Comedy Abounds

updated 12/02/1991 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/02/1991 01:00AM

JERRY SEINFELD IS AMAZED AT THE NOTION that his offbeat NBC sitcom, Seinfeld, has made him something of a TV sex symbol. "I've never had sex in my life," he says with his innocent, bar mitzvah-boy smile. "Now I symbolize it. I completely skipped the whole experience." He then confesses that he found time to ask someone out the previous week, but that "when I called her to pick her up, she said she forgot." Pause. "She was a waitress. This wasn't Connie Sellecca. That shot my week. The one night I had—gone."

It is Seinfeld's engaging comic gimmick to take a note from his personal life and play endless light variations on it. That is the premise of Seinfeld, in which he transfers his stand-up comic routines—on everything from relationships to his own anal-retentive tendencies—into hip, quirky, relatively clean situation comedy. The format, which at first made NBC nervous enough to reject the series, now has become a solid Nielsen performer and, more important, a favorite with the coveted 18-to-34-year-old set. That's the same crowd that turns out to catch his act on the comedy club circuit, on which lie performs several time-a week. "I miss doing stand-up," he admits. "Stand-up is more legitimate, more honest than doing a TV series. I'll never give it up."

If Seinfeld sounds a shade cynical for an immensely popular young TV star, it's because he has been burned once by television. Back in 1980, as a struggling comic, Seinfeld was discovered on the club scene by a Hollywood casting agent and signed to a role as a joke writer on ABC's popular sitcom Benson at a breathtaking $4,000 a week. But by the time his breath was taken away, Seinfeld says he was canned for telling someone else's "crummy" jokes. Seinfeld then vowed to make it as a stand-up comic and, if and when another TV prospect appeared, to run his own show. Though he's quick to note that his collaborator, Larry David, a former comic and writer for Saturday Night Live, is the guiding light behind Seinfeld, he also points out that he contributes behind the camera as a writer and producer. "Why have someone do something for you when they can't do it as well as you can?" Seinfeld asks.

Yet on the set, says costar Jason Alexander, "Jerry shares lines and is a generous boss." Adds Alexander: "He's always on an even keel. Jerry reminds me—in a very good sense—of a good Jewish boy. Well-brought-up, polite, intelligent."

Which no doubt pleases his mother, Betty, 76, who lives in a Delray Beach, Fla., retirement community. Back in Massapequa, N.Y., she was witness to the doggedness of her only son (Jerry has a sister, Carolyn Liebling, 39, his business manager). "He never wanted just a piece of chocolate cake," she says. "It was the whole cake. And he always waited until he got what he wanted." Still. Jerry wasn't even the comic star of his own home. That title belonged to his late father, Kal, who painted and sold business signs around Long Island. "My dad was very funny," Seinfeld recalls. "He turned me on that it's fun to be funny. That's really why I do it."

Kal, who died in 1985, was a loving fan. When his son got his break in 1981 with his first appearance on The Tonight Show, Seinfeld père painted a sign for his van, JERRY'S ON CARSON TONIGHT. Kal's faith in Jerry is surely why he didn't object when his son listened to Bill Cosby records over and over again to perfect his comic timing or hit the comedy club circuit after graduating from Queens College in 1976. Four years later Seinfeld made his move to Los Angeles, took his well remembered lumps on television, then used his appearance on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show to establish himself as a headliner on the comedy-club/college circuit. In 1988 he was named Funniest Male Stand-up Comic at the American Comedy Awards.

Success has hardly gone to Seinfeld's head. He maintains close family ties; last August he flew his mother, sister and nephew out to Los Angeles for a week-long visit. He forswears cigarettes and alcohol (even turning down a lucrative beer commercial), lives strictly on health foods, studies Zen and practices yoga in his sparsely furnished two-bedroom condominium in West Hollywood. Good friend Jay Leno describes the living room as "a hospital room for sound equipment" and adds that he and Seinfeld's other comic pals are deliberately sloppy around Jerry just to annoy him. But Seinfeld the cerebral comic prefers a tidy home and a well-ordered life; neatness has served him well. As he observes: "It keeps the mind uncluttered."

MARK GOODMAN
LORENZO BENET in Los Angeles

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