Jerry Seinfeld is 61. From the stage at the Beacon Theater, where the comic began his yearlong residency last night, he told the crowd that this decade was his favorite decade of life so far. The reason: He doesn't have to explain himself anymore. "When someone calls me up to do something, I just say, 'No,'" he said. He also mentioned that in his 70s, he'll refuse to answer entirely.
Of course, the co-creator of Seinfeld can do exactly as he likes, and what he likes is stand-up. With one of the most successful sitcoms of all time behind him, he tours, directs Colin Quinn in solo shows and produces a web series about the ostensible off-camera lives of his pals, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. He also wants to provide a hungry New York audience with an impression of a man who owed his life and career to the city (and Long Island), so he's aping Billy Joel's long-running MSG residency at an uptown venue.
If the crowd knew only Seinfeld, the star who made millions on nothing — er, the eponymous "show about nothing" — and had seen only the comedian's canned material from the show, this context would have been plenty. His Jerry character was predicated on his stand-up persona, and Seinfeld's stand-up has always been driven by classical, comedic ideals: economy, elegance and maximum relatability. Where modern comedy trends toward the confessional, the filthy, and the nihilistic, the veteran comic will opt for the observational, the pithy and the mildly annoying every time. "Gotta go" is the thing said most by members of the human race, he told the audience at the top of the show. "I couldn't wait to get here," he said, "and I'm sick of this already, too."
Five-Hour Energy drinks were "Meth-lab Hawaiian Punch Jell-O Shots." Reaching under movie-theater seats meant finding "three Goobers that have been soda-welded there since The Shawshank Redemption."
Though it's nearly impossible to believe, Seinfeld survived the comedy boom and bust of the Eighties with his act more or less intact. During his last Late Night With David Letterman appearance in 2015, he performed the first routine he did on the show nearly 30 years ago with only a few tweaks. The bits about weathermen and complimenting obese people held up, and at the Beacon, repeated jokes held up here, too. Seinfeld's God is in the infuriating details — he transmogrifies the little things that bother him with language, rendering them recognizable and fantastical at once. Hearing certain turns of phrase last night made the craftsmanship behind the words more apparent: Five-Hour Energy drinks were described as "Meth-lab Hawaiian Punch Jell-O Shots." Reaching under movie-theater seat meant finding "three Goobers that have been soda-welded there since The Shawshank Redemption." Animals in the circus were "jacked up on Thorazine, surviving on sawdust and peanut shells."
It was fun to watch Seinfeld indulge his inner crank, which seems to happen more over time. He called the stick-figure bumper sticker indicating just how many family members are on-board a vehicle, "a decal that makes me want to plant a car bomb under a Honda Odyssey." The fact that Seinfeld wants to name his coffee shop "Beat It" to discourage languishing customers proves he just might no longer be an annoyed citizen but a true curmudgeon like Curb Your Enthusiasm's Larry David.
Some of the night's bits that got the best response took on technology and, more importantly, the outmoded traditions to which our culture still clings. Seinfeld dismissed the U.S. Postal Service as "a dazed and confused distant branch of the Cub Scouts" that has an emotional meltdown each time it realizes "a business plan from 1630 is not working anymore." He examined the evolving process of answering the phone; it used to be an excited, "I'll get it!" and now it's "Nobody move. Who the hell is 513?" He also wondered why he's still being asked for his name and number when leaving messages: "Are people receiving messages like, 'This is a woman. Goodbye.' Or 'He is dead. Call me back!'" Some of the gripes felt outmoded themselves, but this fact only seems to cement Seinfeld's giddy descent into crankdom.
The show wasn't different from recent shows, and isn't likely to be any different from the rest of the run. An evening with Seinfeld promised no catharsis, but like "Piano Man," his set of golden standards had their allure. Satisfaction, not titillation, was the motivator of this residency, and Seinfeld's act has never been a roller coaster ride. (Watch Comedian, the 2002 documentary about post-Seinfeld Jerry if you're curious to watch the master fail onstage.) The show happily reminded the audience the ridiculous things its members share: lazy diction, contradictory behaviors, vapid rituals, and, of course, the inescapable minutiae that overwhelm our lives. Yada yada yada.
During Seinfeld's opening bit about the annoyances of going out ("Did you eat? Do you want to eat? When should we eat?"), he left out a gag I heard during his last run at the Beacon in 2012. It perfectly sums up how he sees his role as an entertainer: "My job is to slightly distract you while you're sitting in a different chair." It's a great line, but then again, it's just another great line in an already solid bit. Whether he uses it or not, he doesn't need to explain himself to us.