He is immortalizedin syndication and on DVDstanding in his kitchen, eating sugary cereal for dinner, in jeans and sneakers and an untucked shirt. But on a warm, rainy evening in August in a nondescript dressing room backstage in a theater in Colorado Springs, Jerry Seinfeld is dressed as if he were going to church: a dark suit, a crisp, white shirt and an elegant, silvery tie. And he acts a bit devout too, bowing his head in a moment of silence.
But Seinfeld is getting ready for a different sort of ancient ritual: stand-up comedy. "It's kind of that feeling before an ocean swim," he says of facing an audience armed with nothing but jokes. "You know it's gonna be cold at first, but once I get in, it's really fun. And you never know what the waves are going to be like."
Onstage, Seinfeld is, of course, neither blue nor edgy but meticulously funny. "I love having kids," he tells the audience. "I used to see couples pushing strollers and think, Why would you do that? Why would you want someone in your house that just craps in their pants while they're looking you right in the eye?" On al-Qaeda training videos: "Why are terrorists always working out on the monkey bars? Has there ever been a war where the decisive battle was fought on a children's playground?" And he says dryly, "Everything in Iraq seems to be going smoothly." Pause for the laugh. "Is it just all that sand and no beach that just drives everyone in the Middle East out of their freaking mind?"
This is what he has been doing on most weekends since Seinfeld went off the air: traveling to stand-up gigs across the country. No press, no entourage, just a tour manager, a garment bag and an opening act (usually one of Seinfeld's old friendsMario Joyner, Tom Papa or Mark Schiff). "Doing my act and working on thatthat's my job," says Seinfeld. "To actually do your creative thing right in front of an audience and have them judge it right therethat's exciting." His life on the road was chronicled in the 2002 documentary Comedian, and Seinfeld does occasionally emerge to promote the DVD releases of his sitcom, but he has made no effort to cling to the global fame that it bestowed on him. To most peoplethe vast majority of fans who haven't been lucky enough to catch his stand-up acthe has seemed almost Johnny Carsonesque for the past few years, the wealthy recluse who left us wanting more.
But in the next few months, Seinfeld will be making a brief yet very noticeable return to mass media, a comeback that began four years ago when he had dinner with director Steven Spielberg, a partner in DreamWorks SKG and a neighbor of Seinfeld's in New York's tony Hamptons. The star casually mentioned an idea for an animated movie to Spielberg. "A movie about bees," Seinfeld says he told the director, "called Bee Movie." (As in B movie, get it?) Spielberg then alerted his colleague Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation. This eventually led, in the way of Hollywood, to Seinfeld's co-writing, co-producing, starring in and overseeing the film, which opens on Nov. 2, with Seinfeld as a young bee named Barry who ventures out of the hive, becomes sweet on a human florist (voiced by Renée Zellweger) and ends up suing the human race for exploiting bees for their honey. And soon Seinfeld will return to his old sitcom home, NBC, in comedic vignettes about the making of Bee Movie. (Though the shorts are designed to promote the film on the Internet, NBC acquired the rights to air them during commercial breaks in an effort to encourage viewers to watch the neighboring advertisements.) And Seinfeld is appearing as himself on the Oct. 4 season premiere of 30 Rock, trying to foil a plot by the network to digitally insert old footage of him in all its shows, even the soaps.
The Seinfeld now playing is a remarkably different star from the one who personified narcissistic baby-boomer bachelorhood throughout the 1990s. Seinfeld is 53 (though he could easily pass for 40), and since the show ended its run, he has acquired a wife, a daughter and two sons. "As a single person, I was always exploring the world," says Seinfeld over lunch one day at the DreamWorks lot in Glendale, Calif., where he's putting the finishing touches on Bee Movie. "Now I've lost some interest in the world. I'm more interested in my wife and kids." After his show went off the air, he did some soul-searching, fell in love and came to the conclusion that the applause of a few hundred people is worth more than the adulation of millions. "I've had the ride," he says. "I want the freedom that I've been so lucky to earn." He agreed to appear on 30 Rock simply because the prospect amused him. "I'm just a crazy, crazy Alec Baldwin fan," says Seinfeld. "Everything he does, he just has a very pure, straight-ahead way of performing. I thought, When am I ever gonna act with Alec Baldwin in a comedy?"
After the release of Bee Movie, Seinfeld plans to return to being a stand-up comic and quasi-stay-at-home dad. Home for Seinfeld (who made a reported $225 million for Seinfeld's syndication alone and appears almost annually on Forbes' list of richest celebrities) is an apartment overlooking Central Park. It's also an estate in the Hamptons, on Long Island, that he purchased for $32 million from Billy Joel in 2000 and a new spread in Telluride, Colo., not far from Tom Cruise's place. He keeps his collection of Porsches (he won't say how many, though it's assumed there are more than 30) in a private garage in Manhattan. He hits the gym regularly, and every day when he's in the city he walks 25 blocks through Central Park to his midtown officea spacious aerie with sweeping views of the skylinewhere he works on his stand-up act. The office is equipped with a high-tech videoconferencing system called Halo so he can communicate with the directors and animators of Bee Movie.