Like the awkward little insects it’s based on, Bee Movie managed to get off the ground against the odds.
SEATTLE–Jerry Seinfeld is a loud talker. It may be a natural condition or it could have come out of a need to drown out hecklers during the early days of his standup career. Perhaps it led to discrimination against "close talkers" like the character Judge Reinhold played in a Seinfeld episode entitled "The Raincoats", or "low talkers" like Kramer's girlfriend in the "Puffy Shirt" episode. Not that there's anything wrong with that. The good news is that he has a lot to say.
Not surprisingly, he would prefer to talk about Bee Movie , which opens in Vancouver on Friday (November 2). He came up with the idea of an animated film about a bee, pitched it to DreamWorks SKG's Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, and spent the past four years getting it made. He says, in the interview room of a Seattle hotel, that his success as a TV sitcom star might have encouraged some people to hope that Bee Movie is a colossal failure. And he admits that although he is well-connected, it is never easy to cross over into new mediums.
"When a movie flops, it makes a big splash," he says, "and I have to acknowledge that I am a guy who has been very fortunate over the years. I have had very nice things happen, and I know how human nature works, and I know that it wouldn't be a bad thing for a lot of people to watch me go down head-first into the mud. Someone asked me a question earlier [in a 10-city tour]. They said, 'Wouldn't you like to have a big, juicy flop and get it out of the way?' That made me laugh, because it makes sense. And it hasn't been easy getting this made. I did have a lot of difficulty at certain points. But I had so many great people around me who could help me. I am friendly with Sacha Baron Cohen and Garry Shandling and Larry David, not to mention Steven Spielberg. So when I felt I might be in trouble and was thinking, 'I can't fix this,' I could call on these people, although they can't necessarily fix it either. They are not as good as those names sound when you say them on a list. But they can tell you what to focus your energy on."
Seinfeld voices the character of Barry B. Benson, a bee who is given the opportunity to see the world outside his hive and takes full advantage of it. After getting separated from his fellow bees, he ends up befriending a florist (Renée Zellweger) and breaks his oath to never talk to humans. Seinfeld says he didn't know a lot about bees when he pitched his idea to Spielberg and Katzenberg but he felt that the story line made sense.
"I like the documentaries on the Discovery Channel," he says. "I love the shows where they take one species and they give you its whole life story. 'Here is what he does, and here is who is trying to eat him, and here is who he is trying to eat.' So thanks to those shows, I know a little about bees. One thing that became a story element is that human beings cannot explain why bees can fly. According to our principles of aviation and physics, it's impossible because the body is too heavy and the wings are too small.
"I also thought that it would be interesting if we could take our own feelings about bees and make it part of the story. So in the film we say that bees grow up being taught that humans will kill you if you give them a chance. They tell the young bees, 'We don't want them to know we talk because then they will be more interested in you, and we don't want that. If you get caught out there in the human world, you are a goner.' That is about to happen to him when a human saves his life. He is infatuated with her because he didn't know they would be like that. So they have these preconceptions about the human race and this woman comes along and shatters them, and that is why he has to talk to her. That changes his world and hers. It is like the racist and the black guy in the movies of the 1950s and 1960s. You have these two groups who don't believe they can deal with each other."
Seinfeld has been able to focus his attention on Bee Movie for four years because of the money he has earned from Seinfeld residuals. (The last original episodes of the show aired in 1998.) According to Forbes magazine, he was the second-highest money earner in show biz between June of 2006 and June of 2007. Forbes says he made more than $60 million, with only Oprah Winfrey ahead of him on the list. Seinfeld says he was fortunate to have had success once and has no interest in trying to beat the odds a second time.
"A successful sitcom is based on a concentration of talent," he says. "My show was based on these four actors and these 10 writers–and to get them together, that is the trick of it. Lightning still has to strike, but it is a concentration of talent and someone who knows how to wrangle it and hold it together. I don't know how you do that. I mean, I did it one time, but I am certain that if I tried to do it again I would fail."
That doesn't mean that he has given up on television comedy. As part of the promotion for Bee Movie , Seinfeld took on a guest role as himself on the NBC series 30 Rock and says that he was surprised at how much fun TV comedy can be. "When I go on a show like 30 Rock , I am as comfortable as a water lily on a Chinese lagoon. I am there for a few hours and I can say, 'See you all later,' and I know where they are going. They are going off to 'fix this goddamn thing that is not working' because that is what you do. And there are an endless number of things that don't work, because being a TV comic is like being an Italian car mechanic. You just work on Fiats and Alfa Romeos and there is nothing but problems."
Seinfeld has been one of the great successes in television history despite coming close to being cancelled in its first two years. (It didn't make it into the top 20 shows in the Nielsen ratings until its fourth season.) Perhaps its past and continued success has to do with the fact that it is not stuck in a time or place but is, instead, "a show about nothing". Seinfeld admits that although there were a lot of comedies that were more popular in the first few seasons his show was on the air (including such long-forgotten series as Major Dad , A Different World , Designing Women , and Coach ), his program has been able to pass the most important test for any artistic endeavour with ambitions of becoming a lasting part of pop culture.
"The only test in the world that really counts is the test of time," he says. "Is it any good 10 years later? The fact that the show is so popular now means a lot to me. It's more important than whatever the critics said or whatever the ratings were. All that is meaningless. The fact that now people look back and say, 'That show was funny,' and they are still watching our show but aren't watching shows that were also popular during that period is what counts to me."
Link: Bee Movie