Seinfeld's a worker bee in comedy

September 07, 2007|By Michael Sragow

Everyone knows him as "Jerry." But when asked what a critic should call him, he doesn't miss a beat.

"Sir Seinfeld. Even though I have not been knighted, it is what I prefer," he says like a true master of his domain, be it stand-up or sitcom or, now, animated movie.

Jerry Seinfeld in conversation is an easy, playful ironist. When celebrated by Chris Rock, Garry Shandling and Robert Klein before accepting HBO's first Comedian Award this year, he expressed shock that Shandling had prepared some notes for the occasion. "Who writes notes for an interview?" he asked.

But as the 2002 documentary Comedian demonstrated, Seinfeld works hard to make humor look easy. Whether it's a record-breaking series, an inventive set of TV commercials featuring him and Superman or his new animated feature, Bee Movie, he's as thoroughly involved in every aspect of conception and production as he is when developing and perfecting his club and concert act.

Who would have thought a litigious insect would be a basis for comedy? Seinfeld did, and he persuaded DreamWorks. And when it opens in November, Bee Movie will tell the story of Barry B. Benson (Seinfeld), a bee who aims to sue humans for the riches reaped from honey. Seinfeld started writing it in January 2004, and a month ago, true to his Type-A-plus personality, hadn't finished massaging all the lines. Over the phone from Los Angeles, he acknowledges this new extended form was "a little scary."

But, "I had Steven Spielberg saying to me, `Don't worry - if you get into any trouble, you can always call me and we'll work it out.' So when you have someone like that backstopping you, it makes you feel very comfortable."

Seinfeld did call Spielberg several times. Unlike "a lot of comedies now - live-action or whatever," Seinfeld wanted the comedy in Bee Movie to "be sustained all the way through."

Spielberg helped Seinfeld stick to the program.

Spielberg "has an amazing eye for these things," Seinfeld says. "And he would see [it and say], `You're trying to make an action movie here, and you've lost the silliness.' So, he would give me a little guidance like that. It's very easy to get too close to anything you're spending a lot of time on and lose your focus on it."

Barry Levinson, who directed and co-wrote the Superman American Express commercials and Web episodes with Seinfeld, supplies the voice for Benson's father in Bee Movie.

"He made me laugh so much when we were making those Superman things that I asked him to play a part in the movie," Seinfeld says.

Levinson has live-comedy experience himself, and as far as Seinfeld is concerned, the more collaborators with stand-up chops in the creative clubhouse, the better.

"Once you've gone through the hellfire [of stand-up]," Seinfeld says, "you know it."

One Bee Movie co-writer, Barry Marder, worked on the stand-up segments of Seinfeld, and the others, Andy Robin and Spike Feresten, wrote or co-wrote numerous episodes.

"We wasted a lot more time on this," says Seinfeld, "because with the TV show, you had to get that out every week. This thing, this won't be out for four years, so half of the time was talking about sports or nonsense."

Seinfeld once worked something he called "human cartooning" into his stand-up act, humanizing inanimate objects or animals such as Hopalong Cassidy's long-suffering steed. The horse would say, "I know the route." Ever the observer, Seinfeld says his inspiration was "old horses at horseback-riding places."

On Bee Movie, he did "happen to learn quite a bit about bees as I was going along," but he refused to be bound by reality. "My attitude is always what's the funniest thing [the bees] can do. I'm looking forward to the one critic who's going to totally eviscerate the movie; I just think it's so easy to do because the logic is so rubbery in this movie. I completely take any liberty I want at any time to make what I think is a great joke. Being a comedian, that is my focus."

Seinfeld even turned the film's trailers - featuring Seinfeld in a bee costume and Chris Rock in a mosquito outfit - into a comic tour de force. "To be dead honest with you," he says, "It was just fun, just totally fun. I thought, wouldn't it be funny to try to make this movie live-action - how big a disaster would that be ... ? Everything for me is just another opportunity to be silly and make jokes. The advertising, everything I've done, you could put in the same pot. It's the same thing."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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