Seinfield stops by Kennedy Center while prepping 'Marriage Ref'

KING OF CLEAN: Jerry Seinfeld didn't need to pick on other celebrities to get laughs.
KING OF CLEAN: Jerry Seinfeld didn't need to pick on other celebrities to get laughs. (Kennedy Center)
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By Tom Shales
Monday, March 1, 2010

Jerry Seinfeld is amazing in many ways, not the least of them his ability to find humor, and convincing us to find it, too, in the million-and-two details about modern life that under different circumstances might send us into paroxysms of rage. I had a paroxysm just the other day -- all because of my lousy cellphone. Oh, how I hate that miserable piece of trash that I couldn't live without.

As part of his performance at the Kennedy Center on Saturday night, Seinfeld playfully knocked cellphones, people who build their lives around them, and the whole new set of manners and mores that have risen up around those wretched, dreadful things. Moving up a notch in wretched dreadfulness to the BlackBerry, Seinfeld dusted off and refurbished a joke he did years ago about plain old wireless land-line phones -- about how their design kills the idea of slamming down the phone in anger to make a point.

Trying to slam down a cellphone makes for an awfully feeble fit, he points out, while a single dainty swipe of a finger is enough to disconnect a BlackBerry, as he demonstrated -- and no drama in that. Come to think of it, it's awfully hard to picture Barbara Stanwyck screaming in terror over some twinklesome little ditty serving as a ringtone in "Sorry, Wrong Number."

Seinfeld is way more than a joke cracker, of course. He's an escort through the absurdities and inanities of our time -- a zeitgeist tour guide with a brilliantly sardonic slant. He certainly lacks Chris Rock's savage edge, or the manic theatrics of Robin Williams, and his constituency is not, for whatever reason, multicultural. Still he seems the most likely candidate for the title of Our National Comedian -- witty and wry and impeccably accessible.

Seinfeld's Washington appearances are always occasions for outright uproariousness, even though he has a tendency to sneak into town -- little advertising or publicity, yet he usually sells out anyway. Seinfeld did a grueling -- for him -- four shows over two nights; I caught the early show at 7 p.m. Saturday. He kept to this schedule even though embroiled in last-minute editing for the new NBC series that he is producing, "The Marriage Ref." It got an on-air preview after the close of the Olympics and begins a regular run on Thursday night.

It's hardly big news, but Seinfeld really is about the most atypical comedian around -- neither ragingly neurotic nor boringly egomaniacal (or maybe he just hides it well), and he's "adult" without being smutty. His comments about the side effects of erectile dysfunction drugs were hilarious without being even vaguely obscene. Perhaps best of all, Seinfeld steers clear of the catty, caustic remarks about embattled celebrities that now dominate comics' routines and fill the monologues on late-night talk shows.

It's nice to know you can still find 80 or 90 minutes of stand-up comedy in this country without having to hear a single joke about Kirstie Alley packing on poundage, or Larry King having dallied with dinosaurs in his youth. Or so-and-so being too old for such-and-such. It's not humor, it's just name-dropping, and Seinfeld rarely indulges.

Every now and then, Seinfeld laughs along with the audience, but this doesn't seem to be the kind of laughter that Red Skelton, for instance, lavished on himself. Laughing at his own observations is not part of Seinfeld's act. It seems rather that Seinfeld might suddenly be amused by the banality even of the ritual in which he's taking part -- the whole notion of 2,000 people crowding a concert hall to listen to one man complain about radar-flush urinals or waiters who announce "tonight's specials" in laborious detail.

At least 75 percent of the material in Saturday's performance sounded new to me, but even what wasn't new still remained fresh. Perhaps as a good-luck charm, Seinfeld again revived his complaint about restaurant checks being leather-bound in pretentious little walletlike things: "What is this -- the story of the bill?" I never get tired of it.

Nor can I imagine ever getting tired of Seinfeld, maybe because he doesn't make that large a demand on your sensibilities. He usually stops short of being deeply profound or meaningful, but that's okay, because it means he's never pretentious, either. He's a man with a great and rare gift who refuses to be impressed by it and -- even more important -- remains ever-vigilant against its getting creaky.

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