Photo: Brittany Somerset/Corbis
Jerry Seinfeld appeared at Manhattan’s Beacon Theater Thursday night, in the first night of a five-borough tour of the city. The atmosphere was “middle-tier Staten Island Romney fund-raiser,” the dress was business-casual, and the opener was Colin Quinn (whom Seinfeld directed in the excellent Long Story Short). Quinn killed from the get-go, comparing the Beacon’s “restrained” décor with “any banquet hall in Brighton Beach” or the bathroom of the “Russian oligarch” who “owns the Nets.” He then went on to spin his merry themes of decline, talking about how America’s best days are behind it — which drew more mixed and muted responses. Not a problem for Quinn, whose “God bless, go-fuck-yourself” vibe just gets better and bitterer with age.
Quinn, you may have heard, is from around here: New York, Eastern Seaboard, the planet Earth. Jerry, not so much. Oh, he’s Brooklyn-born, Long Island–reared, all right, and his observational humor is obviously homegrown; and, thanks to his show-that-defined-a-decade, he’s a New York icon on par with any famous bridge or tunnel. But Seinfeld’s genius has always resided in his detachment from the polluted world and its shortcomings — shortcomings he catalogues with marvelously snide (if slippery) logic and an absurdist playwright’s ear for the sound of senselessness. He is bemused and annoyed by the world, but he’s not of the world. Never was, really. And now, he’s just too rich to start reintegrating. “Your life sucks, my life sucks,” he riffs. “Although, to be fair, my life sucks … a little less.”
This is the closest Jerry comes to opening up, beyond mentioning the number of children he’s had postshow (three) and confirming his own age. At 58, he and his gestalt seem flawlessly fossilized in amber. His physical routine, always a cornerstone of his comedy, hasn’t eroded one bit. He bounds onstage like a closely shorn golden retriever. (His boyish bramble is long gone; now he’s in full goofy-dad mode.) He has a crouch or a squat or a one-legged balancing-act to accompany every joke, and he sells more than one so-so jape on rhythm, semaphore, and tonal massage alone. What he can’t sell, he sings. The laughs come easily, if never heartily. It’s as if your brain is relearning an old skill.
The strongest material arrives at the top of the show: Seinfeld congratulates us on simply making it to the theater. He then delivers a marvelous recounting of what the audience had to go through to get to the theater and segues into why we bothered. Like everything else in Seinworld, simply entertaining oneself is a Sisyphaean hassle. A night at the theater is a giant, agonizing pilgrimage … just to go from one sitting position to another.
But Jerry, quite obviously, sits in a different sort of chair than most of us, a fact he coyly flicks at more than once. Do we really want honesty from Ol’ Jer? Because honesty, in his case, means a laundry list of Millionaire Problems. Perish the thought: Seinfeld’s too smart and too guarded for that trap. Instead, we enter a Cosbyfied version of Jerry’s old social obstacle course. Before, irritating acquaintances and scheming mailmen came between him and his goals: sex, cereal, and peace and quiet on the couch. Now, anonymous rugrats and the stock Glowering Spouse are the antagonists — along with hyped-up Starbucks drones and iPhone slaves — and the goals are still sleep, cereal, and peace and quiet, but now on the toilet. Jerry’s world was never quite our own, though it may have flattered us to think it was. Now that it’s populated with rambunctious kids and carping wives, it’s even more alien. Stories unfold in a sort of semi-suburban model-train set, where Seinfeld takes out his own trash, drives his kids to birthday parties, and can’t enjoy a decent meal in his own kitchen without enduring a grilling from the missus. (This unhappy tyrant-spouse haunts the whole evening but never comes into focus: She’s a cartoon, a doodled Betty Rubble harridan — the Comedian-of-a-Certain-Age’s wife.) In the Age of Louie and radical, self-lacerating overshare, this old-fashioned, generic schedule of man-grievances is a sepia-toned throwback.
But the rhythms carry us when the material doesn’t. Seinfeld is as much a musician as a funnyman. Half embalmed bits on golf and coffee go over like gangbusters, thanks mostly to judicious lilting and an onstage bob-and-weave that would’ve defeated Ali in his prime. (Not everything is salvageable, of course, like exhumed material on *69, e-mail, and Caller ID. Really, Jerry? Day-olds? At these prices?) But then, Seinfeld was always a throwback, even in his heyday. And the crowd tore into it. (One of their top questions for Jerry, in a brief Q&A: “Did you drive here? What did you drive?” The answer: I like all kinds of cars.” This guy is ready to debate Obama!)
What last night revealed, to me, at least, is that Jerry Seinfeld has always been about 60 years old. His rants against technology have their moments, but there are ironies here beyond mere fogeyishness. Seinfeld wistfully recalls a lost tradition of face-to-face interaction — a ritual, I have to point out, that he never seemed to relish when he was at the peak of his nineties pique, except as fodder for his snackable, air-popped misanthropy. When a curmudgeon with famously delimited empathy — whose trademark is no-hugging and barely emoting — laments the end of intimate facetime, well, I’ve gotta laugh.