Jerry Seinfeld: King of Prime-Time Comedy - Rolling Stone
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Jerry Seinfeld: King of Prime-Time Comedy

What’s the key to the hit sitcom that has profoundly changed what America finds funny? “No hugging, no learning”

Michael Richards, Cosmo Kramer, Jerry Seinfeld, Seinfeld

Michael Richards as Cosmo Kramer, Jerry Seinfeld as himself in 'Seinfeld' on August 17th, 1993.

Monty Brinton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

Look…at…all…the…losers.” He was killing them in the first Vegas show, killing them, when a fat guy very near the front of the hall plotzed over, dead. Or so it seemed as the group around him began tentatively lifting the man’s forehead off the tablecloth and calling for a doctor. The house-lights went up. Jerry Seinfeld stood at stage front, mike in hand. The abrupt equation, if you’re the comedian onstage, is you die. George Shapiro, his manager for 14 years, left the side of the one known as Mr. Superagent Mike Ovitz like a shot and scrambled down to the scene just as the man, thank God, picked his head up and gaped about. “He’s OK, Jerry,” rasped Shapiro over the crowd’s buzz as the man lumbered off. “He felt a little faint, but he’s OK!” Luckily, Seinfeld was amid some medication jokes (“I want the maximum allowable human dosage. Figure out what’ll kill me and back it off a little bit”), and with an ad-lib about wearing your clothes too tight, he had them back, had that feral laughter of a Friday-night crowd pounding down.

Seinfeld was back doing what jazzes him most: standup. While the rest of the cast of his smash NBC sitcom, Seinfeld, enjoyed their hiatus basking in the show’s 12 Emmy nominations or parlaying their success into quick movie deals, Seinfeld spent his summer vacation on the road, playing 38 shows in 13 cities. It’s not the money that drives him (he earns nearly double the $100,000 per episode that David Caruso demanded and didn’t get for NYPD Blue), it’s the kick he feels standing in front of a live audience. “That’s what keeps him going,” says Shapiro. “He told me that’s when he can feel the hairs on the back of his neck come alive.”

Now, Seinfeld sits backstage in the sterile light of the green room, Armani suit coat off and white shirt open, chatting quietly with the parents of Miss Shoshanna Lonstein. Just as their dress and manner are those of fashionable, moneyed New Yorkers (Dad’s in software), Seinfeld’s manner, one could swear, is that of a prospective son-in-law who’s had a fine if fatiguing day trading stocks. Lonstein hovers between, self-possessed, quietly proprietary. The squealing rubber of that first set is just a faint echo now; by the late show he’ll be able to toss out “We almost lost one tonight.” Still, his humor arises from the petty aggravations and irritations of daily life; Sudden Death is not his beat. There’s just a hint in his eyes of what he’s been through in this big Vegas room, a hint of something spooky and exhilarating that calls to mind the maxim he learned in his first stand-up shot 18 years ago: “Laughing does not come easily.”

That was so long ago, sitting in the cellar at Manhattan’s Catch a Rising Star, hearing the pipes knock and the crowd shuffle chairs overhead, waiting to do your four minutes. And then to bomb, big time.

“Have you ever gone sky-diving? It’s like that, thinking, ‘Why should everyone be listening to me? What right do I have to come in and have everyone’s attention in this room?’ I just felt really out of my place.”

Seinfeld does 75 minutes now, to considerably better effect, and yet it’s still the same, that feeling his buddy Larry David, the King of Seinfeld County, has recalled as a lone bead of sweat going down your back. Car nut Seinfeld took a road-racing course this summer, flinging little Formula Fords through switchbacks at 100-plus miles an hour, and he received a letter rating him first in his class of speedheads. Still, he says: “You could kill yourself. Because the car doesn’t know you’re only learning. The pavement doesn’t know that. They rated me one of the best, potentially. This would be something I could do. But I wouldn’t do it. It’s too much like stand-up. A crucial-results environment.”

Well, yes. But how about the crucial results that will be tallied in laughs on the big Studio City, Calif., soundstage where Seinfeld is shooting its fifth full season? Once, live audiences had to be rounded up from the tourist herds at Universal City; now they scrap for a seat and the chance to laugh by proxy for the 27 million more who will tune in Seinfeld at 9 p.m. on Thursdays. Many at home are what TV execs call “appointment viewers,” those who actually have a life who nonetheless will cede to Seinfeld and friends for this half-hour each week. Advertisers with luxury cars and high-stakes movies to sell dearly want those viewers’ attention — say, $350,000 for 30 seconds?

With all due respect to the show’s comic verve, it may well have languished, yes, and died, in the gloom it knew as the 40th most popular show on TV, had NBC not moved it to the half-hour slot immediately after Cheers. “They tried every other place they could think of,” says Seinfeld, an unblinking pragmatist, “but we needed that Thursday spot.” Indeed, he seems to regard the show’s galloping marketability as an odd adjunct to its comic virtues on the way from its pilot episode, which aired in July of ’89, through its set of four episodes that aired in the spring of the next year: “To us, very quickly, it was a great show — the people making it were as excited about the show then as we are now. And whether people caught on or not was something you just kind of watched and observed.”

Anyone who’s kept a few Thursday-night appointments in Seinfeld’s TV kitchen knows how he can deliver that line to make it sound less vainglorious than it looks on paper. The unblinking dark eyes and the mouth that remains half-open as if ready to deal with any riposte that may arrive speak of his sense of logic and sang-froid. True, critic Ron Rosenbaum is not alone when he complains of “smugness… . What emanates unmistakably from the whole Seinfeld group is how enormously pleased they are with themselves.” But the distinction to note is that said group claims only to be good at that… very… offbeat thing they do, though Seinfeld is quick to add that what the rest of the pack does out there in prime-time sitcom land is rather bogus. “I really enjoy the art of euphemism,” says Seinfeld, referring to “The Contest,” an episode on the series in which masturbation dared not speak its name, “especially compared to the shove-it-up-your-nose kind of stuff they usually do on TV.”

Ask Seinfeld about his and co-creator Larry David’s oft-quoted credo for the show — “No hugging, no learning” — and he shrugs as if it were self-evident: “It is a bit presumptuous to think that you can really teach people a meaningful lesson after 21 minutes of bad one-liners and to try to get philosophical in that last minute and have it hit home.” Adds David: “Some people are better at finding the humor in large issues that confront society. Jerry can go in, take a microscope and examine the tiniest moments and see the humor in it.” As Seinfeld co-star Julia Louis-Dreyfus puts it: “We all know that plenty goes on in our show. Plenty of nothin’.”

There can’t be too high a fraction of Americans, be they dirt farmers or high-culture cosmonauts, who don’t have some passing acquaintance with the Seinfeld show’s four principal dramatis personae returning this month: Kramer (Michael Richards), the phallic, pterodactylous across-the-hall neighbor and mooch; Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), Seinfeld’s charmingly tart-tongued ex-girlfriend who ended last season stripped of job, boyfriend and apartment; George Costanza (Jason Alexander), the short, rotund, hair-challenged neurotic who combines tortured superego and pulsing id and closed last season with a new job, girl and apartment; and of course, the character of Jerry Seinfeld, who, despite the Pierrot face, the smutchless white sneakers and the seeming transparency, is almost impossible to sum up.

“We try to keep Jerry and Jerry as close as we can,” says David. “We don’t want him to do too much acting.” Jerry said it himself in 1993’s let-the-characters-start-a-show-like-Seinfeld episode, “The Pilot”: “I’m the one who’s dying, because I can’t act, I stink, I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Was it always a given he’d play a comedian on the show? “That’s no accident,” says Seinfeld. “I always hate when comedians come up with these little jobs for themselves on TV shows. You know what you really are, you’re really a comedian. I wanted to be as comfortable as I could, so I stuck with that. I mean, when I get up onstage, that’s not really me. I don’t talk in jokes and routines all day. It’s just an act. But it is me. I’ve been doing that for 18 years, and I’m just used to being up onstage, performing.”

So is the character close enough to him to spare him any “brilliant acting” but far enough to keep the identities separate? “It’s two very different faces you put on, but you get comfortable switching back and forth,” Seinfeld says. “When you’re home by yourself, watching TV, you don’t react with gestures and nodding, like ‘Yeah, a new coating on that pill, I see!’ You do that when you’re on a date. So, it’s a heightened reality in public, and in stand-up or on the show, it is just one step higher.” S

aenger Performing Arts Center, New Orleans, summer 1994, the question-and-answer session from Seinfeld’s stand-up show brings a bellowing voice from the balcony.

“Where’s Elaine?”

“Elaine’s out there, but I’m the star of the goddamn show, and I’m here.” [Then amid lusty applause] “Let me explain that those people on the show are, in fact, fictional characters.”

Around dusk on a N’awlins evening that’s breezy but pantingly warm, under the sheltering oaks of St. Charles Avenue, Seinfeld walks from the doors of the Pontchartrain Hotel to his limo. Shoshanna Lonstein, olive skinned, every bit of 19 and looking oblivious to the heat in a silky black suit, precedes him through the door. Arrayed inside are manager Shapiro, publicist Lori Jonas and longtime friend Mario Joyner, who will open the show. As the long car pulls away, Seinfeld shifts uncomfortably and glances sideways at his interviewer: “So, you’re stretched out there, and I’m sitting over the transmission hump.” True enough, his suit pants are creasing noticeably at the knee, over his lanky legs.

Has Seinfeld launched a simple witticism? What feels like a prolonged silence passes as the other passengers sit watching with mute gravity. The thought comes that one could volunteer to sit next to Lonstein.

“Er — “

“Really,” says Seinfeld, the pitch of his voice rising as it does when he reaches one of his crackpot logical conclusions onstage, “I’m the only one who should be sitting in this car right now.”

The laughter in the car suddenly seems easy, and Joyner fills much of the brief ride to the concert hall with observations about the purgatorial waits for the hotel elevator, his not-so-hidden if amiable theme being the human cost of the tour’s relative frugality. But Seinfeld’s wry territory routine has established the context for dealing with the next chucker of questions — lightly comic standoffishness, even as he bears up under the imposition.

As the car passes Mother’s Restaurant, on Poydras Street, home of a sandwich ingredient called debris, Lonstein fills in the details of debris (flaky, glistening, plutonium-grade shreds saved from the pans beneath roasting beef) for the health-conscious Seinfeld. At the hall, local management reps await him behind the stage door and see to the providing of a TV on which to watch the Knicks’ playoff game, but the atmosphere, taking its cue from Seinfeld himself, is one of tea-sipping civility.

The crowd is avid, and as one often sees musicians do in New Orleans’ thick, promising air, Seinfeld blows harder than usual, honking out local riffs. “There’s not enough wrought iron here. . . . Everyone’s sweating.” Stalking toward the front row, raising a foot. “Anything that crawls out —” stomp! “— eat it! Etouffée, debris and that stuff, you all just like words that have letters you don’t say.” He throws an uncharacteristic sneak look at the wings, and it seems he just might ask for the Knicks score. He’s killing again, with a vision of the way senior drivers in Florida back out blindly (“I’m old, I survived, now you watch out!”) and leave their blinkers on forever (“the eventual left turn”), then with a Halloween routine that starts with his childhood obsession (“Get candy”) and marches on to his ill-fitting Superman costume (“It’s all loose — it’s like a debris sandwich”) and finally, “Just give me the goddamn candy…. I got 18 houses on this block, I’m not looking to really make friends here.”

The yawp about being star of the show in fact comes out of high spirits during tonight’s question-and-answer session, as does his quick retort to the inevitable inquiry about “shrinkage” (which is what happened to George’s privates after a swim in the chilly pool in “The Hamptons”) — “I’m very proud to have brought that concept before the public” — and then a question as to whom he would have voted for, for governor. “I think,” he says, shrugging and about to be washed in a roomwide roar, “anybody could win here.”

After the show, the limo takes the long way home, through the Quarter, and a certain deli is pointed out — the purported spot where ranking mob guys met with their New York counterparts to sort out shares in the local gaming industry.

“Carlo Gambino used to play poker with my dad,” says Seinfeld almost wistfully as the Quarter’s amber street lights flicker through the moon roof and across his face. “Very elegant man.”

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., but raised on Long Island, in Massapequa (“It means ‘by the mall’ in Indian,” he’ll say), Seinfeld opens his best-selling book (Seinlanguage, what else?) with an evocation of riding, sneakers on dashboard, in the Kal Signfeld Sign Co. van. “It was kind of like a Zen thing,” he says, recalling life with his late dad over French toast at his preferred Hollywood grain-for-age site, Hugo’s. “You know, the student-teacher dialogues. But somehow that was our little place, the truck. I’d drive with him in the truck and ask those questions, and he’d answer. You know, explain to me about the different size brains that people have. Usually based on the cost of the product they deal in.

“We were always going from place to place, different businesses, and each one had a different mentality,” Seinfeld continues. “The fruit guy, the pizza guy, the TV guy, the appliance guy, the home builder. He had this great overview of commerce and people. And he really was a great sizer upper. He used to tell me about how he would try to make people laugh sometimes; he just couldn’t stand staring at those stony faces. He was more burlesque than I was. I think I’ve always kind of been a little on the sly. He was much more out front.”

A prodigious consumer of TV who was briefly cut off from the tube by his mother, Betty (“Not,” he says with fondness, “a comedic individual”), he wasn’t a problem child. Though, he says: “One time I just didn’t come home. I was 7 or 8. I didn’t realize I had to come home every day at a certain time. It just slipped my mind one day.” He felt his folks deserved some slack, too: “My sister and I were talking — she has a little boy — about how certain kids get upset when you go out. They don’t like the sitter, they want you to stay home with them and we were talking about how I was as a kid when my parents would go out. I didn’t care what they were doing. ‘Do whatever you’ve got to do. I’m watching TV and playing with the Silly Putty.’ I was busy.”

Not far down the Long Island Expressway from Massapequa’s “very ordinary kind of suburban environment,” Seinfeld went on to Queens College (notorious for its lack of student parking), studying theater arts and mass communications and graduating in 1976. On a hot Thursday this past June, the school awarded him an honorary doctorate. As the procession moved in range of local newspaper photographers (“Giddown! Yeah, you!”), Professor Stuart Liebman recalled Seinfeld as a film-history student: “Very bright, very appealing — he laughed at my jokes. I have a good idea for his show: An ex-professor keeps trying to pitch Jerry a script. I’ve patented it.”

Best thing for it.

Despite the naysaying of such members of the Academic Senate as philosophy professor John Lange (“Giving a serious degree to a comedian is not a normal thing”), Seinfeld, in robe and mortarboard, came to address 3,300 graduates: “I spent several wonderful years here at Queens College. I would say that the best parking spot I ever got was my junior year — right up here on Kissena Boulevard.” He thanked the prof “who allowed me to pursue an independent study here in stand-up comedy, and I really feel that worked out pretty good,” he said. “My only regret is that if at the time I could have foreseen I would be standing here today, when my parents were pushing me to become a doctor, I would have said to them, ‘All right, all right, just let me tell jokes to strangers in nightclubs for 18 years, and I’m sure they’ll make me a doctor.'” Thanking his “terrific audience,” Seinfeld was ushered into a police car by a brusque detachment of campus cops and was gone.

The night of the day he graduated from college, Seinfeld went, without telling his family, into Manhattan for his lonely rendezvous with comic destiny on the stage at Catch. Working along-side such comics as Paul Reiser and Richard Belzer, he strove for four years to get 25 good minutes. One night, Seinfeld came face to face with a black comic named George Wallace, then calling himself the Reverend and accessorized with gold cape and carrying the Yellow Pages. “He thought I was crazy,” admits Wallace. They became great friends, though Wallace didn’t entirely share Seinfeld’s aversion to salt, fat, germs, smoke and hard drinking: “He’s so perfect that I told him when they lower him in his grave, I’m going to say, ‘He tried everything.'”

Together and separately, they toured the nation, seeing, Seinfeld recalls, many a “humiliating” dressing room. He’ll consistently name only two comics as inspirations, Robert Klein (“tremendous brightness”) and Bill Cosby: “That always felt very beyond me, the things I saw him do, very beyond me.”

Over several conversations, there is no other subject that will take Seinfeld out of his habitual remoteness as stand-up will. He’ll call it his “mission,” his “passion,” and he scoffs at the idea “that any TV show is that big a deal.” His aim and ongoing dream is simply to “be funny” and, ideally, funny on his own, on a stage.

“You have to discover yourself,” Seinfeld says. “That’s what stand-up is. That’s what life is. It means nothing what everybody else is doing, really. They’re just like big guideposts.”

“He’s so disciplined in whatever he does,” says Wallace. “Sixteen years ago he would sit down and write every day on his act — sit down with a pad every day.”

The underground, edgy conscience of the New York comics was none other than Larry David, who was not above rebuking an audience that failed to laugh at his cerebral forays. He likes to say that he was doing “nothing” before the show teetered into existence in 1989 and that he looks forward to making a few bucks and then going back to doing nothing again. He can afford to: As a profit participant alongside Seinfeld, David will get a tidy percentage of the show’s fat syndication profits.

Seinfeld toiled steadily in New York clubs and on the road, and in 1980, with his 25 minutes’ worth, he went to Los Angeles. It was about a year till he parted the curtains on The Tonight Show — May 7, 1981. Though he didn’t get the wet dream, the immediate wave-over to chat that Johnny Carson would occasionally confer, he got one soon enough, and he’d return repeatedly. He kept working ceaselessly, his main expense being sharp German cars. In 1988, he was having trouble drawing funds from his accountant: “I went and asked for some money, and he kept saying, ‘If you pull it out now, you lose all the interest.’ And then one day they called and said, ‘It’s gone.'” Seinfeld was out about $50,000.

Carving up his French toast with precision, Seinfeld says he doesn’t know the exact fate of the accountant: “I guess they just take his pencil and break it. It’s kind of like the beginning of Branded with Chuck Connors, where they break the sword.” (Or maybe he ends up portrayed in something like the Seinfeld episode “The Sniffing Accountant,” where the guest character’s suspicious sinus problems torment our hero.)

So, short one possible Porsche, Seinfeld installed sister Carolyn (18 months his senior) as his business manager and kept plugging. One day in ’88 he sat down with David at the Westway Diner, on Ninth Avenue, in Manhattan. They cooked up an idea for a show — to be called The Seinfeld Chronicles, if only for one episode — and started to pitch it. They found an adherent in Rick Ludwin, an NBC senior vice president in charge of late night, variety and specials. He eventually offered to cash in the budgets earmarked for two specials on four Seinfeld half-hours.

About a year earlier, a posse of sitcom veterans (many from All in the Family) who had formed Castle Rock Entertainment had been trying to cast the lead in a show called Past Imperfect and had met with Seinfeld, who threw in a few jokes as the project meandered into development (and was eventually seen with Howie Mandel). When the increasingly enthusiastic NBC told Seinfeld to find himself a producer, Shapiro called Castle Rock (on a day the Castle Rockers call “our national holiday”).

The struggle wasn’t over; a May 1989 cablecast-audience survey (the show was beamed into selected homes) brought a test report that culled opinions like “You can’t get too excited about going to the Laundromat…. Jerry’s ‘loser’ friend George is not a particularly forceful character…. Pilot performance: Weak.” Still, as further shows aired, the program lurched forward. To Ludwin, it was a show “that people will turn over rocks to find.”

Fortunately, those people were the car-buying, movie-going, Grade A consumers aged 18 to 49. “What made us develop,” says Seinfeld, “was despite being very low rated in the beginning, we had a very high demographic profile. Though we were technically bombing, the people watching were what they call advertiser desirable.”

They needed all the help they could get. In January 1991, Castle Rock partner Glenn Padnick was in New Orleans at a programmers’ convention, hearing great word of mouth about that season’s pilot. He got on his plane home that night carrying warm trade reviews of the show, set to air on the network minutes later. Then on the intercom came the announcement: “The war for the liberation of Kuwait has begun.” Gulf War coverage had pre-empted the debut. Finally, after some more time in the wilderness of Wednesday night, the show was moved to the post-Cheers spot, and the rest is Seinfeld history. Kicking butt in its time slot, the show is on its way to making its producers, including Seinfeld, very wealthy men. “Oh, crazy money,” says George Wallace. “Sometimes he tells me how much he’s making. I just hang up on him.”

Perhaps the key change in the nothingness Seinfeld and David so momentously conceived was the early addition of Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine. After three hard years in “the boys’ club” of early-’80s Saturday Night Live (David was an SNL writer), she’d done a sitcom, Day by Day, and shot a pilot for NBC (the network didn’t pick it up) — but one great scene in a Seinfeld script (“Male Unbonding”) that David sent her persuaded her to come in.

“We were going to read the scene together,” Louis-Dreyfus says, “sort of meet to see if we got along. And Jerry was eating a bowl of cereal, got the cereal and milk in his mouth, and I said, ‘To hell with it,’ sat on the floor, and we shot the shit for a while. I had a good feeling about him as soon as I met him. He was exactly where he should be as a levelheaded person. I think the appeal of Jerry Seinfeld is that people watch him and feel like ‘Oh, yeah, that guy is just like my friend.'”

The co-creators were just as pleased with this fine-boned, big-haired gamine who could push the guys around. Originally, says Seinfeld, “we didn’t want to get into a will they/won’t they sex thing, so we figured an ex-girlfriend was a good way to get around that.” For all the latitude the network now allows the show, soon enough, recalls Louis-Dreyfus, “there was pressure from, um, above, to get those two back in the sack. I think it’s better for them to be apart, because it provides more conflict.” After two such go-rounds, says Seinfeld, “I think that’s pretty cooled down now. Anything can happen, but at this point it doesn’t feel like anything we’re really too interested in.”

In his dark Porsche Carrera, Jerry Seinfeld weaves down the alleyways of the studio lot, eases the car in its primo spot well away from where Louis-Dreyfus legendarily usurped the space reserved for Tom Arnold’s Bentley and heads upstairs in Building 5 for his morning work date with David. Gathered in the cereal-overstocked company kitchen are three noted stand-up comics from Seinfeld’s Catch days — the Kafka-tinged Fred Stoller, the ebullient Marjorie Gross (both new to the writing staff this year) and their buddy Carol Leifer, who still opens occasional stand-up dates for Seinfeld and wrote, among others, last year’s “The Lip Reader” (Marlee Matlin was nominated for an Emmy for it). Leifer and Seinfeld were romantically entwined circa 1977, but “it’s all pretty foggy by now, you know, like most of the things in the Beame administration,” says Leifer, Beame being a former New York City mayor. “We’ve had this whole other life as friends since then.”

Seinfeld grew up in the business before media scrutiny grew feverish: His once-active single life and his brief flirtation with Scientology are now small-print footnotes. Present-day Seinfeld, Leifer says, “likes to do really simple things, like ‘Let’s go to the Beverly Center and hang out, you know, walk around.’

“Since we go back so far, there’s still things that happen that are Elaine and Jerry things,” Leifer says. “We were going to the movies last year, and as he picked me up, a bird flew into my apartment. I was totally freaked and just ran out — “You’ve got to go in there and get that bird.’ I thought he might be really chicken. But he said, ‘Get me a pair of ski gloves.’ Then he went in there, and he was tackling the bird. The whole way to the movies, I’m going, ‘I am really impressed; I expected you to have this nebbishy attitude.'”

Leifer is prepared for another year of squeezing her concepts through the needle’s eye of the show’s humor. “The words we use most often, talking with writers around the office,” says Seinfeld, “are lack of quirky. If it’s not quirky and odd, if it seems like something you could see someplace else…”

La muerte. Surely Leifer’s thought for today has quirky: “I went to Spain over the summer, so I pitched this idea that Elaine dates this matador, from, ah, Spain. He’s this big deal over there, because they’re so revered. But she gets suspicious he’s lying because he’s afraid to kill a bug in her apartment.”

Once an episode’s main thread is developed, the other characters have to begin intersecting with it. Says Seinfeld: “The ones I really like are when you twist stories in unexpected ways and yet still manage to twirl them into a point at the end.”

For Leifer, the trickiest part is incorporating the unknowable Seinfeld: “With Jerry, it’s interesting, because you can’t really define his character. Ideas for him have to be real specific. To me, much of his appeal is that he’s a boy-man. Like in the episode last year when he dates the masseuse and becomes obsessed that she’s giving everyone massages except him. He’s trying to get her to give him one, and I think with another guy it would have come across kind of skeevy. But Jerry’s got this quality that just made it kind of innocent and boyish.”

Seinfeld’s reluctance to “act” and his doctrine that four stories interplay well leads him to micromanage, and he’s said his involvement in crafting scripts can go from zero to 100 percent. When Leifer and Gross recently scripted an episode in which Elaine gets angry after finding out that her salon’s Korean manicurists are dissing her behind her back, she found that “Jerry really watches out for the Elaine character.” “She gets all mad at them, but then she gets them tickets to Sunset Boulevard,” Leifer says. “That comes from the top, that Elaine would never just be mean. If she lashes out, she wants to make up for it.”

Seinfeld makes a pass through the hallway, looking up with that slight glower that intimates he belongs neither over the transmission hump nor captive in his office for the coming co-interview with David. Leifer has one last observation: “My theory is that Larry and Jerry are the Lennon-Mc-Cartney of comedy. When Larry did stand-up, the comedians would love it — he’s more on the edge, more cerebral, more dark and brooding. And Jerry has more a pop sensibility, such a good eye for conveying it to the masses. He’s lighter and fluffier. He has that one-liner thing; he said that if he didn’t go into show business, he probably would have gone into advertising. He would be good at that.”

Larry David, 47, is thin, ostrich tall and neat — save for one end of a couch that is piled high with matter. “If I am described in the article,” he states, adding a possibly sarcastic backslap, “I would like to be described as expansive.” Their twin white oblong desks butt together along a six-foot border; here, writing in longhand on legal pad (Seinfeld) and notebook (David), sitting under banners for the Yankees (David) and the Mets (Seinfeld), they hash over every script. Seinfeld fools, though not too ominously, with a baseball bat as they more or less take questions.

How many scripts come in over the transom?
Seinfeld: The transom?

You know, they throw the manuscript over the door.
Seinfeld: Oh, that thing over there [points toward door].

Yeah, if that door had one.
Seinfeld: The transom, yeah.

David: I don’t even know about this.

Seinfeld: Above the, you know, the little window that tilts.

David: Right. Oh, right. I see, I see. No, we don’t get those. [A discussion ensues about the actual professional writers who submit scripts — many, as it turns out.]

You’ve basically got all the people, here in this building —
David: That we’ll ever need for the rest of our lives.

So, on Wednesday you have a reading, and the network and the production company can put their two cents in?
Seinfeld: We’re pretty unsupervised at this point. We just do the show.

Big success doesn’t add to the pressure?
Seinfeld: No, it’s just the opposite. I think we’re over the hill at this point. We’re just doing it for the laughs now.

And you’re gung-ho for another year?
David: We’re in camp. We’ve got the boots. We’ve got the muskets. We’re ready to go to work.

Can we talk a bit about —
David: No, I don’t think we can —

Your stand-up days together?
Seinfeld: That’s my cue to get a bowl of cereal.

David: Unfortunately, he wasn’t talking to me, he was talking to you. [Loudly, filling time as Seinfeld prepares cereal across the hall] Why are you doing a piece on him? There’s no angle on this guy. People have talked about the bad side, he’s used up all his bullshit, he’s done. [Seinfeld has returned with bowl, ready for a new topic.]

I guess making light of “Schindler’s List” on a recent episode raised some protests.
Seinfeld: [Wide-eyed] We’re so isolated here up in the ivory tower, because we heard nary a ripple.

David: No. We got letters.

Seinfeld: Well, you get letters, but with 27 million people, you get 30 or 40 letters. Down the line the network sort of raised its hand and said, “Gee, we’d like to see Jerry and Elaine get together again.”

David: It’s safe to say that the network wouldn’t mind seeing that every week.

Seinfeld: The network, how can I describe the network? They’re kind of like your aunts and uncles. I mean, they are our superiors, but we don’t really have to listen to them. It’s like going out with your uncle to Disneyland.

David: You don’t want to be disrespectful. You kind of nod along. Seinfeld: Right. You do make them buy you stuff, and you can stay out late.

How grueling is the fall shooting schedule?
Seinfeld: Grueling. Brutalizing. Dehumanizing.

David: Yeah, I’ve compared it to a prison sentence. I said, in fact, that I would prefer to be in prison if I could guarantee that I wouldn’t get raped. The four friends in the show are incredibly tolerant of each other. Seinfeld: They don’t behave the way real friends would behave. They get away with far more.

What causes your biggest disputes?
David: We can argue over one word.

What’s Jerry’s weak spot?
David: [Urgently] I’ve seen big changes in Jerry. [Adjusting down] He’s easy with anything. That’s not a weak spot, that’s his strength.

Well, who liked “The Pick” more?
Seinfeld: Well, he did, because he didn’t have to pick his nose in front of 27 million people. To him it was hilarious.

And what’s Larry an easy mark for?
Seinfeld: Eastern Europe. Any references, however oblique, and he’s on the floor. To him, there is nothing funnier than Bulgaria.

What can you tell me about the season premiere?
David: [Serious face] It will be very funny.

Seinfeld: It involves Miss America. We can say that.

So, where are the characters… going?
Seinfeld: Nowhere fast.

Seinfeld has finished the large bowl of cereal — shredded wheat — with careful marshaling of the last soggy bits to get all the milk. He experimentally resets the Velcro flaps on a spanking-new pair of Nikes and arises: “OK.”

It’s not hard to get the drift.

In the familiar confines of Hugo’s restaurant, Seinfeld addresses the geography of comedy. After more than a decade in Los Angeles, does New York still feel like home? “It’s the only place that does,” Seinfeld says. “I’m more determined than ever to completely leave California. The weather, I hate the weather. It has no personality. I want to get smacked down and crawl back, get drenched and sweaty and frozen. I like all that. I miss all that.

“It’s like, in a sense, everybody wishes they didn’t have any problems. But if you really had no problems, life would lose its thickness, you know? It would just be this weird float. If problems weren’t interesting, why would people want to watch them in movies and stories?

“Also, after a while in L.A.,” Seinfeld continues, “you’re not going to be funny anymore. I feel like I have a certain amount of oxygen left from being out here, and eventually, I won’t be funny. It just slowly ebbs away, because the environment is very unfunny. L.A. is very unfunny. Out here they exterminate it. In New York, you breed it, it’s in the air. The garbagemen have it, the mailmen have it, everybody has it.”

Even in Queens?

“Well, that’s a little on the outlying area. It’s not quite the heartbeat, but it is, you know, the pancreas.”

For now, he lives in his glassy modern house in the star-crowded Hollywood Hills. “Well, it’s the only vaguely urban environment,” Seinfeld says. “I get very nervous outside of a city.”

Would he ever be content in some leafy, natural retreat?

“Yeah, I would, until it got dark. And then it’s time to get out.”

One sunny day in the Spring of 1993, Jerry Seinfeld went for a bicycle ride, then a lengthy breakfast, with his friends Chris and Dave. They decided to taunt the absent Mario Joyner by going into the park and getting their picture taken alongside attractive young women. They entered the park at 77th and Central Park West around the time Shoshanna Lonstein and friends entered at 72nd and Fifth. In the Sheep Meadow, Dante and Beatrice-like, they met. “It was like the underground tunnel in the English Channel,” Seinfeld says. “The French and the English. I think they were off a little bit, weren’t they?

“The other thing was, we met twice.

“We met, and we went our separate ways, and then we were talking later, my friends and I, and I said, ‘You know, I really liked that girl we met earlier. I’d like to talk with her again. How are we going to find her?’ I had no number, no last name, nothing.” They found her, of course, in the park, and now the lookie-loos, the kibitzers, the smarmfesters, talk about their 21-year age difference. As Lonstein spent her summer partly on the road with him and partly studying at UCLA after abandoning George Washington University, did Seinfeld get the sense the public was rabid with curiosity?

“Oh, yes, I have that sense,” Seinfeld says. “But I don’t consider that outside the bounds of doing this for a living.”

And when the press snarkily makes reference to her abundant feminine attributes?

“That’s aggravating, when you’re dealing with intelligent, supposedly sophisticated people,” Seinfeld says, “and they treat you that way.”

But Lonstein has the right perspective on the attention?

“Yeah, she does, otherwise we would not be able to deal with it.”

So how does monogamy feel?

“I went through freelance periods,” Seinfeld says, “but generally I have been involved over the years.”

That’s your preferred mode?

“No, I don’t prefer anything.”

I could get you in trouble here.

“Oh, yes, I definitely prefer my current situation to anything I’ve been in before,” Seinfeld says. “After a couple months I realized this is not your average individual.”

And how about Jerry Seinfeld, the character? Will he remain the ’90s, commitment-shirking, bulletproof male?

“Well, I don’t know,” Seinfeld says. “I seem to be very comfortable with women just storming out of my apartment and saying that’s it, the relationship is over. I seem to be quite used to that. That doesn’t seem to ruffle the character anymore. I don’t seem to have too many real vulnerabilities as a character.”

Nor, it would seem, in his own life. Asked if the spare part from his car lighter is there to fool with during the heavy questioning, he goes deeper than deadpan: “No, I’ve done a few interviews.” The sense is that Seinfeld moves from one solved bit of clutter to the next. In his high-tech apartments, in his car trunk, in his work, organization reigns supreme. Where interviewers and such-like intrude, he presents a placid, lightly joking facade and moves on.

“Jerry as a person,” says Carol Leifer, “is so together. For someone who’s never been in therapy, he’s amazingly together. It’s weird. Because when he does his stand-up tour, it’s like being with a Beatle, people banging on the limo and leaving gifts, but it rolls off his back.”

“I’ve seen a lot of people fall into the trap of thinking you’re as important as you are being treated,” says Louis-Dreyfus, “and he’s smart enough not to fall into that trap.”

“He tends to confront issues as they come up,” says David. “So you never have to worry that he’s harboring any grudges against you. He’ll come right out and tell you very quickly, and he does that with everybody. He doesn’t like things on his mind. That’s all part of his anti-clutter philosophy — he gets things off his chest.”

The praise may be a little harder to get. “I think I do surprise him,” says Louis-Dreyfus, “and I think I do amuse him. He’d have to tell you that.”

Since early in his now-burgeoning career, Seinfeld has made his way by maintaining a certain distance from us all. Only if a stand-up gig is getting rocky will he truly show an audience some leg, let them holler at him for a while. “It’s like a breathing thing,” he says, “it’s good to let them come with stuff, like trying different things to shake it up. It’s like trying to make a baby laugh, keep trying different things, just keep changing the mood to snap ’em out of their funk. If you’re really in the groove, it’s not even thinking about the laughs — it’s just trying to work, just playing the game.”

Seinfeld has the spare lighter part in hand — true to form, he hasn’t fussed with it — and by way of summing up, after a row of questions concerning relationships, the show, his path in comedy, one wonders what he has projected for the future. The upper lip draws down in that reflexive smile that partakes ever so slightly of a sneer. He rises, uncluttered at last: “I haven’t even got anything projected for this afternoon.”

In This Article: Coverwall


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