Jerry Seinfeld - Biography
By Tony Goldmark
More than perhaps any other mainstream comedian in history, Jerry Seinfeld has made an astoundingly successful career out of exploiting the depths of mankind’s greed, selfishness and inconsequential petty bickering. As successful and influential as it was, in theory it’s still hard to imagine a sitcom so inextricably linked to Seinfeld’s name and sensibility even being picked up by a major network, much less becoming that network’s biggest hit, or developing a fanbase as rabid as it is massive. And while the success of Seinfeld can be attributed largely to the unique chemistry of its once-in-a-lifetime comic ensemble, Seinfeld himself remains an unlikely center for it all, and an even unlikelier A-List Icon – nasal, curly-haired and aggressively Jewish, with barely a smidge of conventional Hollywood pretty-boy “good looks,” not to mention a stand-up act which is only a few steps away from outright complaining on stage, both in content and cadence.
Jerome Seinfeld was born on April 29, 1954 in Brooklyn, and grew up in the Nassau county hamlet of Massapequa. He learned about stand-up comedy listening to the LPs of Bill Cosby and Jonathan Winters, and while attending college he discovered Robert Klein, whose unusually complex, multi-dimensional, and sometimes uncomfortable comedy routines influenced young Seinfeld like nobody else.
He began doing stand-up in 1976, at New York City’s Catch A Rising Star open mic nights. It wasn’t long before he started getting paying gigs, and every night for eighteen months straight, Seinfeld performed at various clubs around New York without a single day off. He received his first television exposure in the late 70s on an HBO special hosted by Rodney Dangerfield, and in 1980 he got his first professional acting gig on the ABC sitcom Benson, as a recurring character named Frankie, a delivery boy and aspiring stand-up comic. Frankie appeared in three episodes before the producers fired Seinfeld, having decided the character wasn’t working.
Seinfeld continued performing stand-up, and the following year he gave a memorable, arguably star-making performance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, where he deconstructed concepts like weddings, tuxedos, cotton balls and pay phones – no big weighty issues, just little things everyone can relate to – “somebody’s gotta talk about it,” he explained to Carson. Indeed, as this appearance led to similar ones on Letterman and Merv Griffin, and eventually snowballed Seinfeld into one of the pre-eminent “comedy club comics” of the 1980s stand-up boom, Seinfeld’s offhanded, relentlessly observational “have you ever noticed…” style of jokes seemed to shape, influence and define 1980s stand-up comedy more than anyone else’s. Post-boomer comedy audiences seemed weary of provocative “big issue” comedy from the likes of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, and preferred the unflattering, sometimes absurdist observations of Jerry Seinfeld, one of the very few comedians determined to never swear onstage. Yet he was not quite content to rest on his laurels – as Stand-Up Confidential, a deliriously entertaining 1987 HBO special would prove, Seinfeld had a great love for the cartoon-ish demolition of the fourth wall.
With his star rising, Seinfeld did what an almost embarrassingly large number of comedians did in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s – adapt his musings to a network sitcom. Seinfeld detested the ever-present sitcom format that dominated television then – that every show be either a family sitcom or a workplace sitcom, and either way, there must be a big “heart” moment at the end. Seinfeld was determined not to succumb to this formula, and instead co-created The Seinfeld Chronicles with fellow comedian Larry David, a self-described “show about nothing” which cast Seinfeld as a semi-fictional version of himself, a struggling Jewish stand-up comic in NYC, co-starring Jason Alexander as his best friend George Costanza, and Michael Richards as his deranged neighbor Kessler. It might be hard to imagine now, but in the summer of 1989, this pilot’s neurotic, uncomfortable, repetitive dialogue and lack of ridiculously convenient plot contrivances or any sort of “heart moment” (“no hugging, no learning” was Seinfeld and David’s mantra throughout the series) was unlike almost anything else in the history of TV. And when subjected to test audiences, it was soundly rejected, and stood as the lowest-tested program in the history of NBC. It took over a year for the series to be picked up for more episodes, and that was only because the network needed a cheap four-episode summer replacement. The show was renamed Seinfeld, Kessler was renamed Kramer, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus was added to the cast to play Elaine, Jerry’s half-crazed platonic ex-girlfriend.
Seinfeld survived only by the skin of its teeth for the first few years – after this first “season” of four episodes plus the pilot, it was revived as a thirteen-episode midseason replacement, before finally getting a full-season order in 1991. In this second season, the show started to find its legs, and because no one involved had really worked on a sitcom before, almost immediately they flung themselves into some fairly radical (for the time anyway) experimentation: one episode revolved around George, Elaine and Kramer, with no “Jerry story” whatsoever. Another episode featured a fantasy sequence where Jerry was violently gunned down by the police. But one of the show’s defining moments came in the form of “The Chinese Restaurant,” in which the entire 22 minutes is spent in the waiting area of a Chinese restaurant, as Jerry, George and Elaine hungrily await a table and just talk about stuff.
Even once Seinfeld became a fixture on NBC’s Wednesday night schedule, it still took a while to find an audience, and in the meantime it produced such incredibly funny episodes as “The Pen” (where Jerry and Elaine visit Florida and Elaine has too many painkillers), “The Parking Garage” (which set the gang on a futile search for their car in a parking garage) and perhaps the most notorious sitcom episode in television history, “The Contest,” which finally brought the issue of masturbation into America’s living rooms, where it belonged.
In 1993, Seinfeld was moved to Thursday nights after Cheers, and overnight it went from a struggling cult show to a ravenous ratings bonanza. This fourth season included such perennial episodes as “The Airport” (a hilarious expose of the class disparity on airplanes) and “The Outing” (which coined the catchphrase “Not that there’s anything wrong with that…”) not to mention a clever meta story arc where Jerry and George develop a sitcom for NBC. Over the next five years, Seinfeld became an unstoppable force to be reckoned with in pop culture. Alexander, Louis-Dreyfus and Richards all became valuable character actors in heavy demand in Hollywood, as did co-stars like Wayne Knight, Patrick Warburton, Jerry Stiller, Estelle Harris and John O’Hurley – only Seinfeld himself resisted the clarion call of horrible movies. In 1996, at the end of season 7, Larry David left the show, and Seinfeld took over his show-running duties for the next two seasons. By this point, Seinfeld was hardly a “show about nothing” anymore – indeed, it was about anything and everything, and by season 8 it had achieved an almost delirious level of gonzo character-based silliness. But the ratings remained solid, and before long Seinfeld, Alexander, Louis-Dreyfus and Richards were each being paid a whopping one million dollars per episode – which sounds ridiculous, but was in fact perfectly consistent with the show’s profit margin.
In late 1997, fearing that prolonging the show any further would lead to creative bankruptcy, Jerry Seinfeld announced that this ninth season of Seinfeld would be the last. That year, the buildup to the May 14, 1998 season finale would make it one of the most eagerly anticipated episodes in TV history, as the cast made the cover of every entertainment magazine, as well as the front page of Time Magazine and The New York Times. The details of the finale’s plot were kept under tight wraps until it aired, and though the end result (which essentially amounted to an overblown “clip show”) disappointed many, none could deny the incredible effect Seinfeld had had over comedy and television, forever.
That summer, Jerry Seinfeld went on a “farewell tour” of sorts, intended to put a cap on his career, as he performed stand-up at high-level venues in front of presumably wealthy audience members. He performed jokes about helmets (“We were involved in activities that were cracking our heads, we examined the situation, we chose not to stop doing these things…”), Halloween (“Everyone is giving out candy?! I gotta be a part of this! I’ll do anything you want…I can wear that!”) and fear of public speaking outweighing fear of death (“If you’re at a funeral, most people would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.”) This material was hardly new – he’d perfected it all throughout his twenty-year career, and performed much of it on Seinfeld, and went on tour in the first place with the intention of retiring the material for good. He released the results as an album and an HBO special, both aptly titled I’m Telling You For The Last Time.
But the same comedian who, as a young man, performed stand-up for eighteen months straight wasn’t entirely ready to take retirement lightly. In 2002, Miramax released the documentary feature Comedian, which took an inquisitive look into the psyche of comedians. It documented Seinfeld’s oddly inexplicable struggle to create 45 minutes of new material entirely from scratch, and alternated and juxtaposed Seinfeld with up-and-coming comedian Orny Adams. It was Seinfeld’s first starring role in any sort of feature film, but not his last – in late 2007, Dreamworks released Bee Movie, which adapted Seinfeld’s persona to the strangely congruous world of computer-animated bees.
Today, Seinfeld remains an ever-present media icon, making the occasional guest-appearances on shows like Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, presenting awards at the Oscars, releasing children’s books based on his cleaner routines, and appearing in a misbegotten ad campaign for Windows Vista alongside fellow billionaire Bill Gates. The DVD season sets of Seinfeld have sold in the tens of millions, and the show itself remains omnipresent in syndication. But perhaps the biggest honor came when the Smithsonian Museum accepted “the puffy shirt” (from a memorable episode where Seinfeld was forced to wear an embarrassing puffy shirt), into permanent display. At the induction ceremony, Seinfeld remarked that this was the first time the Smithsonian was recognizing a joke, and remarked with typical discomfort “This is the most embarrassing moment of my life.”