by Mike Corrigan

Just who is Jerry Seinfeld? The self-absorbed neat freak we know and love from his "Must-see TV" series? Or is there (as we suspect) something more to Jerry Jerry

Dingleberry, the master of the mundane, the Once and Future King of Comedy? It's difficult to detect where Jerry Seinfeld the fabricated sit-com character ends and Jerry Seinfeld the flesh-and-blood standup comedian and actor begins. Most of what we know about him comes filtered through his nightclub schtick and his TV persona. But his real life, what we know of it (aside from his obvious notoriety and success) seems pretty ordinary. Perhaps that's because for everyone's favorite normal guy, things started off extremely, well, normal.

Jerry Seinfeld was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on April 29, 1954, and was raised in Massapequa, Long Island. He was fascinated by TV comedians as a child ("I remember my parents telling me, 'This man's job is to come out and be funny for people.' I could not believe it."), but it wasn't until after high school that Seinfeld first began to test the waters of performance for himself -- mostly, standup comedy bits in college productions. Upon graduation from Queens College in 1976, Seinfeld immediately (like, that very night) made his way into the NYC club circuit. He supplemented his then-meager performance earnings with odd day-jobs -- among them selling light bulbs over the phone (for which he has since publicly apologized) and cheap jewelry on the street.

Seinfeld honed his craft with a steady slate of standup throughout the '80s, and as his reputation for sharp observational humor spread, he was rewarded with bigger and better gigs. He first appeared on the Tonight Show in 1981 and soon became almost a regular feature on Late Night with David Letterman (he's made a combined total of 50 appearances on the two shows). Network and cable specials followed, including a 1987 HBO special, Jerry Seinfeld's Standup Confidential.

In 1988, Seinfeld and fellow standup comic Larry David (later the producer of Seinfeld) hit upon an idea for a show during a late-night trip to a grocery store. Something about the banality of things like grocery shopping inspired them. The show would be about nothing. In 1989, Seinfeld and David created The Seinfeld Chronicles for Castle Rock Entertainment, which was quickly picked up by NBC as Seinfeld. For a half-hour every week, Seinfeld had an opportunity to reach millions with his "Did Ya Ever Notice That" routine while David (as the show's head writer) worked out his own neurosis, obsessions and mild misanthropy through four fictitious characters named Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer. It was a milestone in television history. Though slow to catch on, by 1993 Seinfeld had become a huge hit both with critics and viewers, and won an Emmy that year for best comedy series. By the time of its ninth (and final) season, the series was still at the top of the ratings.

What previous sitcoms had only unintentionally hinted at, the widely imitated but never duplicated Seinfeld delivered in spades. The show was a celebration of shallowness and pettiness, a show that reveled in stupidity. The only truly endearing thing about the characters was that they reminded us of ourselves. David took the worst thoughts he could dredge up, made them funny and in the process, transformed unfocused young and single urban angst into an art form. The show's central dogma? No hugging, no learning, no growth. Unlike so many alleged comedies that preceded and even followed it, the show never succumbed to sentimentality, and never -- even for an instant --feigned seriousness. It never pandered to its audience with "Tonight, on a very special Seinfeld..." For this purity alone, it deserves to go down in television annals as a triumph.

Seinfeld himself sees the show as the culmination of a deeply held personal philosophy. "I have this romantic vision of being a standup comic," he elucidates, "being on your own in a strange town, being in the spotlight, the smoke. You're not even in show business. You're the guy on a surfboard miles out in the ocean trying to create something on your own."

After the series' final season in 1998, Seinfeld retreated briefly from show business. In December 1999, he married public relations executive Jessica Sklar. The couple welcomed their first child, a daughter named Sascha, the following November. His self-imposed hiatus was short-lived, however. Currently Seinfeld performing standup across the country with all new material -- a tour that brings him to Spokane on Saturday night. He is also in the process of finishing a feature documentary about standup comedy.

Perhaps we know more about the real Jerry Seinfeld than we imagine. Maybe what we see is less carefully groomed public persona, less artifice and more who he really is: an ordinary guy with an extraordinary talent to connect with people. His passion to do just that is especially evident whenever he's out there performing live (where he claims to feel most at ease) in the glare of the spotlight, exposed, with only a puny microphone for protection, getting laughs. After all, that's his job.

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