Jason Alexander, the “Seinfeld” star and Tony Award-winning Broadway actor, wears a beige tweed coat low on his shoulders and speaks with a confidence that seems worlds away from his notorious television alter-ego, George Costanza. His teenage son, who accompanied him on the trip, chats with a few Folklore and Mythology professors in the adjacent room. They later tell us that our laughs were impressively loud coming through the Warren House’s burly 19th century walls.
1. Fifteen Minutes: You attended Boston University as an undergraduate from 1977 to 1980 but dropped out the summer before your senior year. What prompted you to leave college?
Jason Alexander: It was a combination of a decision and an inescapable series of events. I finished my junior year, and the summer after my junior year I did a film that ran late. When I missed the first two weeks of school, I called all of my advisors and they said, “Not a problem, but you probably should take a semester off.” And I moved to New York because I didn’t want to go back home. And then a series of things happened: I met the girl who would eventually be my wife and I was cast in the show that would become my Broadway debut. I just started getting work, and that’s when my college advisors said, “We’re teaching you how to have a career. You have a career. Why would you come back?” And I was very lucky and just kept working steadily and never came back.
2. FM: When you were young, you aspired to be a professional magician, but you tabled that dream realizing the need for a more lucrative career with greater chance of success. How in God’s name did acting appeal as a career with greater chance of success?
JA: No. [laughs] Well, a greater chance of success, yes, but it had nothing to do with lucrative—I was a very serious student of magic. I wanted to be a close-up magician, and I studied with a man who was profoundly good. He assessed me, though, and said, “You’re going to have a lot of trouble being a close up magician.” Whenever I try to palm a standard playing card you can always see a corner peeking out from one side or the other...I also have short stubby fingers, too, and you need long ones for coin manipulation. The observation was: this is not going to work for you. And by sheer accident, right after that revelation, my family and I moved a couple of towns over. And the first people that met me were the theater kids who were desperate for one more kid to be in a production they were doing. So that was my instant community. I had never thought about theater, I had never done theater before that. But that’s how I got sucked in. And I quickly realized that theater was in and of itself an illusion. It was just a different kind of magic trick.
3. FM: Much of the humor of “Seinfeld” came from the characters’ wild tirades about apparent trivialities. Would you say it’s made you more inclined to get frustrated about inane or petty things, or at least more aware of them?
JA: Having spent nine years with Larry and Jerry, I think I’m more able to understand what fuels it. I think the brilliance of both of those guys is that they can look at things that you and I look at all the time and they see possibilities; I don’t see those possibilities. I’ll give you the perfect example: the first time I really thought, “Oh my god, Jerry Seinfeld is brilliant” was when he did a joke about newspapers, and how relieved the editors of a newspaper must be when exactly the right amount of things happen everyday to make the paper come out perfectly, so that at six o’clock at their deadline, you don’t go, “Oh, one more thing happened,” and now you have a blank page with two paragraphs.When these guys look at the world and everything in it with the possibility of what’s odd, unusual, or funny about that. Or what are the things we don’t realize...I am more aware of what we think of as petty, inane, silly, stupid. I just don’t have the genius they have for articulating and making fun of them.
4. FM: How long did the new addition to the Guggenheim actually take?
JA: [Laughs] Well, my work on it was a one-stop thing. I thought about it for 10 minutes, wrote down my plans, and that was it. The rest of it took years.
FM: Thanks for that. If you had a dollar for every time someone made that kind of joke around you, would you have more or less money than the combined royalties of all the Seinfeld cast members?
JA: Oh I’m sure I’d have much more. If I could just be paid for every time somebody yells, “George,” just “George,” I’d be doing very very very well. “Shrinkage” would come in second, by the way.
5. FM: What was it like to sing the infamous George Costanza answering machine jingle given your actual musicality and Broadway-renown singing ability?
JA: It was extremely hard. In fact it took a very long time because Larry kept saying, “You’re singing it too well.” It became about how to misphrase it, how to breathe in the wrong places. What you find with singers, no matter where they’re from, if they have any kind of an accent, the accent tends to disappear when they sing. I couldn’t do that for George; his New York accent had to come through. It took about three hours to record that damn thing.
6. FM: What was Stephen Sondheim’s opinion of you when you worked with him on Broadway?
JA: He’s been very complimentary of me. In his book “Look, I Made a Hat,” it’s a review of his work on his own lyrics. He talks about his experience with each of his shows, and he has a lot of interesting things to say about “Merrily We Roll Along,” but one of his criticisms is that he thought essentially its one flaw was casting younger actors in adult roles was that they couldn’t really play anything except essentially who they are. “But,” he writes in that book, “with one notable exception, a very young Jason Alexander, who at age 20 played a middle aged man better than anybody I know.”
7. FM: So you’re now directing with LA Reprise Theater Company. I’ve often heard that the transition from actor to director is a rather natural, easy one. How are you finding it?
JA: Natural and easy and for me far more compelling and rewarding than acting alone, for the most part. Directors get to fire on many more cylinders than an actor. Even when I was an actor in training, one criticism my teachers had was that I should think about directing instead of acting because the best actors see the material they’re working on through blinders. They can’t see anything but their role. I could never really do that.
8. FM: What are you working on now with Reprise?
JA: About a year ago, the financial model that company had been built on broke. We knew we could continue to produce but we’d probably go heavily into debt if we did that. So we made a responsible decision to return donor money and subscriber money, stop producing, and go into a hiatus period of really reassessing the company. We’ve spent the better part of a year reexamining the mission of the company and the financial model of the company and finding a new home. Reprise used to be a company that just revived classic American musicals and now everything is on the table: musicals, plays, new works—it’s a completely different mission.
9. FM: If “Seinfeld” was just coming on the air today, how do you think it’d fare?
JA: Well, if it followed the path it went last time, we wouldn’t get past the pilot. The pilot of “Seinfeld” was made and dropped. “Seinfeld” was not supposed to go to series. But back then...if they weren’t going to produce [a show], they would find a really horrible spot like 10:30 on a Sunday night and they’d show a dead pilot. That’s what they did with us. And I may be wrong about which critic it was, I think it was the critic in TV guide, wrote an article that said, “Boy that was a really interesting piece, I wonder why NBC didn’t go forward with that.” That engendered another look at it, and that engendered a very small pickup of four episodes, which is unheard of. It didn’t have a big audience, but the audience it did have was men from 18 to 35 years old. That was the demographic that every advertiser wanted, so they could always afford to put the show on the air even though the numbers of people watching it were incredibly small. That wouldn’t happen today. I don’t watch a lot of TV comedy, but there are two shows now, both of which are doing pretty well, that I think are offshoots of the “Seinfeld” formula. One of them is “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” which I think does extremely well. The other one is “New Girl,” you know: three guys, one girl. Stories that are seemingly about nothing, and with very unique voices and sensibilities that you can either like or not like, but the shows are doing very well. That gives me some inkling that maybe if we came on the air today with our sensibility we might find an audience, but I don’t know.
10. FM: Do you see the dwindling presence of laugh tracks in sitcoms nowadays as something we should be concerned about?
JA: No, I think it’s great. People accuse “Seinfeld” of having a laugh track. We never had a laugh track. If a joke didn’t get a laugh, even with a live audience taping, we put the live band on, writers would come out, get in a circle, and everyone would pitch jokes or pitch ideas. [E]very laugh on “Seinfeld” got a legitimate laugh from the audience. But sometimes you’re seeing one shot from one take and another shot from another take back-to-back, and if we didn’t blend the laughs with laugh track, you’d hear a glitch in the tape. I don’t even know how laugh tracks came into existence. It is such a bizarre concept. I guess it’s the carrot that leads the donkey. I’m delighted to see it go bye-bye.
11. FM: What’s all this hoopla about a guest appearance on the television show “Community”?
JA: Is there hoopla? Wow, I think its because you’re here at college. Apparently “Community” is the college show. It doesn’t fare well in any other demographic, but I like those guys; I think they’re great. They said we’re doing this really interesting episode where the cast basically becomes Muppets. There’s a plane crash and they land in the forest and they’re Muppets and my character is called the woodsman, but he’s a former alum of their school who more or less proselytizes life in the woods in a musical number.
12. FM: Well I’m excited. By the way, how’s your Pesach been?
JA: [Laughs] Fairly non-existent, we’re generally not all that participating, but thanks for asking.
13. FM: You’ve also been a prominent public supporter of the OneVoice initiative, which is a nonprofit organization that aims for mutual conflict resolution between Israelis and Palestinians. What prompted you to get so involved? What do you feel is your obligation to the cause?
JA: Just to narrow the definition of OneVoice, it came into existence in the early 90s and was created by an Arab-Israeli and a gentleman who was not Israeli but had done a lot of work in Israel. They realized through their business connections that despite the impression the world had about that conflict, that the vast majority of people in both Palestine and Israel were moderates. They sucked me in because I have been to that part of the world often. I’m intrigued and deeply affected by the people there, on both sides. My commitment has been ongoing, but it’s tough.... I think the extremes on both sides have done a very effective job of silencing organizations like OneVoice. I’m unfortunately a little disheartened by what’s going on there now.
14. FM: Given that art is often seen as a form of communication and humor a way of reconciliation, have you ever thought to use your art as a means to address such conflict as the Israeli-Palestinian one?
MJB: When I was last there, I had a wonderful meeting with the President of Israel Shimon Peres, and he basically said the same thing. He said, “Why don’t we use comedy as a tool here?” And I know he was looking for a funny answer. I said, “The problem, Mr. President, is that it’s called a sense of humor, not a science. There’s only this vague sense that this might be amusing to somebody, and that is too dangerous of a scenario in this situation.” Comedy in and of itself in every situation is offensive to somebody if they want to be offended. If it’s a blonde joke and you’re blonde, you could be offended. Whatever it is, somebody’s eccentricity or a generality is being tweaked for comedic effect.
15. FM: With that said, and stepping back a bit, what’s your go-to joke?
JA: Oh, it’s so wrong...okay. I’ll do it. It’s not my joke, and please remember that I was in the “Aristocrats,” so I’ve told the foulest jokes there are. But the joke used to be so interesting to me because, when I first heard it, the guy that told it had the room. I mean, everything he said was 100 percent kill; nobody wasn’t happy. And then he told this joke, and half the room was in hysterics, and half the room turned on their heels and left. It’s that kind of joke...there’s just something about a joke where half the people love it and the other just go, “You’re sick, you have a problem.”
The joke: What’s the difference between Neil Armstrong and Michael Jackson? The answer: Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon, and Michael Jackson fucks little boys in the ass.
And that kind of cleared the room.