You know he actually pinched one of my jokes for his routine that night. JERRY SEINFELD STOLE MY MATERIAL!
Edition 7GVDSUN 02 DEC 2007, Page Culture 4
Busy doing nothing;Interview;Jerry Seinfeld;Cover story
Jerry Seinfeld was easing down and enjoying life after his hit
sitcom. Then he made a joke about doing a cartoon movie starring a
bee, and Spielberg got serious, he tells JEFF DAWSON
Half an hour with Jerry Seinfeld. How wonderfully apt. Who else has
been able to pack so much, and so consistently, into a 30-minute time slot (23, if you will, minus the ads)? Not for nothing was Seinfeld's eponymous sitcom anointed, officially, The Most Successful Sitcom in Television History. Though today's encounter is also turning slightly surreal. Put it down to the indivisibility of Seinfeld the man from Seinfeld the character, always a problem when the screen persona you have peddled all those years is an extension of your own.
Seinfeld is in Amsterdam to promote his new film, the animated
feature Bee Movie. In his hotel suite, however, all is not well, for Seinfeld -like his alter ego, famously pernickety (and not short on narcissism) –is unhappy with the mineral water at his disposal. Just as TV Jerry was mollycoddled by an overly fussy manager, so Real Jerry is cosseted by his venerable minder, George Shapiro, who has scuttled off in search of alternative hydration. "I hate Evian," goes Seinfeld, in that light New York whine. "It's got the highest particles of mud in it of any other water."
He looks good at 53, if more jowly, and sporting a pair of wire-framed specs. Mercifully, TV Jerry's high-waisted jeans and pristine sneakers have been binned for the sharpest of suits. Still, there's an overwhelming sense of the familiar. If Kramer were to come swinging, "Giddy up", through the door, or Elaine turned up to mooch some Snapple, or George burst out of the loo, trousers down, jabbering about Vandalay Industries, it would seem entirely reasonable.
We are in Old Amsterdam, rather than the New one of Seinfeld's
(LA-faked) milieu, so I remind him of a typically inane coffee-shop
conversation between Jerry and George, in which the latter gets in a lather over the difference between "Holland", "the Netherlands" and "the Dutch". "I remember we decided to put those moustaches on," Seinfeld chortles. "Over the summer, Jerry and George had decided to grow moustaches." He sips the substitute water - Spa, Belgian. (Me, I'm still quaffing the French muck.) "If you try any other water," he insists, "you'll tell the difference right away."
I must open the vault here and declare that I am a huge fan of
Seinfeld. Clearly, I am not alone. In the USA, nine years ago, 75m
viewers tuned in to the final episode of his show, which rivalled
M*A*S*H's as the biggest adieu in television. Strangely, in the UK, due to the vagaries of BBC2 programming in the 1990s, Seinfeld's profile is lower than elsewhere, the sitcom never afforded the platform Channel 4 later gave to Friends and Frasier. But that's all right, as we can keep it cultish -a Festivus, as you might say, for the rest of us (a season-nine motif).
Seinfeld's cultural influence in America has been profound. In 2004,
he donated the fabled Puffy Shirt, from season five, to the
Smithsonian. Everywhere he goes, people still feel compelled to quote his zingers back to him. "But I don't understand when they think I'm gonna laugh," he says. "I was there. It's like if you go into the office and tell someone a joke. What if, the next day, they came in and told you that joke? You would go, 'I just told you that!'"
In 1998, preferring not to see his show waddle flaccidly into the
sitcom sunset, he quit, moved back to New York and - professing a
yearning for a connection to an audience -returned to his first love,
stand-up. "What happens when you're a success in show business is they start building scaffolding underneath you, and keep raising it
up," he explains. "The next thing you know, you're sitting on top of
this structure and you don't know what the hell is going on any more, because people are bringing you the water you like."
Alongside an HBO special and more salubrious gigs, Seinfeld has
spent much time getting down and dirty in comedy clubs, cropping up, unannounced, on the beer-sticky boards of obscure Laugh Factories and Ha-Ha Holes, leaving incredulous Tuesday-night audiences in Stink, New Jersey, or wherever, to ponder whether it's the real deal regaling them with tales about airline peanuts, or just some arch impersonator (travails detailed in his 2002 documentary, Comedian). Hollywood, meanwhile, had been wooing him like crazy, but he never felt films would offer much. "I'd done the actors with the scripts and the casting, and 'You stand over here'; 'Am I in focus?'. So it's in a movie theatre? Big deal!" But not even Seinfeld could resist the persuasion of Steven Spielberg.
Four years ago, over dinner (Seinfeld being both an A-list diner and
a serial name-dropper), when he joshed that someone should make a cartoon about bees and call it Bee Movie, the wheels of Spielberg's DreamWorks studio began trundling. "He just got very excited about this, and would not relent until I agreed to make the movie," Seinfeld says. "But there was no movie. I had to make the whole thing up." The challenge, he adds, came in the format. "Creating comedy out of three-dimensional computer-generated characters, that's a whole new sport for me."
He has proved master of his new domain. The result, co-scripted by
him, and with a character, Barry B Benson, modelled on him, recently topped the US box office. Opening here next week, it's the tale of an errant drone who, disillusioned with hive life (working for the Honex corporation), buzzes off to the outside and gets the interspecies hots for a florist, voiced by Renee Zellweger. Superficially, it bears resemblance to a previous DreamWorks offering, Antz, starring a similarly dis-affected Woody Allen.
"Yes, but what is an ant?" Seinfeld contests. "They're annoying, you just spray 'em. Bees and flowers and honey, it's a whole other
level." Indeed, Barry's mission becomes one of ending human
exploitation of his kind's most famous produce.
There are big-name cameos -Ray Liotta, Sting, Chris Rock, Oprah Winfrey. "Well, that's one of the fun things about being me -you can call anybody and they'll consider it," Seinfeld says rather nonchalantly. The resultant package has taken $93m in its first three weeks in the USA. Throw in his share from that, and the rakings from the recent Seinfeld DVD box sets, and it's still loose change to a man who, according to Forbes, last year trousered $60m from his show's syndication, making him one of the richest entertainers on the planet.
These days, married with kids, Seinfeld splits his time between his
Long Island spread (bought from Billy Joel for $40m)
and an apartment on Central Park West, for which he has been
constructing a garage so he can relocate his fleet of vintage
Porsches. Never in his wildest dreams did he think it would end up
like this. "Never, never, ever, ever," he assures me. By the mid-1980s, the Brooklyn-born comic had seemingly reached his potential as a likeable stand-up -a genial variant of the new breed of "observational" funnymen -who had been granted a guest spot by the king of late-night talk, Johnny Carson.
Legend has it that he was grocery shopping with his pal Larry David (whose Curb Your Enthusiasm has since achieved its own glory), wondering why sitcoms never reflected the kinds of trivial conversations they themselves had. Their 1989 antidote, a pilot called The Seinfeld Chronicles, had Jerry playing himself as a jobbing stand-up. "That was a character I knew better than any other. If I were to have created a character and given him a
job, that would actually have been more risky." David chose to employ his own proxy in the series, in the shape of Jason Alexander's dyspeptic George Costanza, throwing in Michael Richards's manic Kramer, based on a former flatmate, for the hell of it.
Dismissed by one NBC high-up as "too Jewish", and by others as too clever by half, the show required tweaking, and Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) was added, initially as a love interest.
It was but a short step to nine seasons, record ratings and
absolutely no hugs whatsoever. "I mean, Larry and I, we had never
done anything like this. We'd never had a show. We had to figure it
out." The self-styled "show about nothing" tag is overblown (what the hell was Cheers?), but they discovered what legions of executives hadn't: that self-absorption, lovelessness and misanthropy were universal themes, celebrated even in the darkest recesses of middle America. "I thought maybe we'd find a small kind of intellectual group that is kind of interested in this wordplay and subtle kind of humour," Seinfeld says. "What happened is that the cast were so strong comedically, they carried what may have been more difficult material to a wider audience."
Sadly, like many winning teams, it proved greater than its con-
stituent parts. The other three principals have since flopped in solo
projects (until Louis-Dreyfus undid the Seinfeld curse with her
mainstream television hit The New Adventures of Old Christine).
"Nobody mentions me," Seinfeld laughs. "I haven't suffered." But
Richards's career might be over, following his weird racist outburst
on stage a year ago, after which Seinfeld acted as a peace-broker,
hauling him onto The Late Show with David Let- terman to make a
public apology. "Obviously, it's a tough thing to deal with," Seinfeld muses. "But I think he's gotta do something else to fully pass through this. A lot of black comedians found it funny. I was talking to Chris Rock the other day, who was telling me Michael Richards was the greatest gift to black comedians, because he gave them so much material." (A sign of the enigma that is Real Jerry: a one-time Bush campaign contributor whose pals are black America's top social satirists.)
Don't harbour any hopes that the Fab Four will reunite, as is
occasionally rumoured. "I haven't heard any numbers," Seinfeld quips. "But that would be pretty sad, wouldn't it?" In his youth, he says, he'd always hoped the Beatles would re-form. "I really understand now why they didn't. When you're lucky enough to have created some magic, you don't want to disturb it, because you didn't even know why it happened. I've met Paul McCartney a few times, and we've talked about it. You realise you're a passenger in this vehicle as much as everyone
Later, Seinfeld goes on stage at the Expo to talk up Bee Movie to
besuited distributors, an audience absolutely thrilled to have a real
live king of comedy in its midst. "Hello. My first time in Holland...
the Netherlands... Amsterdam... the Dutch," he begins. "What's the deal with all the bicycles?" In your head, you can hear that corny, synthesized slap bass, and TV Jerry's stand-up apprentice, Kenny Bania. "That's gold, Jerry," he's going. "Gold!"