Jerry Seinfeld began at least one of his four sold-out comedy concerts at the Kennedy Center this weekend by materializing suddenly in the dark and, as the lights came up, sliding across the stage to the microphone. The imagery was obvious: a baseball player sliding victoriously into home, though remaining gracefully on his feet the whole time.
From that opening moment on, Seinfeld scored and scored run after run, demonstrating the highest batting average in modern comedy. But the heck with the sports analogies; here, ladies and gentlemen, we have a philosopher-comic with the defiance of Hemingway, the wit of Wilde, the eloquence of Malraux and the memory of Proust. Or so it seemed to at least one happy camper laughing himself hysterical in the Concert Hall on Friday night.
Not me. Good grief, are you kidding?! No, I sat there stony-faced and semi-suicidal. The happy camper was some dumb guy in the 43rd row. He even managed to make those insane literary comparisons as he laughed. The point is -- well, the point is simply (in fact, quite simply) that Jerry Seinfeld remains unmistakably the master of his domain.
He's a comedy giant unspoiled by nearly unimaginable, arguably insufferable success. Those "Seinfeld" reruns just keep rerunning along, episode after episode standing up handily to repeated viewings, be it the pig-man, the soup Nazi, the re-gifter, the sponge-worthy, the marble rye, the Woody Woodpecker, the contest, the puffy shirt, or even be it the birth of Little Ricky. (We just threw that last one in to see if you are still there. And you must be, or you wouldn't have read it. Please accept my thanks.)
Now it's true that roughly 75 percent of Seinfeld's act during this visit consisted of the same material -- then new -- that he delivered during his last Kennedy Center gig a year ago. It doesn't matter, because much like the sitcom episodes, the jokes merit and even thrive on repetition. Besides, we're there not just for the content but also for the style, the crisp and dry delivery that is among the most imitated of its time. Seinfeld's performances are that rare anomaly, perfection that keeps being improved upon.
His remarks about the situation in Iraq seemed new this time out; he is not, of course, a political comic or one who gets into lots of topical material. But as with most things, his observations about the war homed in brilliantly on the central absurdities of the situation. It's not easy to joke about terrorists, but Seinfeld earned big laughs (huge!) by suggesting that somebody follow the guy who supplies TV news with all that footage of terrorists in training camps. If we know where the camps are, why in hell don't we know where the terrorists are?
And why do we always see, in all these films, terrorists training on monkey bars? Is it expected that eventually a crucial battle is certain to be fought on a children's playground?
Seinfeld's usual subject matter leans more toward the social and cultural: "People are stopping for coffee on their way to Starbucks," he says as part of a very funny riff on Americans and their beverage fixations. If manufacturers can be so presumptuous as to name a cereal "Life," Seinfeld wonders, then why not go the next step, throw caution to the wind and just call it "Almighty God"? (A devoted cereal eater himself, or maybe he just played one on TV, Seinfeld speculated that the escalation of the raisin wars among makers of raisin brans could lead to the ultimate insanity: "all raisins, one flake").
"A thought occurred to me," Seinfeld said in setting up one segment of the show, and that's the crystal essence of his persona and the cornerstone of his humongous popularity: A thought occurred to him. And then another. And, over the years, dozens and hundreds and perhaps thousands of observational thoughts, many of them having also occurred to us, only in non-funny form. Seinfeld shapes them into comedy, plunking the proverbial responsive chord with the skill of a great musician. Perhaps we should refer to him as "The Maestro."
The thoughts are about cell phones, one-click ordering on the Internet, answering machines, and that infernal little strip that runs along the bottom of the screen under the guy who is ostensibly giving us the news of the day: "Which is the news -- the strip or the guy?" Seinfeld prefaced one of his most uproarious and on-target spiels, about the agony and ultra-agony of weddings, by referring to himself as "your strange little TV friend," and so he is, a man who recognized his own strangeness and found an ingenious way to capitalize on it.
In a question-and-answer session that followed the crowd's standing ovation, Seinfeld said his favorite "Seinfeld" episode is probably the one in which George Costanza pretends to be a marine biologist and rescues a whale by pulling from its blowhole a golf ball hit into the ocean by Cosmo Kramer. If none of these names or details mean anything to you, you have managed to miss one of the great communal comedy experiences of our time. Apparently, the reruns will go on forever, so there's plenty of hope of catching up.
One can also buy old episodes, uncut, in handsome DVD packages. On one of those, Seinfeld cites a different episode as his favorite, but he's entitled to change his mind.
And if Seinfeld really does think Washington is such a great place in which to perform -- despite the ominous cavernousness of the Concert Hall -- perhaps he could arrange to come here more often. Laughs are not easy to come by in this town. Nor, for that matter, are thoughts.