Jerry Seinfeld has been in America’s living room for almost 25 years now. His era-defining 1990s sitcom, "Seinfeld," is regularly ranked among the best television comedies of all time. As anyone with a basic cable package knows, it’s been in constant syndication ever since its finale in 1998.
As such, Seinfeld has earned the kind of pop culture immortality reserved for our biggest stars. In our minds, Seinfeld is just Jerry, the forever bemused 30-something New Yorker palling around with George, Kramer and Elaine.
So it’s fascinating to see Jerry Seinfeld the veteran comic – now a trim, energetic 58 – back in his original habitat on the standup stage. In first of two shows at Durham Performing Arts Center Saturday night, Seinfeld delivered the goods with a solid 55 minutes of professional-grade comedy.
With his extremely close-cropped hair and shimmering tailored suit, Seinfeld took the stage to wild applause from the sold-out crowd of 2,600 fans. There was even an attempt at a pre-emptive standing ovation, which the comic expertly defused by jumping straight into the jokes.
Seinfeld opened with some local shout-outs, comparing the Triangle’s college sports rivalries to a low-simmering Middle East war zone. Seinfeld’s signature style of observational comedy and twisted wordplay is so distinct now that he could patent it.
In an interesting sign-of-the-times, the first third of the show was devoted almost entirely to riffs on modern technology and communication. Bits on smart phones, Twitter and Facebook showcased Seinfeld’s cynical, dismissive attack pattern. He seemed especially irked by the decline of face-to-face interaction: "Texting is really for people who are only interested in their half of the conversation."
Seinfeld also took aim at our obsessive consumer culture, particularly our need to have endless varieties of coffee or hydrating drinks on hand at all times: "When I was a kid, I had one sip from the school drinking fountain and ran for 28 hours!"
The biggest laughs came when Seinfeld mined more personal territory. Talking about his wife and kids, Seinfeld admitted an inability to relate anymore to the problems of single people.
"You’re playing paintball," he said. "I’m out here in Iraq with loaded weapons."
Seinfeld’s style is louder and more aggressive than it used to be – part of that is playing to larger theater rooms – but also less effective.
It’s telling that the more personal material got the best responses throughout the show. As a standup comic, Seinfeld has never been particularity interested in making an emotional connection with an audience. There’s always a cool and formal distance in Seinfeld’s comedy.
When Seinfeld did let down his guard, the crowd seemed to respond genuinely.
"Wives will tell you their husbands never listen," he said. "My own wife may even have said that. I don’t know."
In a Q&A session after the show, one female fan asked the question that was on everyone’s mind: "What about a Seinfeld show reunion?
"I think that is certainly possible," Seinfeld said, clearly familiar with the question. "Once all four careers are in the toilet."