Very Jerry

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When they leave, Professor Seinfeld sums up: "What you're doing is, you're legitimizing the audience's subjective experience as universal. I don't mean to get too lofty," he adds, "but I do have an honorary doctorate from Queens College, and I think that sentence illustrates why."

Class is over; time for lunch. We had planned to go to the midtown diner where Seinfeld usually eats, but once out on Sixth Avenue, he says, "I want a new taste. You work around here — where do you usually have lunch?"

Ten minutes later, Seinfeld is holding a tray in the Time & Life Building's company cafeteria, waiting in line to order a cheeseburger. "And I'll take some of those waffle fries too," he says with a raised eyebrow to the counterman. Earlier, Seinfeld had said that "the danger for a successful comedian is to get a nice mansion in a gated community. You have to put yourself inharm's way, as I do." The counterman hands Seinfeld his burger. "Can I get a pickle with that?" he asks pleasantly.

At the table, he plops a fry on my plate. "You gotta try one." I ask him what he will be doing five years from now. "Getting on a plane. Going somewhere to tell jokes." Ten years from now? "Till they lower me down. That's the end of the tour." Why do successful stand-ups move on to movies and TV? "Low prestige." Would you go back to TV? "I can't do that job to distinction," he says. "I have a chance to do this job to distinction."

But Seinfeld doesn't see his old job as an aberration in a lifelong career as a stand-up. "The show worked," he says, "because it absorbed the rule of stand-up comedy, which is, If it's not funny, don't bring it up. In the show, something was either funny or setting up something that was funny, or it wasn't in." He says he likes his former partner Larry David's HBO show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, for precisely the same reason.

Ultimately, Seinfeld is a traditionalist. For him, there's no shame in being Alan King in a tuxedo holding an unlit cigar and the audience's attention. "In fact, it's a high calling," he says. "An honor." Still, wouldn't you be reaching more people and having more of an effect if you were on TV? "Reaching more people, yes. Having more of an effect, no." But what makes you get on that plane every week? Is it the applause? He answers slowly. "Not really. The laugh is the vote."

Seinfeld has a second child on the way. He got married for the first time at 45 and found that the institution suits him. Early in Comedian, he tries to cheer up a disheartened young stand-up by telling him his favorite show-business story. The plane carrying Glenn Miller's band is forced to land in a snowstorm. Two of the musicians are trudging through a snowy field and see a snug little cabin in front of them. They peer through the window and see a husband and wife laughing with their two apple-cheeked children in front of a roaring fireplace. One band member turns to the other and says, "How do people live like that?"

I remind Seinfeld of the story. "That's me now. I'm inside the house," he laughs. "And outside too. You know, it's not bad."

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