Even before he uttered one word on the stage of the Broadhurst Theatre last night, Jerry Seinfeld got a standing ovation for his first Broadway solo show. Precisely one hour later, when he abruptly said goodnight and walked off stage, the ovation was of the sitting, not standing, variety.
For those who attended the first of his 10-show hot-ticket stint, which concludes Sunday with a live HBO telecast, the show was almost like a homecoming or family reunion, but with fewer surprises.
It was a short reunion too. Even though the stage manager's script set aside time for a 10-minute question-and-answer encore, Seinfeld made no such concession for the early show and he was on stage for just 60 minutes flat.
Though the show was brief, it was not rushed. On stage even on as big a stage as the Broadhurst Seinfeld was self-assured, low-key and genial, and kept things slow and simple.
The ingredients for "Jerry Seinfeld: I'm Telling You for the Last Time, Live on Broadway" are as basic as can be: one microphone, one wooden stool, and one comedian. Just add water, in a glass from which Seinfeld sips occasionally. When the glass is empty, the show is over.
The purpose of this show, whose New York proceeds go to charity thus making it literally uncharitable to complain about the $1-plus-per-minute admission fee was for Seinfeld to reclaim and retire his old routines.
In a way, it was like paying to see Bill Cosby run through such old LP-era classic bits as "Why Is There Air?" and "Noah." The jokes are familiar, but that doesn't make them any less funny.
There was a warmth, from the audience as well as the performer, that suggested familiarity in more ways than one. Seinfeld handled things easily on the two occasions when shouting was heard from the balcony, and the closest he came to losing control was to note with amusement that his left shoelace was in danger of becoming untied. If it came untied on stage, he said, it would be the first time in 22 years. As it turned out, it was a false alarm.
Seinfeld was so clearly reclaiming his solo status, and separating himself from his hit sitcom past, that he didn't make a single reference to "Seinfeld," or anyone associated with it.
Instead, he wove through a skillfully connected sampling of his most sure-fire material: jokes about flying and airports, chopsticks and Halloween, pharmacists and philately. Sometimes his playfulness was with the language, like George Carlin; other times, it was physical, as when he earned a loud burst of applause by imitating the vague mimelike motions of stewardesses.
Seinfeld's confidence was apparent; in voice and movement, he allowed himself much more range and playfulness than he did portraying a variation of himself on "Seinfeld."
While he started the opening-night show with a strong burst of New York jokes, most of the material was generic. Generic, but very funny for as long as it lasted.
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, 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 brandof 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.