SEATTLE — Jerry Seinfeld on the phone is nothing like Jerry Seinfeld on the stage.
Ask him what his current stand-up act is about, and he'll toss you a few bones.
"Let's see, what have I got," Seinfeld said from New York City the other day. Sounded like he was sorting through note cards.
"Well, it's about the annoying word 'hydrate,' that everyone is constantly advising me to 'hydrate,'" he said. "It's about the word 'tired.' Words that are so thick in the air."
And energy drinks. Five hours? Really?
"I mean, how they came up with that amount of time just fascinates me," Seinfeld said. "Was that in a lab? Five hours. It's just such a weird chunk of time to get revved up. It doesn't get you through work. It's too long for an evening. Who's working from 1 to 6 is really the question."
Funny. So what else is in there?
"In where?" he asked. "Oh, you just want me to recite my act? Your job is to interpret."
Things were taking a strange turn for me and the man with the puffy shirt and garageful of Porsches. Was he serious, or ...? Couldn't tell.
Seinfeld told me about the tour he just finished in Europe, where, he said, critics have a better sense of what he does up there. They appreciate every carefully crafted phrase, every pause, every observation like it was a six-course meal.
Here in America, we writers just scarf down what took him months to create, then sit back and burp out the laughs.
"Americans, when they write about comedy, they just try to remember the jokes, and then they mangle them and misquote them and print them," he said. "And it's like, 'Well, what did you think?'
"They're (European critics) actually interested in the craft of being a stand-up comic. Whereas, in America, we just sort of take it for granted that a person can do it, and 'here's what they said.'"
That may be true, but not in this case.
Didn't I just tell Seinfeld how much I loved his 2002 documentary "Comedian," which chronicled how he wrote and polished a completely new act, testing it in small clubs, running it past comedian cohorts like Chris Rock and Colin Quinn, before suiting up to debut the hour-plus final in Washington, D.C.?
Maybe he didn't hear me ...
"... So it's like, why are you hired to watch a comedian if all you're going to try and do is transcribe what they say?" he asked. "It's a complete abdication of any creative writing, which is what I thought you were hired for at the paper.
"There is more to it than just the punch line."
I know that, and I think the audiences know that.
That's why they pay 75 bucks a seat: To see the guy who, like them, knows how bad cabs smell, who remembers the joy and frustration of Halloween night. No one can spin those little memories into gold — figuratively and literally — the way Jerry Seinfeld can.
Comedy is part of everything he does. At home, he and his kids (he has three, ages 10, 8 and 6) play baseball inside and perfect imitations of their relatives.
"That's what's great about kids," he said. "They don't know what's inappropriate. It's very fun to be a comedian and have kids because your mind is very much in tune with theirs."
There's an ongoing debate with his son about chocolate-chip vs. oatmeal-raisin cookies.
Seinfeld says chocolate is one thing and cookie is another. There's no reason to combine the two things. Same with the raisin and the oatmeal, Seinfeld's son will say.
"But the raisin needs a friend," Seinfeld will say. "Chocolate doesn't need a friend. Chocolate's got nothing but friends."
That's what he does at home. He also collects cars — Porsches are his weakness — and is on the hunt for a Saab 96 and any '70s Fiat "in good condition."
And he's always looking for bits. Always putting together the next act.
"The only reason I do it is because it is still a fantastic feeling for me and for the audience when you connect, when that show works in that room, that night," he said. "To me, there is nothing like it ... nothing quite like a stand-up comic who is there because he really wants to be there.
"And that's what I am about. It's really all I do."