At the Beacon Theater two weeks ago, Jerry Seinfeld didn’t walk to the microphone. He ran. After his meticulously paced trot, he froze in an action pose, then riffed on the challenge of simply going out to do something.
He began the pilot of his seminal television show, “Seinfeld,” with a similar routine on that same subject. It detailed the laundry list of things one must do to go out, before pointing out that once you get there, all you want to do is leave.
“Wherever you are in life,” he said then, “it’s my feeling, you’ve got to go.”
Wearing an expensive-looking suit and a plastic smile, Seinfeld, 58, is at an enviable place in life. He’s rich, famous and respected. But for a comic who describes himself as being “born” in 1976, when he passed the audition for the Comic Strip club in Manhattan, the place he really needs to go remains the stage. You can tell as soon as he employs his signature sing-songy cadence that he’s at home.
Since “Seinfeld” ended, after nine seasons in 1998, Seinfeld has seemed less assured about where to go, dabbling in new forms, like an amiable, uninspired animated film (“Bee Movie”) and a Web series. He directed Colin Quinn’s solo show on Broadway and made an entertaining if not probing documentary about standup, “Comedian.” As for his effort at a reality show, it remains a mystery why someone with the clout of Jerry Seinfeld would bother with “The Marriage Ref.”
But he never stopped touring as a comic. While at Queens College in the 1970s Seinfeld wrote his thesis on standup comedy, and he heads back to Queens on Thursday for the third leg of his five-borough tour of New York.
His brand of accessible, refined observational humor largely defined 1980s comedy, but he is no longer as influential. If anything, his remote style and coolly impenetrable manner can seem anomalous in the current scene. There’s nothing interestingly confessional or even revealing about his taut, carefully crafted jokes. In a landscape full of eccentric voices, his point of view can seem generic. His sarcasm has become slightly crankier as he’s gotten older and his persona is an odd mix of friendly and superior. His comedy has the feel of a transaction. He delivers jokes, you laugh, everyone moves on.
His strength remains his manipulation of language. Seinfeld delights in engaging in wordplay, mocking cliches (“We’ll see what happens” and “not to the best of my knowledge” get worked over) and, of course, analyzing the mundane: socks, air travel, coffee. Walking through well-trod territory, he calls Facebook “the great trash receptacle of mankind.”
In a better vignette, he describes the dizzying options of our consumer culture by imagining staring at a wall of drinks in a store: “I’m trying to figure out who am I, where I am at, and what do I want to be?”
His act is surprisingly physical. When he does an impression of every woman’s impression of every man, he stiffens his back and flattens his face. In a gag about walking down an aisle, he shuffles his feet like James Brown in slow motion. In an impression of a woman reading Brides magazine, he pops his eyes out maniacally. There’s a touch of Jerry Lewis in this version of Jerry Seinfeld.
The only time his generally annoyed tone displayed a hint of anger was when he invited the audience to ask questions. In Seinfeld’s show Thursday in the Bronx, an audience member shouted that he told some of the same jokes the previous week in Manhattan. I saw both shows and they actually had plenty of different material, but Seinfeld does not throw away entire shows of material. His act blends new and familiar hits just like the Rolling Stones do. And there’s a similar nostalgic appeal. Some of his jokes will remind you of his work in “Seinfeld.” Others may make you re-evaluate it.
The star of a collaborative hit show whose name is in the title usually gets more than his share of credit. But there is a comedy-nerd debate about how much the success of “Seinfeld” was because of Seinfeld. While he has made no projects that approach that sitcom’s inventiveness or hilarity, Larry David, who created the show with him and wrote many of its best and most ambitious episodes (“The Contest,” “The Puffy Shirt,” “The Finale”), built another classic comedy, “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
That HBO show is structurally similar, albeit darker, looser and more uncompromisingly concrete in its perspective. The Jewishness, for instance, that is the subtext of much of “Seinfeld” becomes the text of “Curb.” The difference in the comics’ sensibility was apparent earlier from the “Seinfeld” episodes that David wrote by himself. They tended to be more ambitiously irreverent and abrasively funny. “Revenge,” an episode from the second season, was inspired by David’s experience quitting the writing staff at “Saturday Night Live.” It began with George, a character modeled after David, screaming at his boss and quitting his job. He later conspires with Elaine to drug his boss’ drink in an act of gleefully unapologetic vengeance.
David shares Seinfeld’s love of obsessing over the mundane details of life, but he also seems willing to go anywhere for a big laugh. Seinfeld has always been a more cautious, firmly mainstream performer. He has a clean act. He doesn’t look to shock or challenge the audience. He keeps his targets small and consistent. By rejecting topical humor, he doesn’t really have to update jokes that much. The difference between beds and chairs has no expiration date.
Even big developments in Seinfeld’s personal life, like getting married and having children, have not substantially altered his act. At the Beacon, Seinfeld’s portrait of a father as a clueless supporting player is pretty much the same as his immature single-guy persona. Still, his jokes about family are elegantly constructed.
“I didn’t know every day I would be discussing the tone of my voice,” he said, exasperated. “I thought it was a marriage. Apparently it’s a musical.”
He seems more passionate about the mechanics of comedy than the reality of the world, and since comedy changes less than the world does, his material reflects that. His standup resembles the Pop-Tarts he obsesses over: impersonal, reliable, never stale or fresh. It’s comedy as comfort food.