Because he practices Zen meditation, because he flosses regularly, because he favors smartly laundered shirts and wholesome breakfast cereals, Jerry Seinfeld can almost pass as your average well-bathed guy. But zoom in close and you see this: His eyeballs glitter. They’re little discs of light, and Seinfeld beams them around the room, observing the mood of the audience and gauging the tilt of the joke with the cool practice that only comes with 16 years on the stand-up circuit. He sees absurdities in mail-order steak knives and airplane peanuts; he sees something extraordinary in the spin of socks in a clothes dryer. He is no Everyman — not every man has a prime-time sitcom created in his laconic image. But Seinfeld’s dangerous talent is to make every man think that if only NBC developed a sitcom around him — well, he, too, could be as successful and as wealthy and as attractive and as big an idol to a certain demographically powerful audience (and, hey, that includes babes) as the single, unencumbered, Porsche-loving, Nike-wearing 38-year-old New York native is to the fans who have followed Seinfeld into its fourth season with the same kind of proprietary fervor once reserved for thirtysomething.
The conceit is that Seinfeld is about ”nothing” — mere evanescent moments in the underadventurous New York City apartment-dwelling life of a stand-up comic called Jerry Seinfeld and a handful of his similarly ungrounded pals. But that, too, is an illusion. With the inspired guidance and collaboration of series cocreator and executive producer Larry David, Seinfeld the character has become a springboard for Seinfeld the comedian’s most inventive observational leaps: on the nature of friendships (particularly when men commit to helping other men move furniture), on the value of a really well organized closet (particularly one involving lots of hooks), on the human instinct for what the show’s press releases gingerly called ”self-gratification” (particularly when one limits one’s relationships to first dates). ”I don’t want to offend anybody. I’m not trying to get away with anything,” says the comedian, eyeballs shimmering. By observing calmly, Jerry gets away with everything that’s missing everywhere else on TV.
This season Seinfeld has taken some leaps toward the surreal, venturing out of the apartment and into — shocking! — actual dramatic plots. (Could any other sitcom on TV today weave the posthumously revealed bisexuality of the novelist John Cheever into a story line?) Such tampering with urban existential nothingness has disturbed some seriously committed fans of plot minimalism, especially those who reenact each Wednesday’s new episode in the office on Thursdays. But the star himself is unperturbed, unrumpled: ”There’s nothing surreal about those shows at all, to me,” he says. ”It’s funny. It’s just another funny story.” Something, we can almost believe, that any guy might dream up — if he happened to be brilliant. And if, like Jerry Seinfeld, he kept his eyes open.