Comedian On The Make

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THE BOTTOM LINE: Jerry exposes life's little absurdities -- and just a little of himself -- in a smart and stylish sitcom.

Stand-up comics can get chewed up fast in TV. First they are squeezed dry of material by Letterman, Leno and the other talk-show bloodsuckers. Then, if they grow popular enough, they are plucked from their solo job and awarded a sitcom. There, major pitfalls await them. Some are exposed as Johnny-one-notes (Kevin Meaney in Uncle Buck); others are simply unable to make the transition from joke telling to character building (Richard Lewis in Anything but Love). Only a few -- Roseanne Arnold, Tim Allen -- succeed without selling out.

One of the brightest members of that small club is Jerry Seinfeld. The Long Island native was perhaps the quintessential yuppie comic of the '80s: his larky, laid-back observations about the trivial pursuits of modern life -- buying candy at a movie theater, riding with your dog in the front seat of the car -- were funny, recognizable, nonthreatening. Now he is the centerpiece of nbc's hottest sitcom. Since the series made its debut in January 1991, Seinfeld has improved steadily in the ratings, especially among young, upscale viewers searching for life after thirtysomething. Sign of a show on the make: NBC promoted it heavily during the Olympics and has introduced two fresh episodes during the August doldrums in an effort to jump-start the series for a run at the Top 20 this fall.

Seinfeld essentially plays himself: an unmarried comedian living in New York City. Early on, the show depended on an awkward gimmick: each episode mixed snatches of Seinfeld's stand-up routines with scenes intended to illustrate the topic or predicament he described. Lately, however, the stand-up bits have been reduced to brief punctuation marks at the beginning and end of each show, and the supporting characters have been fleshed out: Julia Louis-Dreyfus as his brittle ex-girlfriend Elaine, Jason Alexander as his sad-sack friend George, and Michael Richards as goony next-door neighbor Kramer.

Seinfeld seems totally at ease as a sitcom leading man, all gawky insouciance and whiny sarcasm. When he visits his parents in Florida, the family conversation has the ring of truth, not shtick. Mom, commenting on Jerry's scuba diving: "What do you have to go underwater for? What's down there that's so special?" Jerry, unfazed: "What's so special up here?" Traveling to Los Angeles to appear on the Tonight show, he spends his time fretting because the hotel maid threw out his notes for a new joke. Seinfeld isn't the first TV show to say celebrities are neurotic pills, but it is certainly the most convincing.

Seinfeld episodes are loosely structured, with the anecdotal, stream-of- consciousness style of monologue material. One entire show last season was set in a parking garage, as Jerry and his friends searched for their car. In another, Jerry got friendly with ex-New York Mets star Keith Hernandez; the show spun a hilarious comic essay on hero worship and male bonding. "He wants me to help him move!" cries Jerry after one phone call. "I said yes, but I don't feel right about it. I mean, I hardly know the guy." (

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