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Yada Yada

Today's Jerry Seinfeld delivers more of the same --mostly observations about pop culture. The difference: Expensive suits and shorter hair.

April 02, 2001|PAUL BROWNFIELD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OAKLAND — Jerry Seinfeld took questions from the audience. He had just finished doing an hour of stand-up comedy--an hour sharp, because Seinfeld is by his own admission a fastidious guy. In his act, he had complained about reality TV ("Don't they know we're in reality . . .?") and decoded the message a bride and groom send by driving away from the wedding ("Goodbye, we're going to Barbados to have sex. Enjoy the dry cake and our relatives. . . .").

Now the audience at the Paramount Theatre, capacity 3,000-plus, a cavernous, 1930s Deco movie house in the heart of downtown Oakland, was getting a little extra: They were getting Seinfeld, who has never seemed altogether comfortable as a public figure, throwing himself open for questions.

Someone asked what he thought of George W. Bush. "I think he's doing a good job place-holding his occupation," Seinfeld said mock carefully, to roars from a crowd that seemed thrilled just to be in his airspace. "He doesn't really seem like a president, but that's OK."

"What's the deal with Corn Nuts?" another person shouted, and Seinfeld relaxed, because as cultural oddities go, he is more comfortable with Corn Nuts than Bushes. Fittingly, the question was phrased in a way that launched the careers of a thousand hack comics in the 1980s ("What's the deal with . . . " insert commercial product here). The '80s were Seinfeld's formative years, the decade in which he worked hard and clean and broke through the clutter of observational comedy, proving himself as much as he ever cared to by earning a spot on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." His material was never controversial or overtly personal, nor did it seem to come from any pain. Its rhythms were rooted in the 1980s, when stand-up got branded as a populist form of entertainment, a low-level rage against the machine of consumer culture. Seinfeld was at the top of a class that came to include people like Larry Miller, Paula Poundstone and Jimmy Brogan; the quintessential Seinfeld joke concerned the Tide commercial in which a housewife boasts that the detergent removes bloodstains. "If you get a T-shirt with bloodstains," went the Seinfeld retort, "maybe laundry is not your problem now."

*

For about a year now, Seinfeld has been working on new material, showing up at clubs in New York or going out to the Improv in, say, Tempe, Ariz. Two weeks ago, he did seven minutes on "The Late Show With David Letterman," further evidence that Seinfeld, after his post-"Seinfeld" creative hibernation, is reentering the culture as a contemporary artist.

The Letterman spot was his first televised stand-up since he laid the old routines to rest in a 1998 HBO special, "I'm Telling You for the Last Time." There is talk of his doing a tour, though no dates have been formalized, say those in his camp. In the meantime, Seinfeld is making a film called "Anatomy of a Joke," which documents, brick by brick, the building of a new act (he is doing the film with Gary Streiner and Christian Charles, who produced his American Express commercials when they were at the advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather). Thus the camera crews filming people filing into his show Thursday at the Paramount, a show for which tickets brokers, the Oakland Tribune reported, were getting upward of $700. Seinfeld had picked the venue, he said onstage, because he'd played there before and loved it.

Seinfeld isn't talking to the media (he declined an interview request for this article). In his act, he compares press interest in his life to a colonoscopy. The analogy fits: Somewhere along the way, between the mega-success of "Seinfeld" and the relationship with then-17-year-old Shoshanna Lonstein and the marriage to Jessica Sklar and the birth of a daughter, Seinfeld ceased to be a voice. He became a gossip magnet, someone in the cross hairs of the paparazzi--a new kind of hell for a guy who's always kept his personal life carefully detached from his public one.

Not surprisingly, then, the new Seinfeld is like the old Seinfeld, only with more expensive suits and shorter hair. It's as if the TV show, the fame, the wealth, never happened, and the stage and the mike were only waiting for him to return from his crazy adventures.

Onstage in Oakland, he didn't much talk about being a father (his daughter was born in November), or a husband or a celebrity; instead, he assessed his Upper West Side neighborhood, with its glut of strollers causing "stroller traffic" and "stroller rage," and babies being "wheeled around like a president," with "the FDR blanket." He picked the Upper West Side and its baby population, Seinfeld said, over the Village and its concentration of gay people--a choice that broke down as follows: "Which is more annoying to me, babies or homosexuals?" (not, Seinfeld hastened to add, that there was anything wrong with being gay).

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