Jerry Seinfeld's true comedy -- We talk to the comedian about playing himself on ''Seinfeld,'' his early career, and the thrill of success

July 1976. Jerry Seinfeld takes the stage at Catch A Rising Star, the storied New York comedy club. He clears his throat, mumbles hello, and launches into a carefully honed 15-minute act.

The launch is aborted. He freezes.

”I was only able to remember the subjects that I wanted to talk about,” Seinfeld says now, recalling his inaugural stand-up performance. ”So I stood up there and went, ‘The beach Driving Your parents. ‘ I did that for about a minute and a half and then I just left.”

It went over pretty well.

”They thought that was what I meant to do.”

Jerry Seinfeld, minimalist comic.

Seinfeld, the eponymous half-hour series that began its regular Wednesday-night run on NBC last month after a successful four-week tryout last summer, is minimalist comedy of another kind. The writing is succinct, subtle, and knife-sharp. The jokes on the show — and in Seinfeld’s nightclub act, which he does some 300 times a year when he’s not shooting the series — are still crisp ruminations on life, from the small and mundane to the not-so-small and not-so-mundane. It’s just that now he finishes them.

Take Seinfeld explaining the origin of platonic love: ”Plato was pretty excited about it. ‘My idea. My name. I go out with the girls. I talk to them. I take them home. And that’s it.”’

Or Seinfeld on the ultimate phone accessory, anti-call-waiting: ”People would keep trying to get rid of you and they couldn’t do it. They’d hit the button and you’d go, ‘I’m still here, Fred. I’ve got call-waiting kryptonite.”’

Sartorially collegiate (blazer, Oxford shirt, corduroy pants, suede saddle shoes), the Brooklyn-born Seinfeld, 36, serves up his observations with unassuming deftness. His jokes on Seinfeld — an autobiographical 30 minutes about the off- and onstage life of a professional comic — are fueled not by anger or neurosis but by a keen perspective on the screwy details of everyday living. Seinfeld will hold his mike in one hand, flap his other in the air, and issue one droll, gently caustic volley after another. No props, no profanity — he’s the anti-Dice.

”I had a leather jacket that got ruined,” he tells his audience during one of his show’s intercut monologues. ”Now why does moisture ruin leather? I don’t get this. Aren’t cows outside most of the time? When it’s raining, do cows go up to the farmhouse? ‘Let us in! We’re all wearing leather! Open the door! We’re going to ruin the whole outfit!’

”’This is suede?’

”’I am suede! The whole thing is suede! I can’t have this cleaned; it’s all I got!”’

Jerry Seinfeld, doing a cow.

It is just such casually cockeyed stuff that has won his show a legion of fans and made Seinfeld one of the most imitated comedians around. Over the last decade Seinfeld has paid some 50 visits to The Tonight Show and Late Night With David Letterman. He has played casinos, clubs, colleges, and concert halls. In 1987, he landed his own HBO special — Jerry Seinfeld’s Stand-up Confidential, in which, among other things, he marveled at the Swiss Army Knife, a weapon that has kept the tiny alpine nation at peace for centuries: ”Back off, I have the toenail-clipper right here.” And then, last year, he landed the series, in which his monologues, like those on the old Jack Benny and George Burns programs, are interwoven with the fabric of the show.

Seinfeld and company are aiming for authenticity, which is one reason the show is shot on film, not on video. ”This is not a show about being on TV, like Garry Shandling’s,” he says. ”This is a show about being a human being — or, in my case, about being a comedian, which is almost the same thing.” He plays an unmarried comic, and nothing about his television persona is exaggerated. ”I’m exactly the way I really am,” he says — and he does exactly what he really does.

On one episode this season, the television version of Jerry fears that a disparaging remark he made about people who like ponies may have killed his aunt. ”We don’t understand death,” he says in the stand-up segment that dovetails with the night’s plot. ”The proof of this is that we give dead people a pillow. I think that if you can’t stretch out and get some solid rest at that point, I don’t see how bedding accessories really make a difference.” Later, sitting in a diner, he calculates whether he can make his aunt’s two o’clock funeral and still get over to play a 2:45 baseball game. ”How long does a funeral take?” a friend asks.

”Depends on how nice the person was,” Seinfeld answers. ”But you’ve gotta figure that even Oswald took 45 minutes.”

Seinfeld is sort of like The Dick Van Dyke Show crossed with My Dinner with Andre — antic angst and engaging ennui in a contemplative comedy about more-or-less real people.

”This show is about minutiae,” Seinfeld declares. ”It’s about little things that everybody experiences, but that you never see on television.”

Jason Alexander, who plays Jerry’s friend and manager, George, and who was Richard Gere’s slimeball lawyer in Pretty Woman, observes that ”if you ask what the stories are about on this show, you’re going to get answers that don’t make sense. And when you read the scripts, sometimes they don’t even have jokes. I mean, Jerry, in his stand-up, has jokes, but even Jerry’s comedy isn’t jokey. It’s a cumulative thing.”

The boys at NBC bought this concept, in which two Manhattan worry warts — a comic and his manager/friend — kill time over a pile of french fries at the corner coffee shop.

”That’s essentially how the show was conceived,” Seinfeld says.

According to Seinfeld, he and Larry David, a fellow writer and former stand-up artist, were in a diner in New York one night in the spring of ’89, ”and we cooked up this thing about the offstage life of a comedian, and built a show around it.” Seinfeld and David — a balding, brooding man who is the model for Alexander’s balding, brooding George — took the concept and flew with it: Instead of two guys sitting around talking, there’d be, well, three, or maybe four. Enter Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the diminutive ex-Saturday Night Live trouper who portrays Jerry’s former-girlfriend-but-still-friend, Elaine, and Michael Richards, who plays Jerry’s ominously goofball neighbor, Kramer (picture Bruce Dern playing Oscar Madison).

”It was conceived as a show about conversation,” Seinfeld says, ”and it still is. The stories are incidental to us. We’re more interested in the interplay of the dialogue.”

On Seinfeld‘s mid-season debut, Jerry, seated in his car alongside a fetching woman who had been waxing amorous, suddenly gets the heave-ho. Why? She realizes she had seen his act.

”I can’t believe this! So what are you saying — you didn’t like my act, so that’s it?” he asks, stricken.

”I can’t be with someone if I don’t respect what they do,” she replies.

”You’re a cashier!”

”Jerry, it just wasn’t my kind of humor.”

”You can’t go by the audience that night. It was late — they were terrible.”

”I heard the material.”

”I have other stuff. You should come hear me on the weekend.”

Seinfeld’s penchant for poking fun at his uncertainties on the show may be his one departure from reality: In real life, he appears resoundingly self-assured. ”A lot of comics, you can see them going for the joke, or the setup, or they’re pushing some persona they think will work,” says Richards, a lapsed stand-up comic and cast member of ABC’s early-’80s series Fridays. ”Jerry just stays close to himself.”

Seinfeld grew up in Massapequa, Long Island, with an older sister, Carolyn, now 38, his part-time business manager; a mom, Betty, who stayed home; and a dad, Kal, who ran a sign company. As a kid, Jerry would hunker down in front of The Ed Sullivan Show and take mental notes on Alan King’s delivery and Robert Klein’s technique. He kidded his way through high school and went on to Queens College, where he majored in theater and communications. When he graduated, he sought out the lousiest day jobs he could find. ”That was by conscious design,” he says. ”To have your back to a cliff, that’s the best way to accomplish something. Never have anything to fall back on. ”

So Seinfeld hawked light bulbs over the phone, sold knockoff jewelry on sidewalks, served food in a Manhattan lunch spot, all the while playing the clubs at night. To this day, he says, ”the most exciting part of my whole career was when I handed back my waiter’s apron. To me, that was making it.

”It was embarrassing, though, because I was performing every night at the clubs all around the city. You’d go over to a table and they’d say, ‘Didn’t I see you on stage last night? What kind of crummy show was that? We go to a show and the next day we go to lunch and the comedian’s the waiter? They were charging us $5 to get into that place. We thought they were supposed to be professionals.’

”Well, sorry, I’ll try and get you a side of fries on the house.”

If you can’t leave ’em laughing, at least leave ’em well fed.

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