Jerry Seinfeld

Jerry Seinfeld

This article first appeared in the Sunday Independent on December 9, 2007.

Although everyone around him assures me he’s ‘just lovely’ I’m a little nervous about meeting Jerry Seinfeld. The last time I saw him on television, during his last big interview in fact, he was ripping Larry King a new you-know-what for having the temerity to wonder whether Seinfeld’s eponymous, era-defining sitcom was cancelled or had gone out on it’s on terms (It was very much the latter scenario – over 75 million Americans tuned into the last episode). You could have cut the air with a knife. ‘Um do you know who I am, Larry?’ Seinfeld barked, ‘could we get a resume in here? Is this still CNN?’ In fairness King, who actually boasts about how little research he does, has had it coming for a while now – I’ve seen him mix up which Beatle was which – but Seinfeld’s prickly response made clear that on this particular promotional tour he wouldn’t be suffering fools gladly. Gulp.

He seems in good from however when we’re introduced, warmly pumping my hand and pulling up a chair for me. The famous Seinfeld mullet is no more – his hair is now cut fashionably short – and he’s grinning broadly as we settle down for a chat. He tells me he’ll let me know if I ask him any questions that he’s already been asked before that day. No reason to be scared.

‘Could you tell I was just kidding around?’ Jerry asks when I bring up the Larry King moment. ‘Because some people couldn’t.’ ‘Yes’, I lie, ‘of course!’ ‘That was comedy upset. You don’t want to see real upset’ he adds with a wink in his voice, ‘I’ve made people cry.’

Mostly, though, he has made people laugh. Growing up in Long Island, New York (not Brooklyn – another thing King got wrong) he realised early on that people found him funny. ‘The thing is, though, a lot of people are funny around their friends, but it’s a big leap to be funny around people who you don’t know. That’s much harder. And I had no real way of telling if I could do that. So when I was about 20 years old I wrote some things down and started doing a bit of stand up. And it’s true that my mother and sister thought I’d never be as funny as my father and I did bomb a lot at the beginning. But after about six months or a year I got the hang of it.’

Comedy, he tells me, was ‘something that allowed me to be not normal. I badly wanted to be not normal. I’ve always had this urge to do my own thing and not be part of an organisation. And you know, I think I got that from my Dad. He was a travelling salesman, always on the road. Comedy up meant I never had to go to an office, never had to wear a suit.’ It was a ‘time of exploration’ for Seinfeld and one of the things he explored in those years was Scientology, something that some people thought would embarrass him later on, especially after his show poked fun at the controversial religion. ‘I was never into it heavily, to be honest,’ he tells me now, ‘it was just another one of those things. I forget who says ‘if something doesn’t bear the test of humour it’s not worth your while.’’

It took a few years in the stand-up trenches before he came to national notice with a guest spot on the tonight show with Johnny Carson. The appearance increased his profile and ensured regular appearances for him on chat shows like Letterman and the Merv Griffin Show. It was nearly a decade however before his really big break came when along with friend and fellow comedian Larry Craig he conceived and wrote The Seinfeld Chronicles (subsequently named simply ‘Seinfeld’) for NBC. The show, which was based around a loosely-fictionalised version of Seinfeld himself, set itself apart from other sitcoms of the day because rather than revolving around a central theme it focussed on the minutiae of daily life and never attempted to give you that warm and fuzzy glow you got after watching Friends.

It was a massive, if not exactly instant success and through the 1990s Seinfeld became a one-man walking Zeitgeist. His face graced the cover of Time magazine, the show was syndicated around the world and by the time the show was in its final season Forbes magazine declared it’s creator and star to be the highest paid entertainer in the world. Seinfeld went out on a high (even if it escaped the notice of Larry King) with it’s creator making his way into the Guinness Book of Records (for most money ever declined in show business – $5 million per episode if he would film a tenth series) and even today re-runs and syndication mean that it is more watched than most contemporary sitcoms.

At the height of his success with the show Seinfeld was regarded as the quintessential New York singleton and one of America’s most eligible bachelors. His money and wit did not, he protests, help him become more successful with women. ‘You know those women who say ‘oh a sense of humour is the most important thing’; well that’s a crock. Because if that were true you’d see all the cute women with the ugly, creepy, funny guys.’ He had girlfriends but nothing serious. ‘As a young man you think ‘why the hell would you want to settle down? What would the point of that be?’ but you know you get tired of it. There was a richness that I had to discover for myself. I had to take up a new subject just to stay interested in being alive.’

His ‘new subject’ was Jessica Sklar, a Public Relations executive with Tommy Hilfiger, who he met at a sports club in Manhattan. They hit it off immediately but there was just one obstacle to their blossoming relationship: Sklar had just returned from her honeymoon with another man – Broadway producer Eric Nederlander. The situation sent New York gossip columns into overdrive. She divorced Nederlander soon after and Seinfeld proposed to her with a large Tiffany diamond. They were married barely a month later. She went on to become a successful food writer. They now have three kids together.

In a recent television interview Seinfeld was asked how his offspring could ever hope to live up to him but he realises it’s going to be almost as difficult for him to live up to his own success. This makes Bee Movie – the children’s film he’s in Dublin to talk about – weighted with expectation. It’s his first really big project since Seinfeld and fans will be thrilled to see the return of the familiar naval-gazing wit, even if it is in shiny animated form with a few more puns than they might be used to.

He tells me that however funny he is ‘I’m definitely funnier than the people who come up to me in public’ but if you watch many people talking to him they begin to laugh even when he isn’t being especially funny. It’s as though a combination of expectation and the nervousness that come from being in the presence of a comedy institution means they’re rolling on the floor before he even gets to a punch line. He’s articulate, warm and does make some moderately clever observations about himself but he never says anything that I feel would make it into his routine. And then why would he waste a mirth-inducing nugget on what is probably his tenth interview of the day?

The future however holds yet more stand-up for him. He’s going back on the road, a place most successful comedians never want to see once they have made it big in television. But he has a good explanation. ‘When the audience is in a good mood and it’s all clicking there really is nothing like it. It goes back to what I was saying earlier. There are no meetings, and you don’t have to wear a suit. When I worked with DreamWorks (the company which made Bee Movie) I used to say ‘it’s like Yogi Bear’s tie. Either you like the tie or you don’t, but I’m not going to sit around and discuss what’s funny about the tie.’

Hecklers don’t bother him but the cat calls of one particular man, who virtually stopped Seinfeld’s HBO special still come to him in his dreams. ‘He was just calling out my name, not even saying anything. And I kind of froze a bit. It was really strange. One thing that won’t be happening is the rumoured final-final Seinfeld scene. ‘No, I don’t think so’ he murmurs. ‘This would have been the moment to do it, with the DVD coming out. The scene was going to be us out of prison and at the coffee shop and George going ‘that was brutal!’ I know people are going to ask me for the rest of my life if we’re going to do something like that. But hey, as Richard Gere once told me after he’d been asked by some pygmy tribesmen in the jungle if he was going to make a Pretty Woman sequel, ‘it’s better that they ask.’

http://www.independent.ie/entertainment/film-cinema/when-upset-ive-made-people-cry-1241651.html

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~ by Donal Lynch on January 8, 2008.