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Jerry Seinfeld: Bee society is very human, only more evolved

Jerry Seinfeld is the voice of Barry B. Benson (right) in “Bee Movie.”

Jerry Seinfeld has been known to enjoy the odd bungee jump, but dressing up like a bee and throwing himself off the roof of the Carlton Hotel in Cannes was new for him. This was last May. The studio attached a steel cable to the hotel, 130 feet in the air, and Jerry glided down to the photographers and bee-lovers below. It was a stunt to promote the new animated film, “Bee Movie,” which opens Friday.

“When I got up there to actually do it,” he said, “I thought, boy, this could be gruesome. This could be a very ugly scene. Seinfeld thinks he’s a bee and falls to his death. What’s wrong with this guy?”

He had been talked into it by Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of the co-owners of DreamWorks, who himself once appeared with a real lion on a leash to promote “The Lion King.” I remember the days when everybody thought Debbie Reynolds was a good sport to hop along in a sack race for “Divorce American Style.”

“It could have been a posthumous work,” Seinfeld said. This was during a Chicago visit earlier this month to promote the movie. “You know, come and see his last unfinished work; we had to use footage of him dying at the end. And then there’s absolutely no sequel possibility.”

It was another DreamWorks partner, Steven Spielberg, who told him he should make the movie. They were sitting next to each other at dinner somewhere, the Hamptons is my guess. “I was just trying to make amusing conversation,” said Seinfeld, who became richer than anyone on TV except Oprah by making amusing conversation. “It was my first time ever having dinner with him, and I was very excited, and it was really just honestly a lull in the conversation I was trying to fill, with this idea that it would be funny to make a movie about bees, and call it a B-movie, and that was it.

“He lit up and went, ‘That is the greatest idea! I'm calling Jeffrey out at DreamWorks see how to do this!’ He swept me up in that tornado of enthusiasm he has, and the next thing I was making it.”

This is after a decade of almost complete inactivity on TV and in the movies, just some standup tours, and suddenly Seinfeld was playing an animated bee.

“You know the DreamWorks logo with the little boy who floats with balloons onto the moon?” he said. “I changed it. I had a bee sting him and he falls on his face and collapses and lands on the ground, and the bee takes over the moon. I did it as a joke to play on Jeffrey and he loved it, and we actually produced it, and it’s gonna be on every print. I’m stinging the kid in the logo and he falls to his death.” Pause. “Well, not to his death. He just falls and gets hurt.”

My next question was obvious, I suppose, but it seemed relevant: Why bees?

“The Discovery Channel has documentaries about different species. They take one animal and that animal becomes the star of the show. You get all into their life, and what they’re trying to do other animals, trying to kill them, trying to eat them, and you become completely involved in their life. Something about the complexity and perfection of bee society was interesting and very human, only more evolved. They have perfected a society. They have a product, they have a security system, good living conditions, apartments, offices, streets, everybody employed, everybody happy.”

Heroically I did not ask, “Wish you were a bee?”

“To be honest,” I said, “I wrote it for adults. I wrote it like the TV show. I just write what I think is funny and I don’t worry about who’s gonna get it and what age they are. I think the bee is more present in people’s minds than we had realized.”

Why, I asked, have you avoided leading roles in feature films? Are you afraid your TV persona will overshadow any movie character?

“I don’t feel I do as well trying to become someone else as when I do myself. My whole career I have done myself. That’s what standup comedians do. We’re not known for our ability to disappear into a character. That’s the actor’s talent. I like to be myself. I don’t really wanna be other people. I was myself on the TV show and I am in this too, except if I were born as a bee, this is what I would be like.”

So you, as Jerry Seinfeld the bee, would jump eight stories off the Carlton Hotel?

“They told me this is the only thing French people understand. You must hurl yourself off a hotel or they won’t go to your movie. That’s what Katzenberg told me, anyway. He also said Martin Scorsese did the same thing last year, when he promoted ‘The Departed,’ but I found out later that was not true.”

I pictured Scorsese doing it, dressed not as a bee but in a tailored three-piece suit from his bespoke tailor on Saville Row, shoes from Lobb’s on St. James Street, shirt from Turnball & Asser on Jermyn Street, hat from Art Fawcett in Oregon. Not as a bee.

You were just named the No. 2 TV moneymaker behind Oprah, I observed. Are you amazed at your good fortune?

“I have a satellite dish in my house on Long Island, and you can see the names of all the shows go around. I see my name go by, and it doesn’t occur to me you don’t see ‘Alf,’ you don’t see ‘Molly Dodd,’ you don’t see ‘My Friend Flicka.’ Why is this still going on? Because usually a TV series will get a run on syndication for two or three years, and then the next thing comes along. I think reality television is the No. 1 reason I’m still around. People want a comedy, and I don’t have as much competition as I would normally have.”

You are No. 12 on Comedy Central’s list of the greatest standup comics of all time. You might not argue with Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce or George Carlin, but what about Roseanne Barr and Chris Rock? Are they funnier than you?

“You haven’t lost the sharp edge. I’ll tell you, yes, it was quite humiliating to not break into top 10, but I’m trying. I’m working on my craft and next time they rate me I can move up the charts a little bit. There are some people on the list that don’t have 40 minutes of material.”

And you?

“I have 40 minutes.”

That’s all I had, too, so it was time to thank Jerry and leave, but he had something on his mind.

“It’s hard to be a bee,” he said. “They have to work very hard. There’s a lot of danger. They’re not good fliers. Their weight related to the size of their wings doesn’t really work, according to studies they’ve done.”

The bees?

“No, the scientists, of course. It doesn’t make sense that they can fly. Their wings are too small for their body mass. That’s how the movie begins, about how according to aviation theory, bees should not be able to fly. So me, my bee, he gets insulted by the humans. He gets very riled up, and inspires the other bees to fight back against this image that they’re bad fliers.”

They seem pretty good when they’re chasing you, I said.

“Recently Cal Tech solved the puzzle of how bees do it. Their wings flap in a completely different pattern from every other bird and insect. It’s totally unique. They actually do a scooping motion, and move their wings at a faster rate.”

He smiled. “I’m very intrigued by these little fellows.”

Don’t worry about my cough, I said. I’m not dying.

“That’s great news.”

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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