OAKLAND, CALIF. Jerry Seinfeld took questions from the audience. He had just finished doing an hour of stand-up comedy an hour sharp, because Seinfeld is by his own admission a fastidious guy. In his act, he had complained about reality TV ("Don't they know we're in reality ...?") and decoded the message a bride and groom send by driving away from the wedding ("Goodbye, we're going to Barbados to have sex. Enjoy the dry cake and our relatives. ...").
Now the audience at the Paramount Theatre, capacity 3,000-plus, a cavernous, 1930s Deco movie house in the heart of downtown Oakland, was getting a little extra: They were getting Seinfeld, who has never seemed altogether comfortable as a public figure, throwing himself open for questions.
Someone asked what he thought of George W. Bush. "I think he's doing a good job place-holding his occupation," Seinfeld said mock carefully, to roars from a crowd that seemed thrilled just to be in his airspace. "He doesn't really seem like a president, but that's OK."
"What's the deal with Corn Nuts?" another person shouted, and Seinfeld relaxed, because as cultural oddities go, he is more comfortable with Corn Nuts than Bushes. Fittingly, the question was phrased in a way that launched the careers of a thousand hack comics in the 1980s ("What's the deal with ... " insert commercial product here).
The '80s were Seinfeld's formative years, the decade in which he worked hard and clean and broke through the clutter of observational comedy, proving himself as much as he ever cared to by earning a spot on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." His material was never controversial or overtly personal, nor did it seem to come from any pain. Its rhythms were rooted in the 1980s, when stand-up got branded as a populist form of entertainment, a low-level rage against the machine of consumer culture.
Seinfeld was at the top of a class that came to include people like Larry Miller, Paula Poundstone and Jimmy Brogan; the quintessential Seinfeld joke concerned the Tide commercial in which a housewife boasts that the detergent removes bloodstains. "If you get a T-shirt with bloodstains," went the Seinfeld retort, "maybe laundry is not your problem now."
For about a year now, Seinfeld has been working on new material, showing up at clubs in New York or going out to the Improv in, say, Tempe, Ariz. Two weeks ago, he did seven minutes on "The Late Show With David Letterman," further evidence that Seinfeld, after his post-"Seinfeld" creative hibernation, is re-entering the culture as a contemporary artist.
Not surprisingly, then, the new Seinfeld is like the old Seinfeld, only with more expensive suits and shorter hair. It's as if the TV show, the fame, the wealth, never happened, and the stage and the mike were only waiting for him to return from his crazy adventures.
Onstage in Oakland, he didn't much talk about being a father (his daughter was born in November), or a husband or a celebrity; instead, he assessed his Upper West Side neighborhood, with its glut of strollers causing "stroller traffic" and "stroller rage," and babies being "wheeled around like a president," with "the FDR blanket." He picked the Upper West Side and its baby population, Seinfeld said, over the Village and its concentration of gay people a choice that broke down as follows: "Which is more annoying to me, babies or homosexuals?" (not, Seinfeld hastened to add, that there was anything wrong with being gay).
He's still examining everyday expressions, but the expressions are new. Married at 46, Seinfeld looks back on 26 years of dating and says, "That is a lot of acting fascinated." Almost all of the material was new; one joke, about his love of driving, and being "inside and outside, moving and completely still," appears in his 1993 book "SeinLanguage."
Regardless, the crowd ate him up. He only had to say, in that Seinfeldian way: "Are we gonna stop with the coffee? Is this thing gonna level off at some point?"