Seinfeld, Jerry 1954-
SEINFELD, Jerry 1954-
PERSONAL: Born April 29, 1954, in Brooklyn, NY; son of Kalman (in business) and Betty Seinfeld; married Jessica Sklar (a publicist), 1999; children: Sascha, Julian. Education: Queens College, graduated with degree in communications and theater, 1976. Religion: Jewish. Hobbies and other interests: Baseball, sports cars.
CAREER: Stand-up comedian, actor, and screenwriter. Worked variously as a light bulb salesman, a waiter, and a jewelry street vendor. Creator, with Larry David, and producer and star of Seinfeld, National Broadcasting Company, Inc. (NBC-TV), 1990-98. Tours frequently as a stand-up comic. Made regular appearances on The Tonight Show and Late Night with David Letterman. Appeared briefly as the Governor's joke writer, Benson, American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. (ABC-TV), 1980. Appeared in numerous television specials, including The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson 19th Anniversary Special, NBC-TV, 1981; "Rodney Dangerfield—It's Not Easy Bein' Me," On Location, HBO, 1986; "Jerry Seinfeld—Stand-Up Confidential," On Location, HBO, 1987; Late Night with David Letterman Seventh Anniversary Show, NBC-TV, 1989; Today at 40, NBC-TV, 1992; Twenty Years of Comedy on HBO, HBO, 1995; Comedy Club Superstars, ABC, 1996; Jerry Seinfeld: I'm Telling You for the Last Time, HBO, 1998; Seinfeld: The Chronicle, NBC, 1998; Saturday Night Live: 25th Anniversary, NBC, 1999; Larry David: Curb Your Enthusiasm, HBO, 1999.
AWARDS, HONORS: American Comedy Award, funniest male comedy club stand-up, 1988; Clio Award, best announcer in a radio commercial, 1988; American Comedy Award, funniest actor in a television series, 1992 and 1993, Emmy Award for outstanding comedy series, 1993, Golden Globe Awards for best television series and best actor in a television comedy, 1994, all for Seinfeld; honorary doctorate, Queens College of the City University of New York, 1994.
"Jerry Seinfeld—Stand-Up Confidential," On Location (television special), HBO, 1987.
(With others) Seinfeld (television series), NBC-TV, 1990-98.
SeinLanguage, Bantam Books (New York, NY), 1993.
Jerry Seinfeld: I'm Telling You for the Last Time (television special), HBO, 1998.
Jerry Seinfeld: The Entire Domain, Carol Publishing (Seacaucus, NJ), 1998.
(With others) The Seinfeld Scripts: The First andSecond Seasons, HarperTrade (New York, NY), 1998.
Sein Off: The Final Days of Seinfeld, HarperEntertainment (New York, NY), 1998.
Halloween, Little, Brown, (Boston, MA), 2002.
Also author of stand-up routines. Author of introduction, Letters from a Nut and More Letters from a Nut, by Ted L. Nancy, and The Moron Stories of Ed Broth, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2003.
ADAPTATIONS: Comedian, a film based on Seinfeld's career in 1999-2000.
SIDELIGHTS: Jerry Seinfeld achieved international stardom as the writer and star of Seinfeld, a popular situational comedy that ran from 1990 until 1998. The show, about a stand-up comic and his circle of friends in New York City, drew directly from Seinfeld's own life and his observations on surviving in the Big Apple. The show, which still appears frequently in re-runs, centers on the days and nights of a stand-up comedian who works his experiences and conversations into his routines, shown at the beginning and the end of each episode. Basically, Seinfeld plays Seinfeld. "Seinfeld defines itself best by what it doesn't do," maintained Richard Panek in Mirabella. "The dialogue doesn't follow the typical setup-and-punchline formula of the typical sitcom. The acting doesn't follow the broad-gesture-and-bombast technique of the typical sitcom. And the sensibility doesn't follow any sitcom, period." Chris Smith, writing in New York, pointed out that "the cast of Seinfeld is getting the cranky rhythms of New York just right. . . . Most TV shows would try to conjure New York atmosphere by using zany dese-and-dose accents. Seinfeld, set in a gray prewar apartment on West 81st Street, has got the attitude down: Jerry and his pals obsess comically over the tiny annoyances and dramas of urban life, circa —stuff like standing in bank lines or hassling with the dry cleaner." Smith also observed that "Seinfeld doesn't feel like sitcom television; it feels more like a conversation with your funniest friends."
Growing up in Massapequa, Long Island, Jerry Seinfeld was not the family member who earned the most laughs—it was his father. "My dad was very funny," recalled Seinfeld in an interview with Mark Goodman and Lorenzo Benet for People. "He turned me on that it's fun to be funny. That's really why I do it." As far as childhoods are concerned, Seinfeld's was a pretty mild one. "His was a Long Island life, a quiet suburban existence with happy parents and happy children," described Stephen Randall in Playboy. "The only unusual aspect of it was the fact that both parents had been raised without parents of their own, which gave them an independence they passed on to their two kids."
This independence was evident in Seinfeld at an early age; he got things the way he wanted them, or he wouldn't take them at all. "As family lore has it," related Jerry Lazar in Us, "on Seinfeld's third birthday, he wanted not just a slice of birthday cake but the whole thing. When he was refused, he opted to eat no cake at all rather than back down on his demand." Seinfeld's older sister, Carolyn Liebling, similarly observed in a GQ interview with Alan Richman: "He had a very ordinary childhood, but he was very driven. If he wanted a toy, he'd sit at the table crying or arguing or carrying on. He'd obsess about things like that." Seinfeld's main obsession as a child, however, was television. "Jerry was chained to the television," complained his mother, Betty, in her interview with Randall. "At one point, I had to get rid of it. I couldn't stand it." This didn't solve the addiction, though. Seinfeld "simply went next door to the neighbors' to get his fix," explained Randall. "Looking back, one realizes that it wasn't wasted time. He talks in TV metaphors, makes jokes about both old and new TV shows and commercials and still harbors a desire to grow up to be Bud on Flipper." Seinfeld told Randall: "I swear to God, I've learned most of what I know about life from TV."
Around the age of thirteen or fourteen, Seinfeld started taping interviews that he conducted with his pet parakeet. This experience, along with watching comedians on television, prompted Seinfeld to choose his career at an early age. As a teenager, though, he was not very sociable or overly popular. "When you retreat from contact with other kids, your only playground left is your own mind," Seinfeld explained in his interview with Richman. "You start exploring your own ability to entertain yourself." So Seinfeld became the type of kid who fell somewhere between obnoxious and funny. He wouldn't hang out and smoke with the other guys in school, but he would pass notes in class just to get a laugh.
Graduating from Queens College in 1976 with a double major in theater and communication arts, Seinfeld immediately began his quest for a career as a stand-up comedian; his first night out was not very promising, however. "July 1976. Jerry Seinfeld takes the stage at Catch a Rising Star, the storied New York comedy club," described Steven Rea in Entertainment Weekly. "He clears his throat, mumbles hello, and launches into a carefully honed 15-minute act. The launch is aborted. He freezes." Recalling his first performance, Seinfeld told Rea, "I was only able to remember the subjects I wanted to talk about. So I stood up there and went, 'The beach . . . Driving . . . Your Parents. . . .'I did that for about a minute and a half and then just left." The performance went over better than expected. "They thought that was what I meant to do," added Seinfeld.
This rocky beginning didn't discourage Seinfeld. In fact, he revealed in his interview with Barbara Walters for The Barbara Walters Special that the anxiety and uncertainty of stand-up fascinate him. "I'm really attracted to tension, you know. Maybe that's one of the reasons I became a stand-up comedian. When you walk on that stage there is a palpable tension, and if you can diffuse it that's a wonderful release." Seinfeld soon learned to do just that through tireless hard work and eventually became a regular at Catch a Rising Star, the Improv, and the Comic Strip. "There was no work anywhere else," remarked Seinfeld in an interview with Glenn Collins for the New York Times. "So we saw everyone, every night. We did a lot of hanging out—from, say, 9 to 1 or 2 A.M. at the clubs, and then in the coffee shop till 3 or 4. . . . I took no more than a day off. Four years of pretty much working for free, picking up $30 and $50 dollar gigs to support yourself. I think it takes five years just to learn how to express yourself, to know what to say."
In order to support himself while he was learning and perfecting the craft of stand-up, Seinfeld worked at a variety of part-time jobs. He sold light bulbs over the telephone, recounting in his interview with Richman that it was a "tough job. There's not many people sitting home in the dark going, 'I can't hold out much longer.'" Seinfeld also worked the streets, selling costume jewelry in front of Bloomingdale's—his cart even had wheels for quick escapes from the police. "Running from the police on the streets of Manhattan—this is a parents' dream come true," he assured Richman. After putting in four years on the New York circuit, Seinfeld had twenty-five minutes of solid material and decided to make the big move to Los Angeles.
Although he moved to Los Angeles to make a name for himself as a stand-up comedian, Seinfeld took a brief career detour into the world of television sitcoms shortly after his arrival. Cast as the governor's joke writer on the ABC comedy Benson in 1980, his part ended up lasting for only a few episodes. "The day the show was supposed to start shooting again after the break, I flew in from New York and showed up at the studio," explained Seinfeld in an interview with Stewart Weiner for TV Guide. "I sat down at the table to read the script, but there was no script and no chair for me. Then the assistant director called me aside to tell me that they forgot to tell me I wasn't on the show anymore." The whole experience left Seinfeld feeling annoyed, mostly because he'd wasted his time on television shows when he should have stuck to his stand-up work. "Honing his mind with new comic routines and his body with yoga, he set out to become the consummate comic," related Richman. "I wanted to wind up like George Burns, but with a little more spinal flexibility," Seinfeld explained to Richman.
Seinfeld's big break as a stand-up comedian came about a year after his Benson experience—he appeared on The Tonight Show. "I remember the date, May 7, 1981," Seinfeld recalled in his New York Times interview. "Every comedian knows that date—their own, I mean. So, here I had five years of going out every night and developing my act, and I was going to take all the chips I'd developed and put them into the center of the table on one five-minute bit." His act was a success: "Suddenly I was lifted from the pack, in L.A." Since then, Seinfeld has appeared on the show over twenty times, as well as being a regular guest on Late Night with David Letterman.
Throughout the early 1980s, stand-up was all Seinfeld did—he was interested in neither television nor movies. "He traveled across America with his yellow legal pad and his No. 2 pencils, always writing, picking up nothing in the way of residuals except jet lag," related Richman. "He believed that he was suffering for his craft, until one day in the late Eighties, in Boston's Logan Airport, when he had what might be called a financial epiphany." Seinfeld recounted the revelation: "I had this job in Boston at a college. I landed, they didn't pick me up, and I'm waiting at the airport, like, three hours. I'm really getting pissed off, and I'm thinking, The hell with it, I'm getting on a plane, going back to New York, screw them, I'm not doing the show. What do they expect me to do, get a rental car, pay for it? Then I looked in my book and I realized I was making, like, $17,000 for this. I had gone from a $1,500 comic to a $15,000 comic without noticing. I go, Wait a minute. I can afford a rental car."
By the time 1989 rolled around, Seinfeld was up to over three hundred appearances a year; television seemed like the last thing he would do, so he did it. NBC and Castle Rock Entertainment approached him about doing a special, and Seinfeld went to his friend and fellow stand-up comedian Larry David for help. The two spent an evening at the Westway Diner on Ninth Avenue coming up with and discussing ideas. Seinfeld recollected the conversation in his New York interview with Smith. "The No. 1 question when you're a stand up comedian, is where do you get your material." David replied with: "That's what the show should be. How comedians come up with their material." Seinfeld's answer: "They do this. They hang around with their friends." NBC liked the idea so much that they wanted Seinfeld as a series.
"Seinfeld and David structured the show to take advantage of Seinfeld's talent for conversational humor—and not stretch his meager abilities as an actor," asserted Smith. "Seinfeld would play himself, a 37-year-old stand-up comic whose emotional age is holding steady at 25, endearingly immature yet smart. You know the type: the kind of guy who pulls his turtleneck up over his nose, turns around, and says slyly, 'Bazooka Joe.' . . . Most of the time, TV Jerry would hang out in a Greek coffee shop or in his living room yapping with his buddies." Jerry's main buddy would be George, played by Jason Alexander. Modeled after Larry David, George would be a balding, brooding, neurotic nerd who couldn't keep a girlfriend or a job. "My relationship with George is the glue of the show," Seinfeld pointed out in his New York interview. "Our conversation is basically the conversation between me and Larry. Two idiots trying to figure out the world."
Two more characters were added to round out the main cast of Seinfeld. Michael Richards, a comedian with vertically extreme hair who slides in and out of rooms as if he's on skates, plays Jerry's goofball neighbor, Kramer. And finally, former Saturday Night Live player Julia Louis-Dreyfus was cast as Elaine, Jerry's hip ex-girlfriend. "We needed some estrogen," Seinfeld explained in his New York interview. "It was getting to be too much of a guy show." During Seinfeld's initial run, NBC moved the show around frequently, yet it was still able to build up a cult audience. By the time the cast filmed the final episode in 1998, the show had been top-rated in its time slot for years, drawing its audience from the advertising world's most coveted demographic group—the middle-to-upper-class educated eighteen to thirty-four-year-olds.
Seinfeld is "micro-concept TV," observed Seinfeld in his interview with Weiner, who added: "It's long bank lines, subway muggings, missing rent-a-car reservations, rude waiters. Sneezing is good. No cute kids, no morals tacked onto the end." The most important aspect of Seinfeld is the conversation: "It was conceived as a show about conversation," Seinfeld pointed out in his interview with Rea. "The stories are incidental to us. We're more interested in the interplay of the dialogue." Consequently, many Seinfeld episodes appear to have no plot. One show has Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer looking for their car in a shopping mall parking garage. Another begins with the first three waiting for a table in a Chinese restaurant and ends with them still waiting. Later episodes incorporated elements of satire. In an hour-long show, Jerry meets New York Mets player Keith Hernandez, who subsequently starts dating Elaine. Kramer and his pal Newman hold a grudge against Hernandez because they think he spit at them after one of the baseball games they attended. In a classic scene, Jerry reenacts the spitting incident, mirroring a sequence in the popular movie JFK.
"Seinfeld episodes are loosely structured, with the anecdotal, stream-of-consciousness style of monologue material," described Richard Zoglin in Time, adding: "Seinfeld seems totally at ease as a sitcom leading man, all gawky insouciance and whiny sarcasm." Mike Duffy, writing in the Detroit Free Press, had only praise for the show: "Taking ordinary, everyday situations and embarrassing moments of modern life, Seinfeld routinely turns them inside out—and then transforms them into sublimely inventive, nontraditional TV comedy." And John J. O'Connor asserted in the New York Times that Seinfeld is "a brilliant riff on contemporary anxieties and foibles of the unmistakably urban persuasion. Nothing never had it so good."
Seinfeld is in some respects unique because its star is not really acting—that's the "real" Jerry Seinfeld on the screen, just being himself. "That's me up there every week," revealed Seinfeld in his New York interview. "I just do what I'd do in real life." Many of the conversations on the show are actual conversations between Seinfeld and David, and everything that happens to the "real" Seinfeld, such as getting a television series at NBC, also happens to the "TV" Seinfeld. "I'm the guy. I am the guy," he asserted when Walters asked him the differences between himself and the character he "plays" on television. "First of all, I would say we look a lot alike. . . . It's a strange thing to be that public, I mean, people really know me now. I can't act. That's it, you know."
Seinfeld never expected the show to be as successful as it is. "We figured we'd do six shows and that would be it," he related in his interview with Smith. "We wanted to be a legend, the show they should have left on. People would say, 'Boy, did you guys get screwed.'" Despite his television achievements, however, Seinfeld has always considered himself a stand-up comedian. Back in 1990, before he achieved "star" status, Seinfeld revealed his thoughts on this subject in his interview with Randall: "I really feel the key to having a successful career in comedy is never taking the bait of stardom per se. If you think you're a star, you're not a comedian anymore, because a comedian is one of us. Anyway, being a stand-up is a grimy gig. A big star—well, short of an Eddie Murphy—you get up there and the audience will give you a free ride for five, maybe ten minutes. That's it. If you're not funny that night, I don't care how famous you are. It doesn't matter. As long as I'm doing my stand-up, the audience will keep me in my place. It keeps me from being a show-business asshole. Stardom can exist on its own, but laughs do not."
With that ideal in mind, Seinfeld decided to end his show while it still topped the ratings in 1998. Since the finale of Seinfeld he has returned to stand-up work and has married and fathered two children. His post-TV travails are documented in Comedian, a 2002 film that follows him to small venues as he struggles to regain his footing as a live entertainer.
Some of Seinfeld's books are based on the television show, others on his stand-up work. His 1993 title Sein-Language was a New York Times best-seller. Sein Off: The Final Days of Seinfeld is a picture and vignette reminiscence about the last season of Seinfeld. More recently, the comedian adapted a bit from one of his stand-up routines and published it as Halloween. A book meant for adults as well as children, Halloween tells of young Jerry Seinfeld's single-minded pursuit of candy—and sturdy costumes—through his childhood neighborhood. Booklist contributor Ilene Cooper wrote of Halloween: "The premise is funny, and the art is fantastic." A Publishers Weekly reviewer styled the work a "sugar-fueled nostalgia trip."
Speculation has also run rampant that Seinfeld has ghosted several titles for which he provided an introduction: Letters from a Nut, More Letters from a Nut, and The Moron Stories of Ed Broth. Since no one has ever heard of the two "comedians" who have penned the books, Ted L. Nancy and Ed Broth, some critics speculate that Seinfeld is the true author. Although Seinfeld has officially denied being "Ted L. Nancy," he has yet to reveal the identity of either "author."
The return to a more anonymous lifestyle stems from Seinfeld's view that the limelight has robbed him of the privacy he must have to be creative. "People are interested in me now way beyond what's appropriate," he contended on The Barbara Walters Special. "It's very odd, very curious to me, very interesting. And I can feel it, boy. It's like being on a ferris wheel and this is the top of the wheel. I am right now at the top of the ferris wheel, and I know what's coming." On the other hand, he is grateful to have found multiple venues for his talents as a humorist. "When men are growing up, reading about Batman, Spiderman, Superman, these aren't fantasies, these are career options," Seinfeld maintained in his New York interview. "Superman is my role model. I have this very romantic image of the stand-up comic, the solitary challenge of being out there on your own, using whatever you have on you. Every man thinks of himself as a low-level superhero. And it came true for me. I got to do what I wanted to do in life. To me, that's being Superman."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 11, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1993.
Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television, Volume 29, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.
Oppenheimer, Jerry, Seinfeld: The Making of anAmerican Icon, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2002.
Wilde, Larry, Great Comedians Talk about Comedy, Executive Books, 2000.
Booklist, September 1, 2002, Ilene Cooper, review of Halloween, p. 140.
Detroit Free Press, November 20, 1992, section F, p. 4; December 22, 1992, section B, p. 6; February 11, 1993, section D, p. 6.
Entertainment Weekly, March 1, 1991, pp. 29-30; September 11, 1992, p. 35.
GQ, May, 1992, pp. 136-141, 202, 204-205.
Horn Book, September-October, 2002, Peter D. Sieruta, review of Halloween, p. 560.
Mirabella, October, 1991, pp. 48, 50.
New York, February 3, 1992, pp. 32-37.
New York Times, September 29, 1991, section H, pp. 33-34; September 16, 1992, section C, p. 20.
People, June 4, 1990, p. 14; December 2, 1991, pp. 87-88.
Playboy, August, 1990, pp. 104-106, 132, 142-143.
Publishers Weekly, June 24, 2002, review of Halloween, p. 54.
Time, August 24, 1992, p. 63.
TV Guide, May 23, 1992, pp. 11-15.
Us, April 4, 1991, pp. 16-19.
USA Today, October 2, 1991, section D, p. 1.
The Barbara Walters Special, ABC-TV, November 24, 1992.
Seinfeld, NBC-TV, February 11, 1993.*