Cover Story

Much Ado About Nothing

''Seinfeld'' wins a following -- An inside look at the suddenly hot NBC sitcom, starring Jerry Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Michael Richards

Here is Jerry Seinfeld, popular stand-up comedian and breakfast cereal enthusiast, at lunch in a New York City cafe a few months ago, expounding on why he doesn't like bananas in his Cheerios: ''Too much aggravation! You know, 'Should I have a banana in this spoonful, should I have it in the next one? Or maybe that would be too much, maybe I'll spoil myself and I won't have enough by the time I get to the end.' I don't need that aggravation. I've got enough problems without that.''

Here is Jerry Seinfeld, popular NBC sitcom star who plays a stand-up comedian, unloading his groceries on a recent episode of Seinfeld and commenting to his friend George on the blackened fruit lying in a bowl on his kitchen counter: ''Look at this! Why do I get bananas? They're good for one day!''

On Seinfeld, sitcom art has always imitated life. And life for Jerry is often just a bowl of bananas — though that same episode also invoked Junior Mints, rubber gloves, Home Alone, fake-wood wallpaper, art investment, weight loss, the panic of not knowing a woman's name even after two dates, and a spleenectomy. The long-running joke this season is that Seinfeld is about ''nothing,'' i.e., the little adjustments of daily urban life that no network in its right mind would turn into a sitcom. But a spleenectomy? How much more something can a half hour get?

In fact, with word of mouth accomplishing what all the top bananas in network PR never could, Seinfeld has become a major Something. Its passionate fans — TV-literate, demographically desirable, breakfast-cereal-fancying urbanites, for the most part — look forward to each weekly episode in the Life of Jerry with a boomer generation's self-involved eagerness not seen since thirtysomething. These fans then deconstruct each story with friends and coworkers, incorporating bits of dialogue into their own lives. These days the show has become the cool club to join, with a secret password that changes every week: Mulva! Bubble Boy! Snapple! Miss an episode at your social peril.

Seinfeld himself, 38, has always been fascinated by the mundane. ''The vast unexplored territory a quarter inch back from your forehead is what interests me,'' he says. But something out of the ordinary has happened lately: On Feb. 4, when NBC shifted his show from Wednesdays at 9 p.m. (where it passive-aggressively battled ABC's ratings blockbuster Home Improvement for the same demographic audience) to Thursdays at 9:30 p.m., following Cheers, the small, vociferously devoted audience that has followed Seinfeld's exploration of the mundane through six different changes in four years suddenly burgeoned into a large, vociferously devoted horde. The show immediately jumped from 40th place to 10th; a month later, ratings for its March 4 episode surpassed that of a new episode of Cheers, the first such upset since Taxi bested Cheers back in 1982. And Seinfeld repeated the feat in subsequent weeks, to NBC's amazement.

Jerry and his pals — best friend George (Jason Alexander), ex-girlfriend Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), neighbor Kramer (Michael Richards) — now also appear in a line of greeting cards and card shop collectibles. There has been talk of the quartet appearing on a Kellogg's cereal box this fall. On May 14, Seinfeld, who is also American Express' TV pitchman, begins an 18-city comedy tour, which is already sold out in most cities. Richards appears (looking like a chaotically lathered Abe Lincoln) in a print ad for Gap; Alexander is slated to be the host of NBC's Saturday Night Live on April 10. Alexander and Louis-Dreyfus will play husband and wife in Rob Reiner's next movie, North. Richards and Alexander will appear in Steve Barron's Coneheads movie, due in July.

''I'm blown away!'' says Louis-Dreyfus of the sudden when-you're-hot-you're-hot attention. She has so far turned down all individual endorsement offers that have come her way but is cautiously becoming comfortable with the group's popularity — and attendant commercial desirability. ''Well,'' she rationalizes, ''it's not like the Seinfeld cast is selling nuclear weapons.''

But the business types who have kept Seinfeld afloat financially are less low-key. ''We're all giddy!'' hallos Glenn Padnick, a partner at Castle Rock Entertainment, which produces the show. ''The company has been energized. Did I ever think Seinfeld was in danger of being pulled? A million times. Until two weeks ago!''

Here is Seinfeld on performing stand-up comedy: ''I think the reason people come to see my show is just really because they want to go out. Then tomorrow when people say, 'Where were you?' they can say, 'Well, I was out.' I think all of life is going out and going back. You get to your job, you want to get home, you get to your home, you want to go out. When you're out you say, 'I gotta get back.' Wherever you are in life, you gotta get the hell out of there.''

And here is Alexander as George Costanza on why he wants to watch a video of Home Alone at Jerry's empty apartment: ''If I watch it at my apartment, I feel like I'm not doing anything. If I watch it here I'm out of the house, I'm doing something.''

The philosophy of Seinfeld, as articulated by its star and its anhedonic executive producer and cocreator, Larry David, is, ''No hugging. No learning.'' Which means Seinfeld and his TV pals are not about to learn or teach any important life lessons, and there will not be any Very Special Episodes. After 68 installments, neither Jerry, George, Elaine, nor Kramer has yet figured out how to sustain a successful romantic relationship (although Jerry's dates this season did include a virgin, a model, and a reporter). George still can't hold down a job (although he and Jerry did get the go-ahead to make a sitcom pilot for NBC, which is the basis of Seinfeld's hour-long season finale on May 20). Kramer still hasn't got the hang of taming his hair, which has sprung up higher — boinnnng — each season (although he did get a gig as a print-ad model for Calvin Klein underwear). And Elaine (the only one with a 9-to-5 job; she works as a reader in a publishing company) is still hanging out with these losers. ''My advice to her,'' says Louis-Dreyfus, ''is this: Get away from these guys as quickly as you can!''

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