Jerry Seinfeld's Most Demanding Movie, 'Bee Movie'

Dave Itzkoff

In the dressing room of an Atlantic City nightclub, Jerry Seinfeld is explaining the stand-up comedy ritual of "getting in the bubble": a state of mind that a performer seeks before show time, a few final moments of calm before the tumult of an unpredictable live audience.

And make no mistake. When Seinfeld faces his crowd, he is usually thinking of the exchange in raw, physical terms: a competition to be won or lost. "I want to get 'em bad," he says.

Minutes later he emerges from the bubble and onto a stage to riff about the banalities of bachelorhood and marriage, burials and cremations, and to relentlessly mock an indiscreet heckler who has made the mistake of announcing that his nickname is Potato Head.

The hour-long routine is a crucial opportunity for Seinfeld to practice his act at a time when he feels, as he often does, that he's not performing enough. "No matter how many times you've done it in the past, it's got to be polished or it goes away," he says backstage. "The act just packs up and starts walking."

More important, the show is a warm-up for Seinfeld's biggest leap yet out of his bubble, onto an international platform he has not occupied in nearly a decade, and into a medium he has never attempted before.

It is Bee Movie, a DreamWorks Animation comedy that is by far the most substantial project the 53-year-old comedian has taken on since pulling the plug on his Seinfeld television sitcom in 1998.

In the ensuing years Seinfeld has starred in an HBO comedy special, I'm Telling You for the Last Time, and a low-budget documentary, Comedian, and written a children's book, Halloween. He got married and fathered three children. In whatever spare time remains, he continues to perform his stand-up act with a triathlete's zeal.


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Yet none of these endeavours - the professional ones at least - has demanded as much of Seinfeld as Bee Movie, a studio feature with a budget of about $US150 million ($162 million) for which he not only supplied the voice of the lead character, a wisecracking honeybee named Barry B. Benson, but also helped write the script and spent nearly four years overseeing every element of the production.

He is also a central component of the film's marketing campaign, showing up in television commercials and at live appearances (occasionally dressed in an oversized bee costume), suggesting that this cartoon movie about talking insects is just another part of his indomitable comedic continuum.

But to many fans, and to many people who worked on Bee Movie, the film represents the first real return of Seinfeld since the end of his television show, a welcoming back after what appeared to be a self-imposed absence. "When you watch this movie, it feels like you've found your best friend who you haven't seen in ages," says Jeffrey Katzenberg, the chief executive of DreamWorks Animation. "It's like, where have you been the last 10 years?"

Just don't mention this to the man whose name appears atop the movie poster.

Two days after his Atlantic City appearance, Seinfeld is walking through New York's Central Park, on his way to lunch at the Central Park Boathouse. He is dressed in blue jeans and a pair of John Lennonesque spectacles, offering pointed analysis about anyone who enters his field of vision, whether it is a pedestrian wearing too much makeup ("I think that was a mime"), or Dean Poll, the well-tanned owner of the restaurant, who pays a visit to Seinfeld's table. ("I think he just wants to show people his nice skin," Seinfeld says.)

Much of Seinfeld's success is predicated on the nonchalant persona he cultivated in his comedy act and on his television show, and the apparent accessibility that comes from his insightful observations of the quotidian and the ordinary.


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The rewards that he has reaped have been substantial: Forbes recently estimated that he makes US$60 million a year, primarily from his share of the syndication revenue Seinfeld still generates. (A representative for Seinfeld declined to confirm this figure.) His live touring and royalties from Seinfeld DVD sales also contribute to this sum.

Though Seinfeld may wear Nikes, he also lives in an exclusive residence on Central Park West, maintains a fabled collection of Porsches and travels to and from his stand-up dates by helicopter. In person he can be affable, but he doesn't hide a certain earned arrogance. When one stunned onlooker at the Boathouse asks for his autograph, Seinfeld says, "Sure," then keeps walking straight to his table.

On this afternoon Seinfeld is playful but also perturbed about a short article he had read over the weekend in The New York Times, 69 words about Bee Movie that described the film as his effort at "gingerly" re-entering mainstream entertainment. "Gingerly," he says with emphasis. "If they only knew. There was nothing 'gingerly' about this."

Seinfeld likes to tell a story of the film's spontaneous origins, about four years ago, at a dinner on Long Island with Steven Spielberg, at which Seinfeld joked that Bee Movie would be a fitting title for a movie about bees, and Spielberg concluded this would actually be a good idea for a film. "I wasn't pitching him," Seinfeld recalls, "but then he started pitching me: 'You gotta make this.' "

Bee Movie represents the culmination of a campaign more than 13 years long, waged by Katzenberg to recruit Seinfeld into animated movies. Going back to his time at the Walt Disney Co, Katzenberg had frequently tried to persuade Seinfeld to lend his voice to a cartoon project to no avail. "He was always amazingly open and accessible," Katzenberg says, "and incredibly polite and definitely not interested."

What persuaded Seinfeld to take on Bee Movie were the assurances by Spielberg and his DreamWorks partner Katzenberg that he would have free rein to make the film his way (as well as access to a video-conferencing system so he could work from New York when necessary), and his naive assumption that it would take three to four months to write a script, record his tracks and finish the job. "I could not have been more wrong," he says.

Seinfeld estimates that it took him and three hand-picked writers nearly 21/2 years just to complete the script for Bee Movie, the story of a talking bee who falls in love with a human florist and discovers, to his horror, that mankind has been stealing his community's honey.


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As Seinfeld became further entrenched in the film's pre-production process, he was in for a rude awakening about how he was really perceived in the entertainment industry.

Working with a casting director to recruit voice talent for the film, Seinfeld was given two lists that supposedly represented all the A-list male and female stars in Hollywood. When he looked at the lineup of male performers, he was surprised to find his own name missing from the roster.

"I said, 'How come?' " Seinfeld recalls. "She said, 'Because everybody knows you only do your own thing.' "

To the extent that Seinfeld engages with Hollywood any more, these interactions are often fraught with ambivalence. "I never get offered things that I think I could really bring something special to," he says, though it is hard to imagine what kind of project he would deem a good fit. Over the years he has turned down his share of offers - most recently a comedic caper written by David Mamet - often because he cannot find the time, and sometimes because he doesn't have an interest. "I could just take parts to act in movies," he says, "but they don't need me."

Nor can Seinfeld understand why the industry seems to believe he has spent his post-sitcom career in a cushy exile of his own design, when he continues to appear at clubs and theatres. "That's what I do," he says. "That's all I can do. That's what a comedian is. Our thing is not disappearing into other characters. It's being this character that you are."

Friends who have known Seinfeld for years say that he has always been sharply attuned to the fitness of his stand-up act, and eager to perform it no matter what else was occupying him in his personal or professional life.

"When he wasn't out there for a period of time, he would start to get antsy and feel like he was losing his edge," says Larry David, the co-creator of Seinfeld and star of Curb Your Enthusiasm. "The phrase he would use was 'out of shape.' I never looked at it like that."

That Seinfeld has, since 1999, been married to the former Jessica Sklar, the founder of the charitable organisation Baby Buggy, and has a six-year-old daughter, Sascha, and two sons, Julian, 4, and Shepherd, 2, does not seem to have diminished his fervour for hitting the road.

Still, the rarity with which Seinfeld applies his full creative energies to a project like Bee Movie would seem to add pressure on the film's critical and box-office results, if only to prove that its star remains a powerful draw.

But fellow comedian Chris Rock, who plays a mosquito named Mooseblood in Bee Movie, argues that the film should not be judged against Seinfeld's larger body of work. "If he was doing a movie that wasn't animated, where he was dating Scarlett Johansson, his version of Manhattan, then maybe yes," Rock says. "But this is a movie about cartoon bees."

Seinfeld's colleagues agree with his assessment that it was unfair to categorise Bee Movie as a comeback project. "It's not like he's been hurt or injured or anything," David says. "It's not like he tried something and failed, and now has to come back from it. He's just been doing what he wants to do."

When his promotional duties for Bee Movie, which include attending the film's November 19 Sydney premiere, are over, Seinfeld says, he has no concrete plans, except perhaps allowing his daughter to see his stand-up act for the first time and proving to his two sons that their father is more than just a guy who makes films about bees for a living.

He says he takes a certain pride in measuring his life against those of other stars - but declines to name names - who have achieved comparable success, but who haven't found the time or the will to settle down and raise a family. "There's certain celebrities," he says, "where I see where they're at, and I know how old they are, and I know what they're doing, and I'm like, 'Yeah, what are you going to do now, Potato Head?"'

Seinfeld understands that these same people might derive a similar schadenfreude from seeing him - formerly the quintessential single guy - made over as a happily married man, or in secretly wishing that his streak of good fortune comes to an end. "I can't imagine that they wouldn't," he says. "I sure would. 'Enough of this guy, it's about time he fell on his face.' "

Bee Movie opens December 6.
Masters of their domain

The post-Seinfeld careers of Jerry's collaborators

Michael Richards (Kramer)

A year after Seinfeld shut up shop, Richards created the short-lived sitcom The Michael Richards Show (2000), on which he was also a co-writer. He returned to stand-up comedy, keeping out of the spotlight until late 2006 when he made headlines for racially abusing hecklers at a comedy club. Voices Bud Ditchwater in Bee Movie.

Jason Alexander (George)

When Alexander's first post-Seinfeld sitcom, Bob Patterson (2001), failed to fire, he settled for guest appearances in a string of shows including Friends, Monk and Malcolm in the Middle, voice parts in cartoons such as Dilbert and a run in the LA stage production of The Producers. Another sitcom, Listen Up, made in 2004, lasted one season. He recently signed as a regular for Everybody Hates Chris and will appear in an episode of Julia Louis-Dreyfus's The New Adventures of Old Christine.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Elaine)

Louis-Dreyfus's first attempt at a sitcom was a failure: Watching Ellie, made during 2002-03, lasted only 12 episodes. After a star turn the next year in four episodes of Arrested Development as the blind lawyer Maggie, Louis-Dreyfus found more lasting success with The New Adventures of Old Christine.

Larry David (co-creator, writer, cameo role as George Steinbrenner)

Despite his constant complaints about Seinfeld's success (he lamented the thought of having to write further episodes when Seinfeld got the green light), David was the first to jump into another project after the series ended. His improvisation comedy show Curb Your Enthusiasm is now in its sixth season.


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