time trying to churn laughs out of one of New York’s most horrible mass murderers — Rifkin is believed to have killed up to 17 women and is the subject of Oxygen’s upcoming special “Rifkin on Rifkin: Private Confessions of a Serial Killer,” airing Saturday, April 10 at 7/6c on Oxygen.
Called “The Masseuse,” the episode first aired on November 18, 1993. The main story plot concerned Elaine (Julie Louis-Dreyfus) going out with a likable guy named Joel Rifkin (Anthony Cistaro) at the same time serial Joel Rifkin’s gruesome exploits were all over the news.
“The whole city is talking about this monster Joel Rifkin, and I am dating Joel Rifkin,” laments Elaine, whose coworkers have gotten wind of the creepy coincidence.
“I wouldn't sleep with my back to him if I were you,” cracks a colleague. Another colleague chimes in, adding “Hey, Elaine, listen. If you smell anything decaying in the trunk of his car …”
Script writer Peter Mehlman had clearly read reports about how the serial killer was captured. Following a traffic stop that led to a car chase by police, authorities noticed a rank odor coming from Rifkin’s car. In the trunk was the decaying body of his last victim.
Elaine’s discomfort level escalates when she and her boyfriend attend a Giants game and they leave an extra ticket at Will Call for Kramer. Because Kramer has no ID on him, the box office employee has to use the public address system.
“Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention, please? Would Joel Rifkin report to the stadium office? Joel Rifkin ... telephone.” The crowd stops cheering and squirm, while Elaine does damage control. “He’s not the murderer,” she reassures.
Elaine’s boyfriend had resisted her earlier suggestion to change his name, but now he’s ready to make a switch. “After the Giant game,” he says, “I realized that this — this problem isn't going away.”
They trade suggestions for a possible new name, and of course, they can’t come close to agreeing. In retrospect, a shockingly prophetic moment happens when Elaine comes up with a suggestion after reading a sports magazine.
“Oh! O.J.! O.J. Rifkin!” she says, inspired by the name O.J. Simpson. “You don’t even use a name, it’s just initials. Oh please, please, please change your name to O.J.! Please, it would be so great!”
Seven months later, Simpson’s name became connected to murder. He was charged with killing his ex-wife and her friend. He was eventually acquitted.
In addition to Rifkin, the episode discusses the phenomenon of serial killers in one of Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up routines.
“If there’s a serial killer loose in your neighborhood, it seems like the safest thing is to be the neighbor,” he says. “They never kill the neighbor. The neighbor always survives to do the interview afterwards. Right?”
“’Oh, he was kind of quiet.’ I love these neighbors,” he continues. “They’re never disturbed by the sounds of murdering, just stereo. Chainsaws, people screaming, fine. Just keep the music down.”
For more on Rifkin, watch Oxygen’s upcoming special “Rifkin on Rifkin: Private Confessions of a Serial Killer,” airing on Saturday, April 10 at 7/6c on Oxygen. It’s part of Serial Killer Week, a nine-day event on Oxygen diving into the most fearsome and fascinating criminals of all time
Oxygen’s Serial Killer Week brings viewers inside the minds of the most notorious criminals of all time. Featuring specials about fearsome and fascinating serial killers, it’s a can’t-miss event for true crime fans. Tune in on Oxygen April 10 to April 18.