(a rerun from early 2009, and a blog I'd forgotten I'd had)
The final two seasons of Seinfeld were supposed to make the working relationship of its creators crystal clear. Larry David was the volcanically productive genius who with Curb Your Enthusiasm continued to mine existence for its minutia in an eternally darkening palette of existential triviality. Whereas Jerry Seinfeld served merely as a socially acceptable face for an anti-social genius, the very affability and tastefulness of his cynicism-lite serving as the perfect ringmaster for a cast of freaks.
Let's face it, it's partially true. Listening to Seinfeld's standup by itself is a bit like looking at expertly crafted wallpaper. Word by word, rhythm by rhythm, the delivery is impeccable and can render flat jokes funnier than they have any right to be. Yet taken out of the support structure of a stand-up routine, the jokes crumble like six-month old matzoh.
In real life, it's probable that Jerry Seinfeld is exactly as he is rendered on his show - an A student arrested emotionally at the age of 16 - the seeming ease with which life carries him masking a profound bundle of neuroses he makes visible only to people too neurotic themselves to care about them.
Perhaps this is why it's so unsurprising that while Larry David keeps mining their mountain, Seinfeld has largely retreated into smug silence. Seinfeld, once widely touted as Johnny Carson's heir for the Tonight Show, is a natural mouthpiece to showcase the greater talents of others. As it was on the show, he is the sympathetic face and ear for other people.
This is what makes his animated film, Bee Movie, so surprising. Seinfeld claimed to be a show about nothing, and for Jerry it probably was nothing more than a review of his weightless early adult years. But what made it possible was that for many others involved, the show was weightily, painfully about themselves. Larry David and a host of writers mined every angle of their personal experiences to create it.
It should follow that someone as seemingly unaffected as Jerry Seinfeld, the only appropriate following act would be a retreat into silence. He's made his money, and now needn't do anything but enjoy the time he has with it. Instead, Seinfeld has begun to make a series of increasingly self-revealing movies. It's as if middle-age, wealth, leisure and family life have halted Seinfeld's seemingly unshakable belief that there is no more to life than Superman and cereal.
First, a documentary about the craft of comedy called Comedian. An all-too-loving, fawning, almost hagiographic tribute to the heroic efforts of a profession supposed to be the first to dispense with heroism. In this documentary you can feel Seinfeld wrestling with limitations which the show seemed to assure us he never cared about. Learning and hugging was rampant. The world's most nonchalant comedian was assuring us that appearing nonchalant was sheer agony.
And then comes Bee Movie. A children's picture as self-revealing as any divorce episode on Curb. 90 minutes exposing the inside world of a beehive: populated with industrious workers whose entire identities are bound up within their careers, which every bee has to flippantly decide upon the day he graduates from larva school. Bees who practice 'Beeism' (woe betide the Bee who dates a Wasp) are all-too-accustomed to the casual anti-sebeetic abuse of the world outside the hive, and base their lives on routines so stultifying that any young 'Bee' with half an imagination would do anything to get the hell out of the hive forever and experience New York City in all its glory. And so he does, and through a mixture of charm and flinty grit, he gives back by achieving eminence and (Marxist) justice for 'Bees' around the world, only for the bee colony to become beset by inertia and apathy due to his efforts (what must a Seder be like at the Seinfeld's?). There's then the obligatory save the day heroics and by the end of the movie, Barry B. Benson Insect-At-Law has a mid-town practice whose property he shares with his human friend Vanessa, whose banter with him has a certain suggestive sting (you knew that was coming...).
It's difficult not to read too much into this, particularly in how quickly his satire has dated. In 2007 nobody has the same career for more than a decade and surely there must be a more diverse breed of shiksect for him to date. But there is no doubt that these bees are not 2007 bees. This beedungsroman (sorry) is the bee world of Great Neck, Morristown, Paramus and Yonkers a generation ago. White collar bees whose ancestors flew across the ocean, fleeing pogroms perpetrated by bears jealous of their honey-making abilities.
And so Jerry Seinfeld, the most effortlessly casual celebrity of his generation, has willfully allowed us to watch him perspire in an effort to make us see him as more than just the front man. It is often said that in Noel Coward's effort to seem like the most effortless creator of his time, nobody worked harder. No doubt the idea has occurred to Jerry that the expense of fame and fortune is to be viewed as everyone's favorite lightweight manchild. So expect a lot more Jerry projects, perhaps even a few exhibiting a grown-up version of himself, before he's done.