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Jerry Seinfeld,
Warmed Over on Broadway

Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 11, 1998

  Tom Shales

    Seinfeld Now appearing in reruns: Seinfeld performed old material for his new show. (By Albert Ferreira/HBO)
NEW YORK—Picketers chanting and jeering outside the theater! HBO's gigantic satellite dish beamed toward the sky from the corner of 44th and Eighth! Fans and celebrities pouring into the Broadhurst Theater, most of them having paid 75 bucks a pop! And inside, robot cameras on long metal arms swooping down from the balcony over the heads of the capacity crowd!

Everything was exciting, really. Except the show: "Jerry Seinfeld: Live on Broadway," subtitled "I'm Telling You for the Last Time," a one-man comedy concert by America's best-known, or at least richest, stand-up comic. Sunday night's performance, nationally televised, was the finale to a four-night, 10-show run at the Broadhurst.

The appearance served as a sort of coda to "Seinfeld," the brilliantly written ensemble sitcom that in May ended its nine-year run on NBC, much to the sorrow of network executives. Seinfeld never once mentioned or alluded to "Seinfeld" during his HBO show.

However it looked on TV, in the theater it seemed as if Jerry was almost bombing on Broadway. He'd announced in advance that his material would all be old stuff he's been doing for years, yet one still expected some particle of freshness or spontaneity. He was more clonish than clownish, very stiff and businesslike, very let's-get-this-over-with.

You got the feeling you weren't seeing Jerry Seinfeld the comedian and TV star but rather Jerry Seinfeld, chairman and CEO of Jerry Seinfeld Inc.

The audience provided its own surprises. About midway through the show, bellowing hecklers in the balcony interrupted and seemed to unnerve Seinfeld completely. He didn't have a witty comeback for the loudmouths, who sounded like plants from aging prankster Howard Stern's equally aging radio show. At least one of them was ushered out, but not before disrupting things and sending a chill through the superstar onstage.

For a less threatening intrusion, Seinfeld was better prepared. "I love you," someone shouted, and Seinfeld replied, "I love you, too, but I still want to see other people."

The audience included Chris Rock, a dazzling young comic currently on the ascent and also co-starring in the film "Lethal Weapon 4." Rock's comedy is everything Seinfeld's isn't: topical, risky, sometimes angry. Richard Belzer, the dark prince of comedy and star of NBC's "Homicide," was there, too. By and large, the audience appeared pleased and receptive, greeting every joke with laughter and giving Seinfeld two standing ovations, but this was clearly not the magical evening one could have hoped for.

Seinfeld also chose, for whatever reason, to cut it short, ending the performance 10 minutes earlier than HBO thought it would end. After about 65 minutes of performing, Seinfeld did a joke about a toilet overflowing and then suddenly told the crowd they'd been a great audience and walked off. Seinfeld Seinfled.

He took one more bow but refused to do an encore, even though the crowd remained on its feet applauding. For a funnyman, he certainly came off as a churl. Maybe that's what piling up a fortune of $300 million or more can do to you. Lucky you and lucky me, huh?

The protesters outside were still angry about a "Seinfeld" episode from last season in which Cosmo Kramer, played by Michael Richards, accidentally set fire to the Puerto Rican flag. Placards and chants accused Seinfeld of racism and urged a boycott of the show. With no success. It was a sellout. And to Seinfeld's credit, all the money from ticket sales goes to two New York charities: PENCIL (Public Education Needs Civic Involvement in Learning), which encourages community interest in schools, and ArtsConnection, which tries to make the arts appealing and accessible to school kids.

By rough estimate, the two charities should be splitting nearly $1 million as a result of Seinfeld's largess. Whatever HBO paid him is separate, however.

The telecast will be repeated on HBO Sept. 12 at 9:30 p.m.

There's no question that many of Seinfeld's observational reflections are still funny and strike responsive chords. Like his TV series, Seinfeld's humor dwells on the petty annoyances of everyday life. But his jokes about trying to wash away a mysterious stray hair on the wall of a friend's shower stall, or his complaints about gabby airline pilots who inform passengers of every move they make, or his gripe about goony men who honk the horns of their cars when they see pretty girls on the sidewalk – this was all painfully familiar and delivered rather by rote.

Only once, really, did Seinfeld show a trace of human tenderness, which is when he reminisced about being a child and learning that an annual holiday called Halloween exists primarily for the purpose of acquiring as much free candy as possible on a single wonderful night.

It's hard to recall one joke from the performance that couldn't have been told to similar effect 10 or 15 years ago. This was vacuum-packed humor, and we in the theater were in some sort of suspended animation. On the one hand, it was perhaps a relief to spend an hour or so without hearing the heinous names of Monica Lewinsky or Kenneth Starr; on the other, it would have been more of a pleasure to hear Seinfeld eviscerate them.

Anyone who sees a videotape of this performance a hundred years from now will be able to tell very little about the era in which it was done except that airplanes had small bathrooms, late-night TV played lots of infomercials, old folks often retired to Miami, and people who thought "extra strength" pain relievers were too inadequate went all the way and purchased "maximum strength" instead.

Seinfeld has a great knack for ferreting out the absurdities of modern life and making jokes out of them, but he should have done some fresh ferreting before stepping onto the stage of the Broadhurst.

TV viewers didn't see the opening act, a lovably bombastic comic named Kevin Meany, who warmed up the crowd in bravura style. He's broad where Seinfeld is restrained, and it made for a nice contrast. Meany's material was so up-to-date that he even envisioned Frank Sinatra meeting Buffalo Bob Smith in Heaven and saying, "How-dee-doo-dee-doo, dee-doo-dee-doody . . ." Meany also devised a mock duet with Sinatra doing "The Coffee Song" ("They've got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil . . .") that was ingenious and charmingly funny.

Seinfeld didn't come out and bring everybody down, no. They were too "up" just at the notion of being there for the event and paying tribute to someone who has, indeed, been a major comic force in pop culture for a decade or so. But if Seinfeld thought that appearing solo would prove to the world that he doesn't need writers, co-stars and gifted supporting players to be entertaining, he made a very poor case. Indeed, he was almost a witness for the prosecution.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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