Jerry Seinfeld

Jerry Seinfeld

Jerome Seinfeld raised in Massapequa ("Indian, for 'by the mall'"), Long Island. His father, Kalman, owned a sign making company and was unanimously considered to be the funniest one in the household. Even at the height of his fame, his sister and manager Carolyn maintained that Seinfeld would never be as funny as their father. As a youth, Seinfeld was too embarrassed to compete with the man, therefore keeping quiet about his ambitions. His parents were naturally surprised when, after graduating from Queens College in 1976 with a communications degree, he declared his intent to become a comedian and began appearing at open mic nights in New York clubs. No stranger to public performances, he had appeared in plays during high school and college - even giving a comical flair to his college wrestling career by nicknaming himself "The Jewish Terror."But writing and performing his own material proved to be instantly more satisfying than those previous experiences, and his observational style of comedy was well-received from the beginning. Jackie Mason caught his act in the early days and told him, "It makes me sick. You're going to be such a big hit." According to Seinfeld, "His (Mason's) words carried me for the next four years," during which time he rose to become the MC at the famed Comic Strip before moving westward to court a career in television.In Los Angeles, Seinfeld started on that well-trod path of TV auditions, quickly landing a part as Frankie, the governor's joke writer on "Benson" (ABC, 1979-1986). He was unceremoniously dismissed after three episodes, but he learned the most important lesson of his career - stand-up was what he loved, and he was not going to waste any more time delivering other people's less funny words. He was Jerry Seinfeld, and audiences would never again see him as anything but.Not long after the epiphany, he debuted his act on "The Tonight Show" in May 1981, earning a "thumbs up" from Johnny Carson but not the coveted invitation to join the guests on the couch. He continued to hone his act, refining his wisecracking deadpan persona and observational style by hitting the road for months of touring the nation's comedy clubs. He became a regular sight on "The Tonight Show," and as his reputation grew, he began packing houses and attracting network attention. In 1988, he received an American Comedy Award for Stand-up Comic. By then the momentum was obvious. NBC approached him with an offer to develop his own sitcom.Seinfeld decided he needed a writing partner so he put a call into Larry David, a fellow New York stand-up he had been friendly with through the club scene over the previous decade. The pair were hardly best friends, but Seinfeld recalled that he and David's arcane conversations had always been very entertaining, and he wanted his show to sound like their real life dialogues. David flew to Los Angeles and together the pair came up with a basic concept that would work for Seinfeld - glimpses of a comedian at work interspersed with the offstage drama that inspired his material. Minus the drama. The show's defining characteristic marked a major digression from mainstream TV comedy - there was no drama and no contrived, central event to be resolved in 22 minutes. There were several friends and acquaintances whose lives intersected via rounds of banter regarding the placement of shirt buttons. By conventional TV wisdom, a show celebrating the small conundrums of daily life was bound to fail."The Seinfeld Chronicles" pilot aired during the summer of 1989 and NBC hated it, offering the show to Fox, who passed. An NBC executive supporter boldly financed four more episodes, and the retitled "Seinfeld" aired in May of 1990 following "Cheers" (NBC, 1982-1993). The time slot helped garner an audience and quickly won the positive notice of critics. There was a second order for six episodes, with NBC finally asking for 13 shows. If not for its strong demographic showing among the coveted 18-49 advertising consumers, the unconventionally formatted sitcom would surely have died an early death. Spared, it was given time to find its legs and steadily gain a reputation, the creators zealously protecting its eccentricities and willing to walk out rather than see their vision corrupted.Naturally, "Seinfeld" evolved over its nine-year-run, but the basic principles and tone of the show remained intact: four totally self-absorbed New Yorkers laboring week after week over minutiae, while carrying on aimless lives of little emotional depth but maximum clever exchanges. By all accounts, audiences should have been repelled by wiseass Jerry, curmudgeonly George, shallow Elaine, and unapologetically directionless Kramer, but an outstanding cast and consistently original material from writer David only helped its popularity grow. Seinfeld and David insisted that a sitcom need not be light, cheery and pious - thus instituting their infamous "no hug, no lesson" rule, which broke all accepted norms of prime time, with liars and cheats obliviously quipping their way past personal growth opportunities in search of the next bowl of cereal or "big salad."And of course there was the "nothing" appeal. Shows like episode 16, "The Chinese Restaurant," which consisted entirely of Jerry, George and Elaine waiting for a table at a neighborhood eatery, seemed on the surface to support Seinfeld's own charmingly disingenuous statements that his show was about nothing. On the contrary - in the tradition of "Leave It to Beaver" or the works of N l Coward and Jane Austen - "Seinfeld" was a comedy of manners exploring the foibles of the human condition, and would set the tone for the next generation of sitcoms. Imitators, however, lacked an important ingredient - that of Seinfeld himself. Refusing to play characters and do impressions from the very beginning of his stand-up career, he had concentrated his energies on a strong presentation of self. By allowing the other members of the sitcom's ensemble to shine brighter, Seinfeld became arguably the greatest straight man since Bud Abbott.After nine seasons and countless "Seinfeldisms" entering the public lexicon ("Not that there is anything wrong with that," "low talker"), the sitcom was still at the top of the ratings. But rather than suffer through an inevitable decline and staleness, its namesake announced the show would end in 1998, despite an NBC offer of $5 million dollars per episode for the star - an unbelievable raise of $4 million! Seinfeld would not be bought however, and insisted this was it. Fans around the world began mourning the show months before its conclusion. David, who had left the show at the end of season seven, returned to write the series finale, which ended up being the third most watched program of all time, with 76 million viewers tuning in to say goodbye to the "Beatles of Comedy." Fans, who had speculated on every possible send-off - including the marriage of Jerry and Elaine - were generally disappointed by the dark final shot of the four friends serving a year in jail, charged with a lack of humanity. Despite going out with a whimper and not a bang, a syndication deal netted Seinfeld $225 million dollars, ensuring Seinfeld junkies that the beloved 180 episodes might possibly air forever.After the show wrapped, Seinfeld moved back to New York and his first love - stand-up comedy - having missed the energy of the live performance and the connection with the audience all those years. He booked a limited engagement on Broadway and officially retried years of tried and true material with the show "I'm Telling You for the Last Time," which aired on HBO. Later in the year he met a publicist and New York socialite named Jessica Sklar, and experienced one of his very few moments in the gossip pages for wooing her away from her one month marriage into a high-profile New York theater family. Following Sklar's divorce, the couple were married in 1999. It was not Seinfeld's original foray in the gossip pages - his first weekly cameo resulted from a controversial romance with a busty high school senior name Shoshanna Lonstein who was half his age, whom he was first transfixed by as she jogged through Central Park. The couple dated from 1993-97, and following the breakup, Lonstein went on to earn a name for herself as a popular fashion designer.For the next 18 months, film crews shot video that chronicled Seinfeld as he unexpectedly turned up at small comedy club stages and worked tirelessly to create a brand-new stand-up act. The resulting documentary, "Comedian" (2002), provided the most intimate professional look at Seinfeld yet - from how he worked to develop fresh, challenging material, to the inner workings of the closely-knit, behind-the-scenes world of stand-up comedy. Footage of Seinfeld - as well as Jay Leno, Chris Rock, Garry Shandling, Bill Cosby and Colin Quinn - created a poignant and ironic portrait of the comedian, so often plagued by insecurity and depression; yet driven to make others laugh.With his new act in place, Seinfeld resumed a weekly stand-up schedule that allowed him time with his growing family. To most of the general public, he had seemed to disappear, surfacing in 2004 for a Smithsonian Institute induction of "the puffy shirt" into their collection, and the release of the first three seasons of "Seinfeld" on DVD. That year he also appeared in a pair of commercial "webisodes" for American Express entitled "The Adventures of Seinfeld and Superman," continuing his lifelong references to the caped crusader as his personal hero.In November of 2006, Seinfeld invited former "Seinfeld" castmate Michael Richards (Cosmo Kramer) to join him during his previously scheduled appearance on "The Late Show with David Letterman" (CBS, 1993-), supporting Richards as he publicly apologized for an outburst of racial epithets he had recently unfurled onstage at Hollywood's Laugh Factory. Seinfeld stood by his longtime friend, maintaining that he was not racist and that the upsetting incident was an isolated mistake. Not many people would have done this for a former co-star - not with the media and NAACP breathing down Richard's neck. But Seinfeld's loyalty to a man who, at that moment, was the very definition of a social and showbiz pariah, impressed many.Seinfeld hit the general radar in the fall of 2007 with a guest appearance (as himself, of course) in the season premiere of "30 Rock" (NBC, 2006-13). The wildly inventive plot about NBC devising a plan to lift footage of Seinfeld from the old shows and insert him into new programming caused an instant wave of nostalgia for the days of fresh "Seinfeld" episodes. And all just in time for the release of the show's final season on DVD.However Seinfeld's biggest news of the year was the release of his feature debut, "Bee Movie" (2007). The animated Dreamworks tale of an ambitious bee who sues the human race for unlawful harvesting of honey was co-written and co-produced by Seinfeld, featuring his voice as the main character, Barry. Unfortunately, at a time when a Seinfeld-loving nation should have been cheering at the prospect of a new offering from this beloved comedian, he began to experience possibly the most blatant backlash of a career that, heretofore, could do no wrong. Blogs were abuzz over the relentless "Bee Movie" promotion campaign. One of a series of TV ads was criticized for its perceived anti-gay sentiment. Furthermore, McDonald's tie-in with the film incited claims of hypocrisy as Seinfeld's wife Jessica was concurrently promoting a cookbook of healthful cooking for kids. To make matters worse, the author of a similarly themed cookbook stepped forward to protest that Mrs. Seinfeld's recipes bore a striking resemblance to her own, which prompted Seinfeld to defend his wife in an ill-considered rant on "The Late Show with David Letterman." Adding to the swirling personal controversy, early reviews for "Bee Movie" rated it somewhere closer to a C movie, suggesting that Seinfeld might have been better served sticking to his low-profile life as a revered stand-up and eternal TV institution.