He redefined television comedy, and now an American cultural icon opens up about his stingingly funny film, Bee Movie, his kids, his cars, his wife—guys: memorize what he learns from Oprah!—and his top three rules for living well.
Over a late-night cup of coffee at Manhattan's Westway Diner in 1988, comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David had an idea: a sitcom based on the life of a New York stand-up comic. In July 1989, their brainstorm became The Seinfeld Chronicles, a quirky pilot that...yada yada yada. Everyone knows what happened next. Seinfeld redefined television comedy, won ten Emmys, and became a cultural phenomenon. Lines from the show are still lodged in our lexicon—not that there's anything wrong with that.
After Jerry decided to end the show in 1998 (an incredible 76 million viewers tuned in to the finale), he returned to his first love, stand-up comedy, and also happened to find a new love: In the year and a half following Seinfeld's last episode, he met and married Jessica Sklar, then a publicist. They've since had three children, Sascha, age 7; Julian, 4; and Shepherd, 2.
But Jerry, 53, still makes time for brainstorming sessions over coffee. Four years ago, he had dinner with legendary director and DreamWorks Studios cofounder Steven Spielberg; it was a serendipitous meeting that gave birth to an entirely new type of Seinfeld project. Bee Movie—the title is a twist on Hollywood slang for a second-rate film—is an animated story about Barry B. Benson, a bumblebee who leaves the predictable life of his hive in search of adventure. Jerry cowrote and coproduced it, and provides the voice of Barry; the cast also includes Renée Zellweger, Matthew Broderick, and Chris Rock. (And if you hear a familiar voice during the courtroom scene, yes, that's me.)
In August 2007, Jerry and I sat down in his living room on what he called one of the happiest mornings of his life: He'd just completed four years of work on Bee Movie.
Start reading Oprah's interview with Jerry Seinfeld
Oprah: How do you feel?
Jerry: This is the day I step into the next place in my life. I didn't walk in the house last night, I stumbled in. I had no idea how much is involved in making a movie.
Oprah: You've never made a movie before.
Jerry: No. I've been to movies, and I'll tell you, it's better to see them than make one.
Oprah: Tell me how Bee Movie came about.
Jerry: I asked Steven Spielberg to direct a commercial I was going to make for American Express. I'd never met him, but I thought, "What the hell—why don't I call? I'm Jerry Seinfeld, I'm not just nobody." [Laughs] Steven says, "I can't do it, but why don't we have dinner tomorrow in East Hampton?" I say, "That sounds great." Then I hang up the phone and go, "Oh my God! I'm a Jewish boy from Long Island, and I'm having dinner with Steven Spielberg!" It was like my second Bar Mitzvah. So I get up the next morning, I shower, and I sit down on a chair at 9 A.M. I was too excited to do anything but wait.
Oprah: I know what you mean!
Jerry: There I was, waiting until 6 P.M. when my wife, Jess, and I would meet Steven and his wife, Kate Capshaw. Now, my wife is one of the best-dressed women I know, but at 20 minutes before 6, she comes out and says, "What do you think?" and her blouse was just slightly see-through. Slightly. I then said something I'd never said before: "I'm not crazy about the top."
Oprah: Twenty minutes before you were supposed to meet Steven Spielberg!
Jerry: Exactly. Every husband knows when he has moved into DEFCON 2. My mind was spinning with all the right and wrong ways to talk to a woman about her clothes.
Oprah: Why couldn't you just say, "Honey, I can see through your top"
Jerry: Because when you're a good husband, you don't "just say" anything! You think first, especially in a moment like this. We'd only been married for three years then, so I wasn't very experienced. Being a good husband is like being a good stand-up comic—you need ten years before you can even call yourself a beginner. My skills were stretched to the max. I had to get this wife into another blouse without a fight.
Oprah: And the clock is ticking!
Jerry: And ticking. I started with compliments. Then I accepted all the blame for taking too long in the shower, or for showering in the first place, or for whatever I did wrong—it was all my fault. So I engineered the blouse change, we got into my Porsche—the one that's 43 years old and has a piddly ignition—and we have exactly the amount of time we need to get to the restaurant. I had wanted to get there early; instead of gushing about his movies, I wanted to show respect by being there when he arrived. But on Long Island, the police write tickets to the fancy-pants New York City people who flood their little towns in the summer.
Oprah: And they'd know you're one of those people because they'd spot your Porsche.
Jerry: Right. I'm on a straight road that I could have gone pretty fast on, because I really want to be sitting in that booth before Steven gets there, but I did 33 in a 30 miles per hour zone. So a day that started off with me waiting in a chair for hours turned into that scene in Star Wars where the walls are closing in on Luke Skywalker. Just as I'm pulling in to the place, I spot Steven and Kate driving in behind me. I think, "I could run into the restaurant and hope that Steven doesn't recognize me from behind." But when I get out of the car, he sees me and says hello.
Oprah: And you walked in together. Now, is that so bad?
Jerry: It wasn't. And at least I got this funny story out of it. That's the end.
Oprah: What about Bee Movie?
Jerry: Oh, right! I forgot. [Laughs] In the middle of dinner, we're chatting away, and it's all going nicely. When we started talking about kids we were off to the races, but then the conversation ground to a halt.
Oprah: I know—there's that awful moment...
Jerry: It happens to the best of us. As an entertainer, that's when I kick into gear and say something witty to jump-start the conversation. The night before, I was sitting with a couple of friends, eating a Twizzler, and I said, "What if somebody did a film called Bee Movie, and it was about bees?" So during the dinner with Steven, I said this to relieve the lull we'd just crashed into. I figured, he's a director, he'll relate to the term "B movie." But he didn't laugh; he fixed his eyes on me and said, "We're going to make that movie." I was like, "What do you mean we, Kemosabe?" He said it was a great idea, and when he gets excited, it's almost scary. He can get everyone else in the room excited! You don't meet older people like that too often. It's wonderful.
Oprah: Is Steven considered "older" now?
Jerry: I don't want to shock you with a calendar, but it's 2007.
Oprah: When I did The Color Purple with him, I never thought of him as older.
Jerry: That's because he wasn't then—that was over 20 years ago!
Oprah: Thanks for reminding me. After four years of working on this film, do you feel as though you can breathe again?
Oprah: Does it feel like a burden off your shoulders—
Oprah: —like you have a new self?
Jerry: Keep going, honey! All that. Now, I'm a guy who did a show that was pretty well received, and—
Oprah: That's how you think of Seinfeld, as "well received"? Not as a cultural phenomenon?
Jerry: I'm just happy people liked it. I think of it as a gift: When you give someone a gift, you don't call him up every day and say, "How do you like it today?" You enjoy the moment of giving, and that's the end of it.
Oprah: Earlier today, you told me something that resonated so deeply with me.
Jerry: Really? This is making my day!
Oprah: I was saying that I have just one last week before I have to start working on the next season of the show. You said, "It's yours to design." Your decision about the right time to end your show was one of the best designs I've ever seen.
Jerry: Thank you. That means a lot to me. My managers and I still wonder: Did we stop at the right time? Before we ended the show, Jack Welch [former CEO of General Electric, which owns NBC] told me, "Your ratings are still rising." "Yes," I said, "but the only way to see the end of a hill is to go past it and realize you're going down."
Oprah: I heard he offered you $50 million to continue.
Jerry: I don't like to talk figures, and besides, I never even went into negotiation. We just ended the show. I did the show for the people watching it, and I didn't want them to say, "That show was great in the beginning, but..." The Beatles created something that never trailed off. What a gift that was to their fans. If you're into the Beatles, you loved them from beginning to end.
Oprah: I was just saying to Gayle the other day, I'm really surprised I never married Paul McCartney, since all my other dreams came true.
Jerry: It's not too late! In fact, your timing could be inspired.
Oprah: When I first interviewed Paul in 1997, I was so nervous. We were live on a stage in New York, in front of a big audience, and I said, "I used to have your picture on my wall, and you were on the back of my cereal box. As I was eating breakfast, I'd wonder, 'Is Paul eating his cereal, too? Is he thinking about me?'" Oh, well. New topic: If I were to run into you on a Saturday or Sunday, what would you be doing?
Jerry: I'd be with the kids. Then I'd look for a moment to go for a drive in one of my old cars. Taking in a baseball game on TV is also a big treat.
Oprah: That sounds so normal. Someone once said you were the most normal, balanced, and collected guy, unless you were crossed. Then, whoever crossed you became dead to you. True?
Jerry: And somebody else said, "He's as normal as someone with 30 Porsches could be." I've had many of the same friends for 30 years; I haven't been crossed enough to even speak to that.
Oprah: What makes you feel crossed?
Jerry: I'm big on civility.
Oprah: So what are your top three incivilities?
Jerry: Number one, cutting people off on the road. Why are we fighting over eight feet? I love to just let others cut in front of me. I'm like, "Please—be my guest." It's a little thing that can change someone's day. That's what civility does.
Oprah: I used to give big tips to mean cabdrivers. I figured if I gave him $20, it might change his mood for the next passenger.
Jerry: I tried to build that principle into Bee Movie. When someone does a small task beautifully, their whole environment is affected by it. Incivility number two: the BlackBerry. You can throw the cell phone in there, too. We've fallen into a trap of ever-widening orbits of contact, and there is a total disregard for the present moment. I recently sat down for breakfast and asked a friend about a trip she'd taken. Eventually, she looked up from texting someone and said, "You mean me?" I said, "No, I'm talking to the stack of logs behind you." Then my wife got upset because she thought I was being rude. Then I got steamed.
Oprah: Not long ago, I took my senior producers on a retreat where there was no wireless service. For the first time in five years, people were present and engaged with one another. By the end of the retreat, everyone said, "This has been the most amazing time." All because they couldn't get a signal! What's the third thing on your list?
Jerry: Interrupting. It's a communication felony. If someone is talking—and I don't care what they're saying or how excited you are to say what you have to say—wait until he or she is finished.
Oprah: Interrupting is like saying, "What I have to say is more significant than what you have to say."
Jerry: Right. When you interrupt, you've stopped listening. People need to be heard.
Oprah: Yes. See, that's another way you're so normal! Everyone says that happy-go-lucky people don't make great comics, that comedians need a dark side. You don't seem to have one.
Jerry: It probably helps that I had a long early career; things didn't just happen for me overnight. I'd been working as a comedian since I was 21, and I didn't get the sitcom until I was 35; by then I'd been knocked around quite a bit. Then I did the show for nine years, and I wasn't going out every night afterward. So at 44, I was unleashed on the world for the first time as a famous person of means. By then I'd gotten a good education in life. But what I had, and more, landed in Eddie Murphy's lap when he was around 22. That's a different puzzle.
Oprah: How so?
Jerry: In every conceivable way. I read about a study that says your brain goes from impulsive to thoughtful over the course of living. So when some old guy comes back to talk to young kids in prison, for instance, and he says, "Don't make the mistakes I made," he can't reach those kids. Their brains are actually built differently. How come we all have a story about some insane thing we did at 22 that we would never do today? Because we're built the same way.
Oprah: I get it. By the time you became successful, you already knew who you were.
Jerry: Right. Being an actor is the art of becoming other people; being a comedian is the art of learning who you are. A good comedian is someone who allows his or her personality to come out. Five minutes after Bill Cosby has been on a stage, you're thinking, "I know this guy."
Oprah: Was Cosby your idol?
Jerry: Still is. I have all his albums.
Oprah: What was it like to meet him for the first time?
Jerry: It was great! I was in Vegas with a friend and we called him up because we'd heard that he talked to young comedians. Next thing I know, I'm in Bill Cosby's dressing room at the Hilton, and he talked to me for two hours! I couldn't believe it. If some guy I'd never heard of called me, he wouldn't be coming to my dressing room. I wish I could be like that, but I'm not. [Laughs]
Oprah: Would you call yourself an introvert?
Oprah: Then when you're onstage, you become an extrovert.
Jerry: Yes. Well, the stage is dark. You don't see any faces. You're essentially alone up there, yet you're reaching people, communicating with them without the intimacy of face-to-face. That's a very free place to be. Every human being wants to connect with humanity in whatever way we can. For me, stand-up comedy is a way to do that, but with gloves on. That's the appeal to a certain personality type. I love people, but I can't talk to them. Onstage, I can.
Oprah: How fascinating.
Jerry: A comedian who has some ability to function socially is tremendously handicapped on the stage. If you have another outlet for connecting with people, you'll use it. But when stand-up comedy is your only outlet, you put all your energy into it. That's what makes a good act.
Oprah: Lightbulb moment—that's why Chris Rock is as good as he is! When you put him in a small group of people, he closes himself off.
Jerry: If Chris could function in that room, he wouldn't be the genius he is onstage. All his energy is forced through that little hole.
Oprah: Does stand-up comedy still feed you?
Jerry: I love it. I love this intimate moment with the audience—
Oprah: Who gets the most from it, you or them? I'm sorry—I interrupted you!
Jerry: That's okay. Who gets the most from it? Well, I do. What could be better than making others happy?
Oprah: Speaking of happiness, you once said that men want the same thing from women that they want from underwear: a little bit of support and a little bit of freedom. Do you get that from Jessica?
Jerry: I get a lot of support. My wife is an amazing person.
Oprah: Some people thought your marriage was sudden, but it seems you give everything you do a lot of thought.
Jerry: Marriage is a subject that does not give way to analysis, sadly. Who should I marry? You can make all the charts and have all the discussions, but it doesn't guarantee anything. I knew I felt right, and that's all you have. Marriage is a big bet. It's the only bet of its kind, one in which you say, "This feels right...I think I'll change everything."
Oprah: After you decided, were you thinking, Maybe this will work, maybe it won't?
Jerry: No. I'm fiercely determined when I make a commitment. Fiercely. And nurturing. I nurture my commitments.
Oprah: Are you as supportive of Jessica as she is of you? For years I've done shows with women who say they want romance, and they get all worked up about whether the guy remembers Valentine's Day. But that's not really the issue—it's whether the woman feels appreciated.
Jerry: What makes a woman feel that way?
Oprah: Knowing that her presence and opinion are valued.
Jerry: Thank you for that—and I'm not joking. You can know things in so many different ways, and then when someone puts it a certain way, it suddenly becomes new.
Oprah: That's exactly what you've done for me today. So, do you appreciate Jessica?
Jerry: Do I? Yes!
Oprah: Does she know it?
Jerry: I hope so. I'm going to work on it more now—especially since this comes from the leader of the pack! How often does a woman need to know she's appreciated?
Oprah: She just needs to know it, period. It's not a one-time statement. It's ongoing foreplay.
Jerry: So the foundation of appreciation has to be there, and then the little things highlight that appreciation.
Oprah: Yes. Are you romantic?
Jerry: We've started e-mailing each other. At the end of mine, I tell Jess how much I love her. She likes that, especially since she's not used to getting e-mails from me.
Oprah: And especially considering how you feel about BlackBerrys! Do you like being married?
Jerry: I love being married. But I would never want to be married to anyone else, so I can't say I like marriage. I love my wife.
Oprah: What do you love most about her?
Jerry: I just always want to be with her. Even if she's talking to someone on the phone, I want to be there. I enjoy her around-ness. I'll go into her office and just sit. I wonder if she thinks, "What is he doing here?" I'm interested, stimulated; I just like watching her live her life. Quincy Jones had that fantastic line about being with his friend Ray Charles: "It was just good air."
Oprah: Yes—I love that. On the subject of memorable quotes, I've heard that you're one of the most sought-after public speakers at college commencements.
Jerry: Really? I didn't know that. I seldom do it. Tony Bennett, one of my heroes, asked me to speak at the first commencement for a high school for performing arts in New York. So I wrote a speech, and it actually turned out to be pretty good.
Oprah: What's the essence of what you said?
Jerry: I gave them my three rules for living. First, bust your ass. That's a universal law, no matter what you do. Second, pay attention. Learn from everything and everyone all the time. One of my favorite expressions is "Wherever you look, there's something to see." Finally, I gave them my third rule: Fall in love. Fall in love with your street, your tennis game, a pillow.
Jerry: Exactly. You can be passionate about anything. Someone could say, "I love this fork," and I'd think that was great. Pay attention; don't let life go by you. Fall in love with the back of your cereal box.
Oprah: Last question: What do you know for sure?
Jerry: That you are one cool cat.
Oprah: I think you're the coolest. I've learned so much from you today. You're the kind of person I could be friends with.
Jerry: The door is open.
Oprah: Come on over!
Printed from Oprah.com on Monday, March 10, 2014
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