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One surprising thing about Seinfeld: He actually seems rather nurturing, especially at mealtime. He'll warn you away from a tuna melt at one of his favorite restaurants because it has too much garlic, and he'll make sure you don't miss the bread pudding at the DreamWorks commissary. He visibly softens when you mention Michael Richards, the Seinfeld co-star who got into trouble last year by going on a racist rant in a comedy club. "He's a dear, sweet guy," says Seinfeld. "But he just got too angry." Seinfeld, who's generally easygoing, admits that he too can be moody. "There is a thing about comedians," he says. "They are crankyall of them. If you're not cranky, you're not funny."
In the May 14, 1998, finale of Seinfeld, the cast of self-involved characters ended up in jail for nine seasons' worth of selfishness and hilariously brutal indifference to the rest of the world's feelings. At the time, Seinfeld was suffering from too much freedom. "To be honest," he says, "I was kinda lost after the show. I really didn't want to get married, I didn't like being single anymore, and I didn't know what I wanted to do." Whatever he did, it wouldn't be in Hollywood. "I got tired of being treated like a precious little egg on a pillow," says Seinfeld, who moved back to Manhattan, where he had gotten his start as a comedian while attending Queens College in the 1970s. "'That's not the water Mr. Seinfeld prefers, you idiot'I just wanted to get away from that. I missed people yelling at me and treating me like a regular guy." After a few months of doing not much besides playing pool every afternoon at a billiards hall on the Upper West Side, Seinfeld decided to return to being a stand-up comic. During his years of working on the show in Los Angeles, he says, he longed for the "griminess of the stand-up world." Even today, he says, "whenever I have the opportunity to go to an old bar in New York that has that smellthat beer-soaked wood, that cheap-wine smellI just swoon."
His first step was to put his old act behind him. He retired the material in a limited Broadway engagement, I'm Telling You for the Last Time, in August 1998. One night he invited a woman he had met at the gym, Jessica Sklar, to his show. In his current act, Seinfeld jokes, "I was dating for 25 years. Do you know how exhausting that was? Do you know how much acting fascinated I did?" But Jessica, whom he calls a "neighborhood girl," actually did fascinate him. Like Seinfeld, she had grown up on Long Island, and of all the nice Jewish girls available to him, he says, "she was the nicest." There was one catch: two months earlier, she had married Eric Nederlander, the son of a prominent New York family in the theater business. Her marriage ended, she and Seinfeld began dating, and the tabloids loved it. "I couldn't believe anybody thought it was anything," says Seinfeld of the media storm. "And I had trouble understanding how painful it was for her. I was used to it. I think I made some mistakes in that period as far as helping her through it."
"It was a brutal time for everybody," says Jessica, 36, seated beside her husband one afternoon at the diner by his office. "I had left a relationship where I was sort of supposed to be someone I wasn't. That relationship was never going to work, and I met someone who was heaven and earth to me." On Dec. 25, 1999, they were married in a small ceremony. Two months later, says Seinfeld, he was awakened by a tap, tap on his pillow. "She had one of those [home pregnancy test] sticks that you buy at the drugstore. I was sleeping, and she started tapping the stick on the pillow. So I opened my eyes. It was great." After the birth of daughter Sascha, now 6, Seinfeld published a children's book, Halloween, and dedicated it to his wife and daughter, whom he called "the sweetest candy of all." Their son Julian followed in 2003, and son Shepherd (whom they call "Pepper") in 2005. "The great thing about kids is there's nothing I find too embarrassing to do in front of them," he says. "To hear them laugh is worth anything. It's the best sound in the world."
Seinfeld, who has an older sister, Carolyn Liebling, describes his parents, Kal and Betty Seinfeld, as loving "but not interested in a good way." Seinfeld's mother had grown up in orphanages and foster care. His father, who owned a sign-making business, came from a broken home. "They were loners," says Seinfeld. "They kind of raised us in a very hands-off way. I said, 'I want to be a comedian.' They said, 'Oh, well, we look forward to hearing about it.'" When his father died in 1985, Seinfeld was already a successful comedian who had appeared on the Tonight Show, but "after he passed away, somebody said to me, 'Now your career is really going to take off,'" says Seinfeld. "In some way the child will sometimes hold back so as not to surpass the father while he's alive. Maybe it's the mortality thing. I just started driving a little harder, working a little harder." Seinfeld says his dad was funny, and he still laughs at his jokes. "There was one he liked to tell about a guy who falls out of a window," recalls Seinfeld, smiling. "He's lying there on the street. This other fella runs up to him and says, 'What happened?' The guy says, 'I don't know. I just got here myself.'"
Seinfeld spends a lot of time figuring out ways to make his own kids laugh. Not surprisingly, he usually succeeds. "He makes these children laugh so hard, I have to watch them to make sure they're not choking," says Jessica, who founded Baby Buggy, a children's charity, in 2001. She has also written a cookbook, Deceptively Delicious, about making healthy food for kidswhich is coming out in October.
While Seinfeld was busy starting a family in New York City, Hollywood kept calling. He was never tempted to return to sitcoms. "When I was done, it was like, I can't touch that again," he says. "Who wants second best?" Plus, he says, "television is for young people who want to put their whole life into something. I'm way past that point." He admits he occasionally stops on Seinfeld while flipping through the channels ("I watch it now, and I go, 'Oh, now I see why they liked the show'"). No, he says, dollar signs do not flash before his eyes when he sees it in syndication. "Bad fashion choices flash before my eyes." Seinfeld isn't impressed by most TV now and believes that the medium's fragmentation over the networks and the sprawling cable universe has made it too difficult to get together great writing staffs. He says he has never seen The New Adventures of Old Christine, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the only Seinfeld star to have reemerged in a hit, but he has appeared on Seinfeld co-creator Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm. Oddly enough, Seinfeld considers The Sopranos "a really good sitcom. I watched that show for the jokes. It always made me laugh." When he saw The Sopranos' ambiguous finale, "at first I thought, Oh, great, somebody finally did a worse finale than me," says Seinfeld. "Then I realized a couple days later it was brilliant."