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He’s easily irritated, Jerry Seinfeld confesses to Sue Williams ...and then proves it, as he speaks (loudly) about Bee Movie, his first movie as a writer and voice actor, at the Cannes Film Festival, where the film was heavily promoted prior to its screening.

At first glance, Jerry Seinfeld is all teeth and self-deprecating charm and bonhomie.

On stage a few hours before, he’d completely seduced an audience with his trademark line in observational laughs, portraying himself as a mere helpless – nay, hapless – victim of circumstance. Then he’d cheerfully snatched every headline at the stunt-loving Cannes Film Festival by throwing himself off a roof dressed as a fuzzy striped bee, in the title role of his new movie, and riding a flying fox line all the way down to the beach.

"game for anything"

So it’s easy to assume that the multi-millionaire comic who was jettisoned to superstar status with a simple TV show “about nothing” which ended up running nine years and being voted the US TV Guide’s Greatest Show Of All Time, is game for anything that adds to life’s chuckle fest.

But he’s not. Waxing lyrical later, in a crowded room, about the sanctity of marriage, specifically his marriage, he’s overheard by someone nearby. They’re sniggering into a hand; after all, it was he who’d begun an affair with his soon-to-be wife only three weeks after her three-day wedding to someone else.

Seinfeld, however, hasn’t noticed. He’s talking about how he would never be wooed by any of his fans, never take their adoration to heart. “Oh, I’m a happily married man,” he’s saying guilelessly. “That’s me: happily married.” The man’s face grows red. “And so was your wife,” he suddenly blurts into the conversation. “For about four weeks.”

Seinfeld grins by reflex, until the meaning of the man’s words slowly sinks in. Then the smile becomes steely. “Yeah,” he says, coldly. “Y-e-e-a-a-h.” For once, he seems at a complete loss for a smart comeback. His personal life, it appears, apart from those straightforward topics like his vast collection of 47 vintage Porsche cars, what he likes to do with his three kids, or just how happily he is married, is completely off bounds.

The silence goes on and on. This will be one awkward life moment that definitely won’t be appearing in any of his stand-up routines anytime soon. “Let’s talk about something else,” he says finally. “What about the movie?”

"it had been the perfect cue. And he missed it."

For a man whose act is all about the oddities of life, the bizarre human complexities that present to us every day, the unexpected challenges, it had been the perfect cue. And he missed it.

For these days, an astonishing eight years after the finish of his show, and with pots of money, an adoring public and the kind of success that provides him with the entrée to anything else he’d like to do with himself, there are very few things beyond the 53-year-old Seinfeld’s control. Self-deprecating humour might well be his specialty, but only, obviously, when he’s doing the deprecating.

It’s an aspect of his personality that shows itself time and time again. When his fondness for younger women, much younger women, is alluded to – his wife Jessica Sklar is 18 years his junior at 35, and his previous girlfriend Shoshanna Lonstein was just 17 – he again drifts off into a sulky silence. And when he’s asked about some of his first stand-up routines that still show up from time to time on Youtube, he almost snarls. “Embarrassing,” he says, before again changing the subject.

Shut in a room with him, interviewing him about his life and his latest project, an animated DreamWorks film, Bee Movie, that he wrote, voiced and co-produced, he shows none of the humility, the introspection and even the self-doubt of other brilliant comics of his era, like Jim Carrey, Billy Crystal and Robin Williams.

Maybe he simply doesn’t need them. “The sad clown? That’s a false cliché,” he expounds in the loud stage voice that he seems to use all the time, even though I’m his only audience and I’m sitting just a metre away. “But I do think there’s a kind of chronic crankiness that’s nice for good comedy. I’m easily irritated.”

I’m feeling a bit the same way myself, after a rapid-fire succession of smart-arse answers, with a pause built in for the anticipated laugh, to every question. But if other people can irritate him, does he ever irritate himself? He looks surprised by the thought, then takes it on board.

“I do get on my nerves at times,” he responds. “I can get quite cranky, I guess, anybody can. But I can sometimes be so irritable with people that I feel like yelling at them. But I try never to say that out loud.” And, speaking of loud, does he always speak at such a volume? “I wasn’t aware I did,” he says, coldly, his voice still on the kind of projection that makes me wonder if, in fact, there’s a paying audience on the other side of the closed door. “I just speak normally.”

"Normal is, of course, all a matter of perception"

Normal is, of course, all a matter of perception, and Seinfeld has changed greatly over the years. By most accounts, growing up in New York’s Long Island, he was a Norman No-Friends, shy, geeky, introverted and a loner, turning to the TV and I Love Lucy, Jack Benny and Abbott & Costello for company. His late father Kal, the owner of a New York sign shop, was the real comedian of the family, constantly wise-cracking and telling jokes.

“For a lot of Jewish people, it’s a cultural thing,” he says. “Different cultures do different things. English people do good theatre. The French make baguettes. Jewish people are very funny. You grow up that way, with all your family making jokes. ”My dad was extremely funny. He would collect jokes on a set of cards to tell them.”

As a kid, the then Jerome Seinfeld began to study comedy with the rare single-mindedness that has always stood him in good stead. “I adored comedians when I was young, all sorts of comedians,” he says. “I loved anything funny. I studied what made people laugh. It became my obsession.”

He decided to become a comic himself and was booked for his first gig to perform two shows, for the grand sum of US$25, at The Good Times club at Third Avenue and 33rd Street in New York. “I only had 20 minutes of jokes altogether,” he smiles. “I figured for the second show, I’ll just make something up.”

From that lack of material, and desperation, his unique brand of observational humour was born. He spent the next ten years peddling it around the clubs as a stand-up until his big break came in 1980 with a regular role on the Benson show – and went when he was fired after three weeks. He returned to stand-up with his tail between his legs.

Then, in the late 1980s, he teamed up with Larry David to make a new show, The Seinfeld Chronicles. The first episodes went to air on NBC in 1990, and the critics panned it. The show was remodelled, renamed Seinfeld and recast to include Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and was an instant hit. It became the start of a nine-year love affair with its characters Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer (Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, Louis-Dreyfus and Michael Richards), spawning a whole new vocabulary of catchphrases, not that there's anything wrong with that, a range of memorable eccentrics like The Soup Nazi and The Ex-Girlfriend, and the best-selling book SeinLanguage.

The Emmy and Golden Globe-winning show continued until May 1998, when Seinfeld himself, despite being offered a reported US$5 million an episode not to, decided to kill it. Its final night was watched by half the entire population of the US, and many millions of others around the world. He reckoned it was time, and wanted to finish while he was on top, believing that if he continued he just wouldn’t be able to keep up the standard – and ratings.

“It was nine years of extremely intense focus and I was doing the show for many many months without a single day off,” he says. “I’m very grateful for its success, but I couldn’t have kept going for much longer. It couldn’t have carried on at that level. You have to leave the audience at the right time. That’s just as true on stage as for a TV show. That’s what you need as a comedian. I felt people would get tired of me and it would be like a party that went on too long. People can fall in love with something, but they can also, just as easily, fall out of love with it. Timing is everything.”

That year alone, Forbes magazine said he received $267 million, and the show continues to air, and earn vast sums of money around the world, through syndication.

"to fill in an awkward lull in the conversation"

Since then, Seinfeld has married, gone back to his first love, stand-up, performing shows in clubs across the US, appeared in a 2002 doco, Comedian, about it, and had three children, Sascha, seven, Julian, four, and Shepherd, two. He also met up with Stephen Spielberg for dinner after the movie-maker turned down his plea to direct his American Express TV commercials, and suggested a film about a bee. He says now that the idea was merely to fill in an awkward lull in the conversation.

“You make one joke, then spend the next four years paying for it,” he laughs. “But I’ve loved it. I liked the idea and was fascinated by how the technology of animation works, and I wanted to do something that didn’t show me. After the TV show, I’d had enough of acting. That’s not what I do. I’m a comedian, first and foremost. So I decided to write a movie instead.”

With the movie now finished, and immediately hitting top spot in the US movie charts, and also starring the voices of Renee Zellweger, Matthew Broderick, John Goodman and Chris Rock, it’s the story of a bee, Barry B. Benson (voiced by Seinfeld) who’s disillusioned with the prospect of a life making honey, and who makes friends with a human florist (Zellweger).

It is a fun film, with some charming animation that will appeal to kids, a tonne of vocal starpower and the kind of smart lines that will either remind adults why they took to Seinfeld in the first place or, if they’re not fans, irritate them to hell. Most, however, seem to be fans. “He was so wonderful to work with,” says Chris Rock, who plays a mosquito. “He’s a very funny guy.”

While it seems, on the surface, an odd turn for Seinfeld’s career to take, he is a bit of a victim of his own success. “I was asked about other TV shows, but I don’t think I could do another show that’s not as good as Seinfeld,” he explains. “At that time, we had a very special group of people who operated as huge talents and contributed to the team in their own way. I’m not stupid enough to think I could do it again. So I decided to work in a different medium, doing something quite different. This has been an incredible new world for me. I wanted to do something very original and new.”

Now, with children himself, Seinfeld loves to entertain them, with an earlier kids’ book, Halloween, doing very well. He finds a certain thrill in making a child laugh, and spends many happy hours in his Manhattan apartment – “New York is the birthplace and home of comedy,” he says. “I couldn’t think of living anywhere else.” – or in his summer house on Long Island, putting on shows for his kids, playing with their dolls and helping them with puppet shows.

Fatherhood has become a high priority. “Being a father is like being given half the answer to the riddle of life,” he says. “When you die, you get the other half. You have a child and think, ‘YES! NOW I understand!’ I just love spending time with them, and teasing them and playing. I absolutely love our time together. I never thought I would, but I do. If I was younger, I would have more children, but at my age … I don’t believe in having children beyond a certain age. A parent should still have some vitality.”

As for the future, he says he has absolutely no plans. He might write another movie, but he might not. He might write another TV show, but then again, perhaps he won’t. The only thing that’s certain is that he’ll continue with his life-long love of stand-up.

"you never know what’s going to work and not work"

“My life as a stand-up comic is a very happy one,” he says, still in that loud stage voice of his. “It gives you the freedom to work, or not, depending on what else is going on. I like its flexibility and the freedom. And it’s a great life to be funny and to be paid for it. You just have to find the right attitude, and you can talk about anything and be funny.

“The only problem is that you never know what’s going to work and not work. You have to take a guess, hold your breath and see. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. One minute something works and you can be funny, and the next it doesn’t and you’re not.” He shrugs. These days, he can easily afford to be either, or both. And perhaps therein lies the problem.

Published December 6, 2007

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Jerry Seinfeld

Australian release: December 6 2007

"Dressed as a fuzzy striped bee" in Cannes

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