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Success Was a Shore Thing Once Jerry Seinfeld Stuck to Being a Stand-Up Kind of Guy

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Jerry Seinfeld—that’s Jerry Seinfeld the well-known comedian—is in his suite at Caesars Tahoe, counting his blessings. He’s headlining downstairs at the Cascade Showroom and earning five figures a week. He has made about 30 appearances each on the Carson and Letterman shows, and he has signed to host his second HBO special early next year. He has, in short, arrived—or so it seems, until a room-service waiter walks in. “Jerry Sonnyfield?” inquires the waiter. He is not kidding. “Nobody ever gets it right,” Seinfeld sighs. “Usually they pronounce it Steinfeld. Don Rickles has the record, though; he once introduced me as George Stanberry.”

The guy finally gets his name in lights, and he has to keep checking to make sure it’s spelled right.

Still, it beats selling cheap jewelry and stolen umbrellas on Manhattan street corners, which is what Seinfeld did during his start-up days. “Here I was, two months out of college with a dean’s list average, running from police on the streets—a parent’s dream come true,” says the 34-year-old comic. Later, he sold light bulbs over the phone, unsuccessfully. “There aren’t a lot of people sitting home in the dark saying ‘I can’t hold out much longer,’ ” he confides.

Fortunately, Seinfeld knew that comedy was his calling, even when he was growing up in Massapequa, Long Island. His late father, who painted and sold business signs, “was always making people laugh. I watched the effect he would have on people, and I thought that was for me.” By the time he was 8, Seinfeld was checking the weekly listings to catch comics on the tube. “I thought they were the most amazing people I’d ever seen.”

At New York’s Queens College he majored in theater and communications, all the while hearing the siren song of smoky clubs that he visited at night. The big moment came in 1976 when he decided to hurl himself into an amateur night at Manhattan’s Catch a Rising Star. He wasn’t ready.

“I couldn’t even speak I was so paralyzed in total fear,” he recalls. “I was only able to remember the subjects that I was going to talk about. So I just stood there and said, ‘The beach. Driving. Dogs.’ But the people were laughing. After I was done, friends came over and congratulated me. They said it was very important that the audience liked me, even though I didn’t do anything.”

Thus encouraged, Seinfeld began hitting the club circuit regularly. “They weren’t clubs,” he corrects. “They were restaurants with a table missing. I’d be on at 2 in the morning, telling jokes to three people putting on their coats.” Moving to L.A. in 1980, he found the going tougher still. Finally, down to his last $20, he was spotted by a casting agent and signed to a sitcom role on Benson—at $4,000 per week. He was sacked after four episodes. “That’s when I decided I was never again going to be in a position where somebody could do that to me,” he says, still rankled. “As a stand-up comic, nobody can fire me like that.”

Finally, Seinfeld’s first appearance on The Tonight Show in 1981 gave his career the jolt it needed. Part visual comedian, part puckish social commentator, he became a tonic to audiences weary of sexual epithets and ethnic jabs. One moment he is a strand of hair, wildly clinging to a bathroom tile. Then he stops to muse about the hazards of renting a tuxedo: “There’s a thrill, wearing a suit that’s already been worn by 80 high-school guys on the most exciting night their glands have ever known.”

“He’s not just a comedian; he’s a real thinker,” says Carl Reiner, who worked with Seinfeld on his first HBO special last September. “He’s different. He’ll talk about a 5-year-old kid not having bones in his body. That’s brilliant. When you see him, you’re not seeing things you’ve seen or heard before.”

Although voted America’s Best Male Comedy Club performer this year in a poll of nightclub regulars, Seinfeld has long since moved out of the small rooms and into concert halls and amphitheaters. His bookings keep him on the stage 300 nights a year, a pace that he welcomes. “Four days is about my maximum to go without working,” he says. “I took a vacation this year, and I just hated it.” His rare retreats from the road lead to a West Hollywood condo with bare, white walls and black furniture. Its principal decoration, an “Art Is Work” poster, hangs over the seldom-used dining table. The apartment “looks like a hospital with a stereo,” says comedian Jay Leno, Seinfeld’s longtime pal.

The comic’s personal life is equally austere. He doesn’t smoke or drink and spends much of his time studying Eastern philosophy (“Zen is just looking at something from a different perspective, and that’s what a lot of comedy is”). He also spurns the come-ons of comedy groupies. “Who wants a groupie anyway?” he says. “It sounds like some kind of grotesque fish.” Four years ago Seinfeld suffered through a short-lived engagement (“turning 30 just blindsided me; I thought, ‘I’d better hurry up and do everything I gotta do”) but hints that he might be ready to give marriage another shot. “If there were someone willing to do it, and make the sacrifices, I’d be willing,” he says cautiously.

Until then, Seinfeld says he’ll continue doing as always—stepping out each night and trying to knock ’em dead. After all, he notes, “becoming a comedian is like becoming a murderer. No matter what people tell you, you’re going to do it.”

—By Michael Neill, with Michael Alexander in Los Angeles