You know George Costanza — the bald, neurotic best friend on the long-running NBC series “Seinfeld.” But you might not be as familiar with Jason Alexander, the award-winning actor behind that role. The 54-year-old New Jersey native has been making audiences laugh from Broadway to Hollywood for decades as an accomplished comic, singer, dancer and magician.
“An Evening With Jason Alexander and His Hair” is his 90-minute show that incorporates standup, song, audience interaction and improv. He brings it to the State Theatre on Monday to benefit the family of Carl Lee, the former director of marketing and theatrical programming at Hennepin Theatre Trust. Lee, a longtime sufferer of Hodgkin’s disease, died last November, leaving a wife and two daughters with a large medical debt.
Alexander spoke recently to Vita.mn about everything from silly to serious issues.
Q: First things first: Why does your hair merit double-billing?
A: That’s in the hair’s contract. I have no say on that. Yeah, the hair features prominently in the show. I never thought I was going to be a stand-up comic. It still scares the bejesus out of me, so I play another character when I come out on that stage and the hair helps me do it. My concern was, “I wonder if they expect me to be George?” And I thought, “There’s one way to get rid of that notion—to not look like George.” Once I started playing around with it, it actually became a great entry point into talking about all kinds of things that we have in common that are funny, like what we do to ourselves to try to look presentable while our bodies fall apart [laughs].
Q: Do you have any weather humor in your act? Minnesotans love to complain about the weather.
A: [Laughs] I have not typically had weather humor in my act, but I’m sure I can come up with something spontaneously. You have been setting records already this winter for weather! I’m actually going to Las Vegas, then Minnesota, and then the Dominican Republic. I don’t even know how to pack for this trip! I think I’m shipping everything to the Dominican Republic and just packing a bag of coats for Minnesota.
Q: You told Connecticut Magazine that you got into acting so you could hide from people. Explain how that’s possible when you’re performing in front of large audiences.
A: It works really well when you’re acting because you can assume yourself behind a character. You always have the excuse of saying, “It’s not me.” When you’re performing, as you, that is a lot harder to do—which is why I’ve avoided doing this kind of performing for as long as I could. That feeling of wanting to hide from people was a very young part of me; it had to do with my childhood and my personality when I was growing up. After 50-some-odd years of living and therapy, a lot of the reasons that I used to perform are not the same anymore. That notion of hiding and not wanting to be seen is pretty much gone.
Q: What makes you laugh offstage in your day-to-day life?
A: Almost everything and almost nothing. It’s been said that I’m not an easy laugh. I love smart comedy. Things that make me laugh range from a wonderful stand-up like Jerry Seinfeld, Louis C.K., and Chris Rock, to my son Gabe, who does great improv work. I also look backwards to the great comedic actors like Jackie Gleason, Paul Lynde, and Phil Silvers. In a way, all of that is my teacher. I never thought of myself, growing up, as a naturally funny person. As I started to embrace that kind of performing, I looked to all of those sources for inspiration and they all provided it. So I think my appreciation for comedy is wide.
Q: Your show at the State Theatre is a benefit for the family of Carl Lee. Tell me about your relationship to the Lee family and why you wanted to donate your time and talents to them.
A: Carl was married to a woman named Linda Talcott Lee—who we all call Tally—and Tally and I were in the original cast of Jerome Roberts’s “Broadway” in New York. We became very dear friends. Years later, I invited her to choreograph a comedy number (in “The Comedy Hall of Fame” production) that I wanted to do for television. She won an Emmy for it. Tally’s a teeny little thing, under five feet tall, and an incredibly strong, passionate, wonderful woman. She and her family have gone through a horrible medical crisis. Her husband, Carl, who was a lovely man, was chronically ill for most of his life and had a very long, and drawn-out end, which crippled them financially. The benefit is an attempt on my part to help the family out and raise some funds. It’s trying to undo a lot of damage that was done because we don’t quite have our health care system down and it can still break people.
Q: Do you have any big dreams for the future of your career or do you take it as it comes?
A: You sort of take it as it comes. There are always things that I’d love to do. As an actor, none of them are specific; all I’m looking for are things that are good quality, that are challenging for me to work on, and even better if I get to work with people that I respect and am excited to work with. I have no illusions about having another “Seinfeld” in my life. We’re lucky if we get one of those and it’s next to impossible to get more. The gratification is more personal than mass appeal—although you always want to do things that an audience is going to like. It has to turn me on. At this point, if I could make a shift in my career, I would do less performing and more directing. I’m not high on anybody’s list for that. [laughs.] If I could make the bulk of my career as a director, I would.