Editor's note: In 1989, NBC aired "The Seinfeld Chronicles," a sitcom pilot featuring Massapequa High School graduate, Jerry Seinfeld. The following year, on May 31, 1990, the show "Seinfeld" premiered on NBC. The rest is television sitcom history. Newsday's Richard Firstman graduated high school with Jerry and interviewed the comedian in 1984, just as his career was taking off.
This story originally appeared in Newsday on June 10, 1984
The last time I saw Jerry Seinfeld it was before show business, before Johnny Carson back when he was just another clean-cut kid in Massapequa, trying to make his friends laugh.
I suppose you could say Jerry Seinfeld grew up with a measure of celebrity. It came by way of his father, Kal Seinfeld, who produced most of the billboards and other sign language in the greater Massapequa area, and who let that fact be known by painting Kal Seinfeld Signs across the bottom of each work, in lettering sometimes very nearly the size of the advertisement itself. Kals flair for self-promotion made the Seinfeld name one of the most recognizable around town. In Massapequa High School, I knew Jerry as a nice kid whose father was a famous painter.
A few years later, Kal found an even better client for his promotions when Jerry, having discarded thoughts of a normal career, was about to make his first appearance as a standup comedian on the Tonight Show. Not only did Kal drive his van around Massapequa with a sign heralding the debut, but he also bought space in the weekly Massapequan Observer. He Dared to Dream The Impossible Dream read the advertisement. He told Jerry: It has nothing to do with you being my son. I just happen to enjoy your work.
In the classic sense, Jerry wasn't a class clown. He had a thing about entertaining, that was clear, but his style in high school was almost furtive. He would recite a joke from that week's Laugh-In during lunch period with his friends or do an impression while dialing his locker combination in the hallway. The material wasn't original, but it was faithful to the nuances. When you're 17, style is everything. I remember a time in third-period study hall when he got big laughs from a bunch of us seniors by mimicking Yogi Bear in a television commercial for the American Cancer Society. Look at that guy there, said Jerry as Yogi, coughing his ________ head off. When you're 17, words that appear as dashes in the newspaper go over very well in study hall.
Jerry tripped up the stage stairs during high school graduation. A lot of people thought he did it for a laugh, but it was, in fact, a sincere and unpremeditated pratfall. After that day in June, 1972, he vanished from consciousness, along with most of the 600 or so other members of my high school class. In the years that followed, there were passing encounters with some of them. I saw one of the brightest kids in the class selling sweaters in Macys. I saw another classmate wheeling a baby stroller on the dock at Northport. And a couple of years ago, I found Jerry Seinfeld emerging from the rainbow-colored curtains of the Tonight Show. It was a reacquaintance of sorts.
The grown-up Jerry Seinfeld was tall and lean. His hair was shorter than in 1972, and blow-dried. He had a silk-smooth style, and his material was fresh, intelligent. He had no props. He had no weird, neurotic ax to grind. He didnt act wild and crazy or make fun of himself or jump up and down and scream or tell jokes about Jews, blacks, sex, drugs and rock and roll. He just stood there, smiling, saying clever things about greeting cards and bumper cars and the minutiae of life, chuckling appropriately, moving his body and changing expression with a practiced whim. He was a natural.
Over the next couple of years, I wondered: How did he get from there to here? A comedian. Had he become a congressman or a rock star, I probably would have been only mildly curious, and less impressed. But there was something intriguing about a schoolmate who had grown up to be funny for a living. This was not someone whose destiny was clear in high school. A lot of people were probably betting on Jerry Seinfeld Signs.
I noticed recently that he was going to be appearing at Caroline's, a Manhattan comedy club. I decided to call him. We arranged to meet at his Upper West Side apartment on a Saturday, then go out for brunch. When I got there, he was wearing non-designer jeans, a brown cotton sweater and sneakers. He was two weeks short of his 30th birthday. You're all grown up, he said.
We went to a place called Dobsons, a Columbus Avenue fern bar. We sat at a window table, a coupla white yuppies sitting around talking. Next to us was a table of white-haired women eating quiche. Seinfeld ordered French toast.
He's always harbored a desire to be a comedian, he told me. "But that's one of the things you don't tell people," he said. "I had always written down funny ideas in secret. It was such a deep, dark fantasy. Remember when Laugh-In was hot? When I watched it, I would write down the good jokes so the next day in school, when I would be in a conversation, I would be able to remember. Looking back, you could see there was something about humor that was much more important to me, if I was going to the trouble of taking notes just for casual conversation. Thats what standup comedy is, especially the way I do it. Its very carefully orchestrated casual conversation."
Seinfeld's stuff is reminiscent of comedians such as Robert Klein and George Carlin. He takes the details of life and exaggerates them into issues of the day. He does routines on socks escaping from the washing machine; he talks about cotton balls and cologne and cigarettes; he talks about his parents moving to Florida: "They didnt want to," he says, "but they're past 60 and thats the law."
He's appeared with Johnny Carson a dozen times, with David Letterman and with most of the other talk-show hosts. He works in Las Vegas and the major cities. (For the full list, write to Kal Seinfeld in Florida. He will also provide a set of clippings from small newspapers and an 8-by-10 glossy.)
He first tried comedy during his senior year at Queens College, in 1976. He signed up for amateur night at Catch a Rising Star in New York and developed a routine. "I stood over my bed and memorized it cold," he said. "I had a regular joke-joke in there, just in case. I worked on it, worked on it, worked on it, then went to Catch a Rising Star and got the first number. It's a very dignified process. You wait on line and they give you a number: Please welcome a very funny guy: No. 3. I got up there, the bright light hits my face, I'd never touched a microphone, and I froze solid. Couldn't think of a thing to say. Total panic. I stood there, and after about 45 seconds, I was able to remember one of the subjects, so I said, 'The Beach.' That's all I said. People started giggling. Then I said, 'Driving.' I'm not embellishing, that's the sad part. Then I said, 'Shopping,' and that was it, I just walked off. And then Elayne Boosler, who was emceeing, got up and said, 'That was Jerry Seinfeld, the king of segues.'"
All of Jerry's friends were there. "They told me that the audience, even though I hadn't done anything, seemed to like me. I didn't believe them, but there's a certain approachability that you either have or you don't. I went and wrote an entire new act. I don't know why I hadn't used the first one. I went to this little place on 44th Street called the Golden Lion Pub. They didn't even have a stage. It was a restaurant, and at night, they would take out one table and that was the stage, with one light bulb over your head, like an interrogation room. I auditioned there one afternoon about 4 o'clock. There was nobody there but the owner and some guy who had come in to have a salad. The owner says, 'Let's see your act.' They turn on the light, and suddenly it's show time. This poor guy came in to have something to eat, and I'm pumping him for a response: Hey, ever done this? Has this ever happened to you? He's got dressing on his chin, and he's looking around, he's being assaulted. But I got the act out of my mouth."
He played the Golden Lion for a few months. He told me he took a day job selling fluorescent light bulbs over the phone. A lot of people sitting around in the dark saying, I cant hold out much longer. Somebody better call. I told him it sounded like one of those apocryphal stories comedians tell to get a laugh, and he said I was a tough crowd. I'm still not sure whether it happened or not. But I laughed.
Seinfeld seems like such a natural, it was hard to believe him when he insisted it had been a struggle, "I wasn't born to do this. It was so hard getting on stage. I felt I had no business going up there at all. I was very, very nervous. I had to get people to be relaxed. People won't laugh at somebody who's trembling."
For four years or so, he worked in New York at the Improvisation and the Comic Strip. But until he was considered good enough to emcee, he worked for free and when he was paid, it was only $25 a night. "I'd eat at the Comic Strip and my performing wardrobe did not include socks. For four years, I didnt wear socks. And no belt. You'd be surprised how cheap life can be with no socks and no belt. I hadn't anticipated having any success at this, but a lot of people said I was good. Jackie Mason saw me at the Golden Lion, and he said, 'It makes me sick how good you're going to be.' You have a lot of heart after that."
Seinfeld went to Los Angeles and worked the comedy clubs there. Soon he was approached by someone from the Tonight Show. But it was year [sic] before he made his debut. After that, things picked up quite a bit. People assume you're really a comedian.
Now he has some fame. But he is one of a handful of young comics at that murky stage of celebrity, just below stardom. People stare at him on the street or hear the name say it sounds familiar. Even Johnny Carson isn't sure. The last time Seinfeld was on, he introduced him first as Jeff Seinfeld and then as Jerry Seinfeld. He's still being discovered. One female writer in Spokane, Wash., gushed, 'They say he is the funniest young comedian in America. They call him clever, classy and inventive. That may be true, but he is also a lot of other things: charming, witty, subtle and absolutely adorable.'
Seinfeld takes a remarkably clinical view of this. "For some strange reason, I don't really take it personally," he said. "If someone comes up to me and says 'You're great,' I don't think they mean I'm great. It means I've done good jokes and done them properly. My ego isn't that hungry, I guess. I don't see myself as star material. Celebrity is not something that would offer me some psychological benefit. If it did, I would probably be more aggressive about my career. What I need is a certain considered appreciation for what I'm doing by people who are just a little bit discriminating: somebody that's bright, aware, has seen a few different comedians and appreciates the extra trouble I'm going to to be original. The greatest compliment would be for someone to come up to me after a show and say, 'There wasn't one easy laugh in that whole show.'"
It was easy to believe him. Consciously or not, he eschews the trappings of material success. In New York, he lives in the same small apartment he moved into when he was working for free. I found it ironic that among the people I've known over time, he seems to have changed the least.
Jerry told me about our 10-year high-school reunion in 1982, which I missed. Jerry wore a name tag like everyone else, but he was the only member of the class who really didn't need one. "People were being complimentary; it was kind of heady," he said. "But one classmate wasn't impressed. He came down the stairs and he said, 'I've seen you on TV. You're not that funny, you're not funny at all.' I said, 'Entertaining you is not something I'd even want to do.' Actually, I may have just thought that. I was very unprepared for it. It was even more hostile than it sounds. People who resent you really want to make the point that you haven't gotten it over on them. I was really quite shaken by it.
A lot of people who knew him in Massapequa come to see his club act. "That's the tough thing about working here in town," he said. "It's hard for me to say, 'I'm a comedian, WOW!' to everyone I meet. They haven't seen me working every day for the past seven years. They think this happened all of a sudden, and it's hard for me to match their enthusiasm. So I say, 'Yeah, it's great,' and they think, 'Oh isn't he cool,' very blase about it. It's so hard not to offend people. When you start to come out of the anonymity of most peoples lives, people judge your behavior more harshly. Every little thing is watched. There are people who think I'm cold and snotty."
I left the table for a minute, and our waiter came over. "I just wanted to tell you I enjoy your work," he told Seinfeld as my tape recorder continued to run. "I think I'm the only waiter here who knows your name."
"I'm shocked there's even one," Seinfeld said. When I returned, he told me, "You missed it. I got recognized."
His parents have basked in his success. (We sort of lost our identity; were Jerrys parents, Betty Seinfeld told me, with no trace of regret, when I called to talk about her son a few days later. So you want to know how it felt the first time I saw him on television? I was spellbound. I didn't believe it was my son. I'm so busy looking at him, I didn't take it in.)
The family gathered in Massapequa one night to watch a videotape of Jerry's first television appearance. "I wanted to crawl under the linoleum," he said. "I was thinking, 'Look at him. I can see right through that. He's just trying to be funny.' I'm not funny around the family. I wish I was. A girlfriend of mine offered an explanation that being a comedian is almost like living in a fantasy world, and I'm almost a little embarrassed about it in front of my parents. I guess I want to seem mature around my parents, to show them that I've grown up and I'm able to handle the world. People ask if I'm married and I say, 'How can I be married? I'm just a little kid.' I wear sneakers every day. When you're 30 and you're in a career where you don't need a belt or socks for a good number of years, it's easy to avoid marriage."
We got back to comedy. "I like to work it out with the audience," he said. "They lead me through an idea. You become a laugh connoisseur. Some laughs say it's funny, but it's cheap. Some laughs say it's a funny idea, but you really didn't get the whole meat of it. I do a thing about socks escaping from the washing machine. You've seen it? It's one of those ideas I started on and wanted the audience to write. I would stand on stage and start to do it, and, depending on the way they laughed, I would move in that direction.
"Most of my act is incredibly small observations. My early comedy was really like straight reporting. It was just recalling something without doing anything with it, whereas the sock thing is an observation, then a whole creation on top of it."
We left the restaurant and took a walk. "Walking down these streets is like one long orgasm," he said. "I don't know, I wish I had the guts to just say Screw L.A., accept the career penalties because I have a personal commitment to a certain type of lifestyle. It's a tough decision. Everything I've done up to now has been to help my career. But it feels so wrong out there and so right here. New York is so vital. You have to deal with life a lot. There are so many bright, interesting people, and it rubs off on you. In L.A., everybody is a climber and an opportunist What can I get out of this?"
We were silent for half a block. "Aren't you impressed I havent asked you about money?" I asked.
"You mean you want me to pay you?" he asked.
"I'm sorry to ask, but what kind of money are you making?"
"Nothing' too personal," he said. "Between 70 and 100 thou, depending on how much I work." He suggested that a more ambitious comedian would be doing television and movies, even small parts that would bring in more money.
That night, I saw his show at Caroline's and visited him afterward in his dressing room, a walled-off section of the basement supply room. To get there, you had to go through the kitchen, down a stairway and through a room stocked with industrial-size mayonnaise jars. Chris Misiano, Jerrys best friend since high school, was there. We said hello, got reacquainted in the most superficial way. And then I left.
I liked the sight of two childhood pals just hanging out in the basement, late on a Saturday night.