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Bee-n There, Done That?
Gold, Jerry. Gold.
Joke boy doesn't seem in a joking mood this morning. He walks into a party like he's walking onto a yacht ... or maybe a parking lot of Porsches, the poor man's golden chariots of heaven, which this big wheel owns and which are as fine-tuned as his standout stand-up, which he's been on top of the past 10 years since he and his fictional TV fiends/friends headed off to prison for being the anti-menschen of Massachusetts.
Mention the show to him now and it seems, indeed, many a "man crush" ago. But some memories mean more in showing the growth of a comic. As he demonstrated on one classic episode of the series that helped guide TV Guide into calling the show the best comedy of all time, sometimes, you have to go backward to back up what faces forward today.
Which is why "The Betrayal," Episode 164 -- broadcast 10 years ago nearly to the day -- seems an appropriate approach to a column about a comedian I've interviewed a number of times over the years, one who turned time on its head and walked this way -- channeling Mel Brooks -- while others walked that way.
Which is why a class-act comic known for his fastidiousness is fast becoming the icon he never pretended to be. Embrace fame? Curb your enthusiasm. If he seems aloof, he's no loafer, having been busy raising a family of three and being as busy as a ... well, you know ... for the past four years, having honey in the morning, honey in the evening, honey at supper time.
Bee afraid! Bee very afraid!
Wait. That's "The Fly." This is "Bee Movie."
Bee amused. Bee very amused.
That's better. And that's what Seinfeld would like you to be, having come up with the story of a bee making honey and finding his own honey -- a human florist -- after giving a simple pitch over a meal with Steven Spielberg led to a beehive of activity.
Present tense? Much relaxed.
"I just had the title," he says now of that dinner that turned from haiku to the high road to Hollywood. Faster than you could say "I'm b-a-c-k!" Spielberg was, with suggestions and a working relationship that drew in DreamWorks' Jeffrey Katzenberg, for an animated film that opens on Friday.
After all, isn't the world separated into the bee-haves and bee-have-nots? Seinfeld, these days, has a special ladder leading to the former, not the latter.
Is "Bee Movie" the new "A list" for one who's wrung the most from being at the top of his game? Bee-n there, done that? No, says Seinfeld of feeling at home in a honeycomb.
But, before the opening, Seinfeld ponders the Hamlet of hit series enigmas: TV or not TV? Top his old series? Why bother? Broke the mold, broke the bank.
"Truth is," he says, "I'm old, I'm rich, and I'm tired."
But he doesn't tire of the fast quip, which he employs like a whip of wit. Who else would assure Sting a lead role in a movie about bees? Or talk about fatherhood in a manner that would automatically bleach Bill Cosby's cardigans of their colors?
"Not that I don't like kids," he kids, "but having three kids is like having a blender without the top."
Can you top this? Happily married to Jessica, who just wrote her own book about dietary tips to get children to eat what's good for them, Seinfeld knows that he's in a good place.
"I like being a father, but you can't get them to do anything. So I'm reduced to small mob-boss tactics, like threatening to hurt them by taking the things they like away from them. Nothing like sending a child a little Sicilian message."
He's joking, he's joking. But there is a message that bears mentioning in this honeycomb-over of a fine flick: "It's important," he says, "to do your job well."
But this isn't the book of Job; "Bee Movie" is a fun frolic. Uh-oh, did I just stir a hornet's nest? What seems to draw some ire from the comedian's bee-stung lips is the suggestion that Barry B. Benson, hero among bumbler bees in the movie, is ... Jewish.
Indeed, there are references throughout the movie that seem this little stinger would be at home on the bee-mah.
Ouch! Seinfeld shoots a waspish glare, more bugged zapper than anything you could pick up at the hardware store. Terminator? The Terminix Man.
I feel as if I've just accused him of spilling some borscht on his puffless shirt; no soup for me!
"Oh, you're just reading into that [Jewishness]. It's more a fantasy of the culture you represent," the Jewish jokester urgently chides me when I wonder if there's a Bee-mitzvah in Barry's future.
"Bee-mitzvah," he sneers at the suggestion with the smugness reserved for being accosted by Newman. "Just hearing the reaction that got is why it's not in there."
Bee afraid, after all? Nah. He'll fess up to a compromise: Barry Benson's not Jewish; "He's bee-ish." Jewish, indeed ... "That's just your cultural mindset."
(Which, according to one of the movie's directors, talking later, had a particular resonance with New York audiences at a screening, as they cheered on the actual line in the film that Barry's "bee-ish." New Yorkers? Jewish? Not that the big "S" in Seinfeld's Superman costume stands for sabra, but that series did forge a long-running oddball argument akin to whether Superman was a better superhero than others: Was "Seinfeld," home of anti-dentites, New Yorkish or, nu, Jewish?)
Anyway, Jewish, bluish in the face talking about it ... what's important is that Seinfeld has made a bee-a-utifully funny film. Was there a poltergeist that pushed him into doing it? Well, how about the specter of Spielberg? "Well, Spielberg ... you figure he must know something," deadpans the devilish comedian.
And Seinfeld, at 53, knows what he likes. In a world that could straightjacket ambition, he enjoys the yellow-jacket frequent-flyers. "I crave organization and I envy their utopian society. I like their flying system."
Killer bees, killing at comedy. Buzzin' cousins? "I always feel when writing comedy that you're in a bunker and under attack. Kill-or-be-killed mentality ... I take it seriously," he says.
But just when you thought it was safe to come out of the honeycomb comes the controversy about the Colony Collapse, a real-life mystery in which bees are dying out for lack of that old pollen of mine. "Maybe," considers Seinfeld, "we should have called this 'The Colony Collapses: The Disorder Story.' "
· · ·
Scene II, December 1997:
So, what's the story, Jerry? Are you an actor or just playing one on TV? "I'm just playing myself on the show and trying not to screw it up," he says as the hit series nears its endgame.
"I think of me and George as Bud (Abbott) and Lou (Costello). There are similarities there," he says of his all-time favorite comedy team.
· · ·
Scene III, June 1992:
How did a former lightbulb salesman -- which Seinfeld was after graduating from Queens College -- get the bright idea that comedy would put him on first?
A light doesn't go off. "I've done things for 10 years," says the 37-year-old, "and I don't know why they are funny."
Life is like that, twisted like a ... pretzel: "It's amazing," he says of the season tagline. "People shout at me from crowds, 'These pretzels, they're making me thirsty.' "
Was it hunger for knowledge that fueled his interest in taking Scientology classes? As he told The Washington Post: "I was never in the organization. I don't represent them in any way."
The courses he took, he avers, were long ago.
On the other hand ... "I've done yoga for seven years," he says of that culture. "And the real thing. Not Dannon."
But being the reel thing still sends him reeling. "It's an uncomfortable feeling after 12 or 13 years of having to prove myself," he says of the newfound fame of "Seinfeld."· · ·
Scene IV, June 1990:
As he gets ready to premiere "The Seinfeld Chronicles" on NBC, the comedian from Long Island speaks longingly of the old days.
Well, maybe not too longingly.
"I used to sell jewelry on the street," this gem of a Jewish comedian asserts.
Is this any job for a Jewish boy? "You know, I was on the dean's list. I had a degree and everything (from Queens). And, two weeks later, I'm running from police."
Nachas from kinder? "It was really a parent's dream," he jokes.
Dream on if you think you hear him say something dirty. Is Seinfeld bleepworthy?
"I don't do anything blue. If it made me funnier, I would do it, but it doesn't, and it has nothing to do with me -- so I just don't bother with it."
What doesn't bother him, he tells me, is when family and friends say his father, Kalman, was the funniest one in the family. Jerry just agrees; hands down, Kalman got the hands going -- and his son applauds the genetic joke-making. "My dad was a very, very funny guy, and watching him make people laugh all the time when I was a kid -- I really saw the fun in it."
Pop goes the punchline. "It affected me a lot," he says. "I feel like him when I'm performing."
And, especially, he feels Jewish. So, says the scion of a family of Hungarian/Syrian Jewish genes, not so seriously, "There are so many Jewish people in this business that I've approached [late NBC president] Brandon Tartikoff to start a show called, 'Not Necessarily the Jews.' "
By necessity, however, he is making his new show, "The Seinfeld Chronicles," chronicle the times differently than other sitcoms. "When I watch most sitcoms, everybody's so witty, I can't believe it," he tells me.
The whole home-set situation doesn't hit home: "I've never been in situations like that where everyone has the perfect answer."
But then life has more than four questions. At 35, the New York native who, 18 years earlier, had a chai time in Israel -- the kibitzer volunteering on Kibbutz Sa'ar -- and who once dubbed himself "The Jewish Terror" while pursuing college wrestling, does deal with self-doubts, tiny terrors, inner demons that, who knows, one day may all go to hell if he finds real success on this new, albeit unheralded, TV comedy that, says Seinfeld, may last just four episodes.
Does he fear anything, this fired-up comic who was fired from his small role on "Benson" just 10 years ago?
"Sure," he says with confidence. "I have a fear of failure.
"That's what I fear."