Jerry Seinfeld breezed onto Broadway last week, in case you hadn’t heard. His standup tour culminated in a five-day Gotham stand that, with its attendant live HBO special Sunday, was arguably the most overhyped media event since, well, the last episode of a certain sitcom about nothing.
This wasn’t lost on Seinfeld himself, whose sweet streak of humility allowed him to chide the audience for its instant standing ovation when he took the stage (who knew Garth Drabinsky was such a fan?), and later mock the media frenzy: “Your friends are all gonna ask you tomorrow, ‘Was it really such a big deal?,’ ” the latter phrase tossed off with a self-deprecating sneer.
It wasn’t, really. But of its kind it was indisputably fine. Seinfeld’s unique brand of observational humor, and his faultless delivery, have both been honed to a virtuoso pitch. He is indeed a master of this particular domain: There wasn’t a dead patch in a good 45 minutes of material, and transitions were smoothed by genial chat about his too-baggy pants. (Will he ever find a happy medium?)
Standup comedy thrives on intimacy, not to mention alcohol consumption, so it was a testament to Seinfeld’s talent that the size of the Broadhurst theater proved no obstacle for him. Opening act Kevin Meaney, by contrast, worked pretty hard and flopped; was he chosen to remind us just how painful standup can be?
For nearly a decade on the sitcom that bore his name, Seinfeld essentially played the straight man to his more idiosyncratically eccentric cohorts; as such he was TV’s funniest since Mary Tyler Moore, but it was nice to see him take center stage again, and be reminded that the unique universe of the TV show sprang from a real man’s mindset, which finds endless fodder for comedy in the scattershot impressions that clutter our minds.
His is a comedy that treats of life’s surfaces, not its depths, which is why his appeal extends only to people who share his frame of reference (there didn’t appear to be a single black person in the audience at the Broadhurst). But if you share even a corner of his world view — and who has not wondered why pharmacists work two feet off the ground, why McDonald’s is still counting those hamburgers, why you would ever need a knife that can cut a shoe in half, or how people can have the temerity to write a check for $3 in the supermarket — his musings, detailed with an infectious mixture of mystification and scorn, are peerlessly funny.
In end-of-the-millennium America, we are as defined and united by our trivial obsessions as by anything else. In gleefully acknowledging — indeed celebrating — the fact, “Seinfeld” helped define a decade, and the persona of the man himself, as nicely framed on the Broadway stage as on the TV screen, was again revealed to be at the heart of the show’s humor.
Here’s a philosophical question: Without “Seinfeld,” would the hoopla about Monica Lewinsky’s blue cocktail dress have been possible? I doubt it. One somehow feels Kenneth Starr was a “must-see TV” fan.