PHILADELPHIA -- Jerry Seinfeld strides to the front of the Ritz Five art-plex in Philadelphia's Old Town with the eyes-wide-open awareness and relaxed confidence that became his trademarks as a stand-up comic and sitcom creator.
In a casual version of his performing uniform - dark jacket, designer jeans, sports shirt, no tie - he jokes about the Mets vs. the Phillies and puts over an antique regional gag about the manner in which rain pours off the statue of William Penn atop City Hall.
Seinfeld's an ace at playing to an audience without playing down to it. He likes good humor of any kind, high or low. It's the cheap and easy laugh that he detests.
Here to preview sections from his feature cartoon Bee Movie (opening Friday), he spritzes about how funny and fascinating bees can be on the Discovery Channel. He was enchanted when he found out that bees really were busy: "They're making honey for everyone." But when a would-be funnyman in the theater asks whether he thought of casting "Bea Arthur" in Bee Movie, Seinfeld rolls his eyes, dismissively welcoming "our first bee pun" in the same tenor he used to greet the hated Newman.
And as you watch him hold the entertainment press in the cool palm of his hand, you think: This may be the smartest man in American comedy.
Barry Levinson, who directed him a quarter-century ago for an HBO fake-news show called The Investigators, says what sets Seinfeld apart from most comics is his ability to work "in a more conceptual way." And he finds concepts that reap gale-force hilarity, whether making a series about how a stand-up comic spends his time doing "nothing," or TV commercials about Superman as a regular guy, or an animated feature about a bee who turns litigious toward humans.
"I've always had a Gulliver fixation, and I wanted to bring it to this movie," Seinfeld says later, cutting an incongruous figure in a suite at Philadelphia's Four Seasons. With the sun breaking through the rain clouds in the picture window behind him, he's a dark-clad, genuine Manhattan character backlit by a glittering view of august gardens.
Incongruities of size and scale are part of what drew him to Bee Movie. "There are scenes in this movie where Barry [the bee hero] relates to these giant human objects," he tells me, warming to his subject. "He uses a Chapstick cap as a helmet.
"I love giant things, and I love tiny things. It's just the middle size that I find useless."
But where the tiny and the gigantic meet is where Seinfeld's comedy ignites, whether in the New York City of Seinfeld or the New Hive City and Manhattan of Bee Movie. "It is funny," he says, "when Barry gets very confident around these beings who are a hundred times his size."
For three decades, Seinfeld has taken the work ethic, the respect for comedy and the observational humor of inspirations such as Bill Cosby and Robert Klein, and made their legacy his own. His unique oral rhythms turned statements into modest dares or questions as he summoned surprising insights from small targets and mundane events.
And that's what he still does. At the theater, fielding the obvious question of whether becoming a happily married father compelled him to make a cartoon, he mock-bellows "No!" He confesses to operating like a small-time Mob boss to keep his three kids in line: "You like that stuffed Curious George; wouldn't it be sad if something happened to him?"
Seinfeld has also been operating the past four years as star, producer and co-writer of Bee Movie. (Simon J. Smith and Steve Hickner direct.) Seinfeld was key to shaping the story, setting the tone of the humor and unifying the far-out imagery. He even acted in the recording studio with all his vocal-performer co-stars.
Hickner compares the star's omnipresence in this film to a passage from Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle: " 'If you want to see what's inside a Grand Falloon, just peel off the skin of a toy balloon.' That's Bee Movie without Jerry for me. He is that cohesive thing. In every way he holds it together."
In the film, Barry B. Benson (Seinfeld), a courageous bee, smashes his culture's taboos when he befriends a florist named Vanessa (Renee Zellweger). He then upends apian-human relations by suing the human race for control of honey.
Levinson, who plays Barry B. Benson's father, says Seinfeld "does seem to have a personality that allows him to enjoy" the nuts-and-bolts of comedy, from the right-sounding word to the emotional pitch and timing of each joke.
Jerry's real father was Kal Seinfeld, founder of the Signfeld Sign Co., who moved his family from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Massapequa, on Long Island, when Jerry was still in grade school. As a suburban kid, Seinfeld was always dying to leap into Manhattan. The feeling he developed for small interactions in metropolitan life made him the comic laureate of New York City during its '90s revival.
Seinfeld wanted "an urban vibe" to Bee Movie, and to make the human world feel inhospitable to Barry.
"This place is so inorganic, and everything the bees do is so organic - all their buildings are so rounded," he says. "They all look a bit Guggenheim Bilbao [in Spain], very Frank Gehry."
Seinfeld trusts that the movie's mix of unpretentious, unexpected references with the humor of alienation and a healthy dose of eccentricity will let Seinfeld mavens feel comfortable.
"I wanted any fan of the show to walk into this and feel that they were at home," he says. "With Bee Movie, you're getting the same drink in a different-shaped glass."