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Q+A: Jason Alexander talks hair, his new Strip show, ‘House of Cards’ and politics


Tom Donoghue/

Brad Garrett’s Maximum Hope Foundation Poker Tournament included Annie Duke, Jason Alexander (pictured here), Ray Romano, Larry and Camille Ruvo, Cheryl Hines and Jose Canseco at the Tropicana on Sept. 17, 2011.

Click to enlarge photo

Jason Alexander.

Jason Alexander's The Donny Clay Experience

Jason Alexander stars as Donny Clay in The Donny Clay Experience at Planet Hollywood on Feb. 10, 2010. Launch slideshow »

He’s certainly not complaining that when everybody hears the name Jason Alexander, they immediately associate the actor with his character of George Constanza from NBC’s long-running hit 1990s sitcom “Seinfeld.” But Jason doesn’t want that to define his life’s work onstage or onscreen, so he has a new show coming to the Strip for a limited run to at least prove that he’s capable of singing, dancing and comedy in his own right.

Jason begins a preliminary one-month run of three-night weekends as of April 11 in the main showroom at Harrah’s after the resident show “Million Dollar Quartet.” Referring to his last Las Vegas run (at Planet Hollywood) in a one-man show, “The Donny Clay Experience,” about a bad, brash, unsuccessful and mixed-up motivational speaker, he said, “This will not be him. This is me.

“I’ll do an interactive Q+A segment with the audiences about ‘Seinfeld’ because it’s expected. It’ll be their fix, but this will be the real Jason Alexander — part standup comedy, part improv and part singing. I certainly don’t mind poking a little fun at myself because the show is titled ‘An Evening With Jason Alexander and His Hair.’ ”

His producer, Las Vegas’ Seth Yudof, whose UD Factory company manages Louis Prima Jr., Blues Traveler and his own Sin City Comedy Theater at Planet Hollywood, explains: “The idea to bring Jason to Las Vegas for a residency actually came from my work with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital here. We wanted to bring him in to make an appearance at the annual fundraising gala, but he didn’t want the charity to have to cover travel expenses.

“So I went looking for an opportunity for him to do a show here, and Caesars Entertainment helped turn it into a short-term residency. We’re excited that it worked out that way, and, in addition to his scheduled Harrah’s shows, Jason will still be appearing at the St. Jude’s gala at the Smith Center on May 3.

“This new production showcases Jason’s abilities as a standup comedian with improv and also as a singer. You will get to know him and his humor in a much deeper way than when you’ve seen him as a television actor. Fans all over the world have been laughing in their living rooms with Jason for years. It’s very exciting to bring him to Las Vegas and give people the opportunity to laugh with him in person — and at his hair!”

I talked at length with Jason at his Los Angeles home:

Jason started, “The only person who I have to worry about in Las Vegas this time is me. We do a little about Las Vegas, but this is totally unlike the Donny Clay show, which had a theme to it and a format. This is really loosey goosey, it is really straight-up standup comedy about all kinds of things that we all bump into. It’s got a little bit of autobiographical stuff in it for comedy purpose.

“Out of the 90 or so minutes of the show, about 20 minutes of it is music, but it’s all funny stuff. Nothing is meant to be dramatic or important or sophisticated. One element that I keep from the old show because it was so much fun to do is play with people in the crowd. So the evening becomes improvisational and it becomes very specific to that audience, so everybody gets a little bit of a different experience.”

I don’t want to dwell on the hair, but let’s touch on it one second. We know it’s the George Constanza hang-up. It’s almost like a chicken and egg; you don’t want people to remember you as George Constanza, but at the same time you use this neurotic bald-headed character as part of your act. I’m trying to figure out why as an actor, as a comedian, you even make reference to it.

OK, so you have one quasi-right-but-not-correctly-stated premise of that! I have no problem with people thinking of me or remembering me as George Constanza. In fact, I think I would be a very foolish man that they might think otherwise. I don’t think I’ll ever brush him right out of people’s heads; the show was so iconic.

The hair began as a practical problem. My problem was not with people’s impressions; it was with my business, my industry’s impression. The actual reason for the hair was I lost a couple of roles because I had some very uninspired producer-directors who would not give me a role that they thought I was really good for because I reminded them too much of the George look. I thought, “Really? They can’t figure out that I can look differently if that was the only problem?”

So in order to make a strong impression, I went out and as a big, bold statement started wearing “the hair.” Funny things happened from it. One was that a lot of funny situations developed because I was suddenly wearing hair. I made no bones about the fact that I was wearing hair, so people had big reactions to it. The thing it does for me in the show, which I like, is because people don’t really know me as a standup, the preconception could be that I’m going to be funny the way George was funny. That is not the persona that I take onto the stage with me. I don’t do George Constanza onstage.

I wanted to dispel the notion that they would be seeing me do George immediately, hence the hair. I started dealing with that onstage; it became a great entry point to a whole bunch of stuff that I wanted to talk about and make fun of. So it just gives me a premise to begin the evening, and it dispels any notion of it’s not an evening with George Constanza, it’s an evening with Jason. The hair just seemed to be a great entry point into the show.

Just so I’ve got this right: What is the status of not “the hair” but your hair?

I’m as bald as a coot! If you watched the Super Bowl, you saw Jerry and I do a commercial for his web series. That’s me without the hair. I kind of look exactly the way I did when I left the show. If you see me walking around Las Vegas, you’ll probably see me without the hair. It’s really just like a little piece of makeup I put on to do the show.

I started losing my hair at 17. You can almost track it by watching television I’ve been in. By the end of the ’80s, I had a very receded front hairline and a very pronounced bald spot up top. By the end of the ’90s, I kind of looked then like I do now.

Brad Garrett's Poker Tournament at Tropicana

Brad Garrett's Maximum Hope Foundation Poker Tournament included Annie Duke, Jason Alexander, Ray Romano, Larry and Camille Ruvo, Cheryl Hines and Jose Canseco at the Tropicana on Sept. 17, 2011. Launch slideshow »
Click to enlarge photo

Brad Garrett's Maximum Hope Foundation Poker Tournament included Annie Duke, Jason Alexander (pictured here), Ray Romano, Larry and Camille Ruvo, Cheryl Hines and Jose Canseco at the Tropicana on Sept. 17, 2011.

Click to enlarge photo

Actor Jason Alexander during the first day of the World Series of Poker Main Event on Thursday, July 7, 2011, at the Rio.

Are you going to be able to take a break from the show to play some poker?

Why would I come to Las Vegas and not play poker? Absolutely! I have friends coming into town to see the show who are avid poker players, and we’re going to find ourselves sitting down in some room somewhere. I’d still be recognized if I went out with or without the rug, and most people think I’ve lost weight. That’s another unusual side effect.

Is Donny Clay dead forever?

I don’t know if he’s dead forever. You know the reason we backed off Donny was because he was a very expensive show to produce. When the corporate market kind of crashed and started spending a lot less money for their retreats and seminars, I couldn’t literally produce the show anymore because there were too many elements, and it was too expensive to do.

So my agent said how about doing comedies yourself? I said, “No, no, no, I can’t do that. That’s too scary.” I didn’t come into this world to be a standup comic. To me it’s the most frightening kind of performing, so I was very resistant. But over two years, we started building this thing, and it’s actually been a ton of fun to do.

I certainly do not rank myself among the world of those brave souls who get into small comedy clubs and face the music. It’s been a joy to do. Donny may not be dead. I would love to bring Donny back, but it would have to probably be under a different circumstance. I think there could be a television show on Donny, but I don’t know if I’ll bring him back to the stage.

I can’t believe that it’s been 15 years since “Seinfeld” ended.

How about that! It’s hard to believe only because it is still on. In fact, it’s omnipresent. If I were to casually run through the 500 channels on my television set, I’m going to bump into it almost every time. Wherever I travel in the world, it is still up and running and still holds people’s attention. It feels like the focus and excitement about the show has not waned, so the time span doesn’t seem so broad to me.

Jerry and you have said that it was a show about nothing. How do you fathom success for 15 years of nothing?

Jerry and Larry David really say it’s a show about nothing because they felt like there was never a defining plot. I think they couldn’t be more wrong. I think it was a show about so many things in every episode that it was overwhelming. The reason I think people think it was a show about nothing is because we would do so many things in the show that were tangential to the main stories. As the show developed, every episode had a singular story for all four of the characters that somehow would brilliantly dovetail. That’s awfully precise construction for a half-hour show.

To me, the show was always about the little, tiny annoyances in daily life for most people that we just don’t tend to see the funny side of. Jerry’s job as a comedian is to poke fun at exactly those situations. The premise of the show is how does a comic find his material, and that extract laid it out into all these crazy life situations and relationships and the odd people that we came across. To me, it was never a show about nothing, which is why I think it has such universal appeal. I go to places where I cannot believe anybody is watching this show.

I do a fair amount of work in the Middle East, and I’ve walked into Ramallah, Palestine, as an American Jew thinking keep your head down and nobody is going to know you’re here. And they love the show. For the life of me, why would they love a show about nothing? It has to be hitting the funny bone, it has to be touching other things. Even they in an environment and lifestyle that are so alien to what we are doing on the show, it has connections for them. I can’t imagine that is a show that has no content for them.

It’s amazing that it made and is still making television history. I want to ask you an oddball question, but there’s a reason behind asking it. Have you watched “House of Cards”?

I’m about halfway through the first season, but, yes, I do know the show.

The reason I ask the question is twofold. One is because are we leaving the glory age of television? Do we think that there will be no more television in five to 10 years? Is television as we’ve known it finished, and will it become what “House of Cards” represents with streaming online and showing all 14 episodes at once on the Internet?

I do think that the technology of television, the way you and I were brought up on it, is quickly fading. I know that my kids, who are 22 and 18, occasionally we will gather to do family viewing around the television set, but more and more, left to their own devices, they watch what we think of as television on devices. On computers, on iPads. I think that is going to become more and more of the norm.

The model that changes is how do advertisers become a part of the process? What is the value of? Do we need these set times? You know, we’ve got one-hour shows and half-hour shows. Do we need to be that rigid? Do we need to have a network that has a branding to it? Do we need to have time tables where we say here’s where we put our show on and you will watch it at this time? Do we need to have episodic stories that are on a timer, or can we do something more like “House of Cards”?

All of these questions I think are very much on the minds of everyone working in television. I do think that the days of gathering around a television set that functions merely as a television set, to receive a live broadcast of some networked programming, those days are probably numbered.

Jason Alexander at Brad Garrett's Comedy Club

Jason Alexander makes a surprise appearance at Brad Garrett's Comedy Club in MGM Grand on Tuesday, July 10, 2012. Launch slideshow »
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The 2011 NBC Heads-Up party with Jason Alexander, a guest and Robin Leach.

So we probably won’t have an Ed Sullivan at 8 p.m. on a Sunday coast-to-coast ever again.

I feel like those will be the exceptions. Certainly to me, and I’m assuming to you, as well, there is a loss to that because part of the joy of being part of “Seinfeld” was that so many people were watching it at the same time. It created an energy, it created a bit of a phenomenon, and it was a shared experience for everyone. People would go to work the next day, and they would talk about the experience they all had the night before.

With “House of Cards,” you may watch it a year from now. I’m watching it now, you’re watching Episode 4, and I’m watching Episode 8. We’re at different places in the storytelling, and it’s very hard to have that communal experience. On that level, I think these changes are a real loss. That is the thing I talk about all the time in this wonderful age of communication. I think we are communicating with each other far less than we did before this supposed age was upon us.

I’m the first to agree with you that Twitter and Facebook and social media that hook you are actually destroying the art of conversation and the ability of writing to communicate.

Totally agree! I would add that all this interactivity, all this social networking, is also destroying out ability to also just listen to each other. When CNN does a story and then says tweet us what you think — why? Why does it matter what I think? Why should my thoughts be broadcast on a national news program? It’s enough for me to just sit and listen and learn. I think we’re losing that ability to just sit and listen and learn from each other without having to respond all the time and add our own opinion and experience to it all.

The most frightening thing recently was the announcement that Headline News would shift over to become a Twitter-like social media network. Half-hour shows devoted to different social media sites. Scary!

We both know CNN is a business, and it’s a business that has been struggling. They’re not a news organization per se anymore. They’re a television-show business, and they’re trying to find a successful business model. It may be successful for them, but it could have a negative result for the rest of us, and that’s a shame. I don’t know how that is going to change as we move forward. Where are reliable journalism and reliable investigative voices going to come from? I love the days of old — the Walter Cronkites, the Dan Rathers.

As you get older, you become less revolutionary.

I know, I know. It’s not that I’m frightened of the change, and I would do nothing to try and stop it, but I wish that there were some voices as technology and engineering changes who had some regard for what came before and saw that it had a little more value.

Well that leads to the second reason why I asked you about “House of Cards” where we watch politics at its most evil and worst. We revel and relish in it. You talked about the way the world is going in terms of social media. You ever feel that you should be doing standup on a different stage called Washington, D.C.?

I have become quite political in the past 15 years. First it was teaching. Now, though, I’ve tried to understand what happened politically and become more engaged and have a voice in it more and more. I’ve been encouraged certainly to consider a more political career. It’s very flattering to be asked. I think that I have very few personal gifts to bring to real politics. What I’ve been convinced to do as of late, and I think it’s important, is to become a real advocate for change in areas that you’re passionate about from outside the process.

I have friends who are inside the Beltway, and they’re good people and have great intentions and are doing very good work in a very difficult atmosphere. Their hands are kind of tied by the philosophies that they’re stuck in, so I hear all the time from people inside the system, “Please be active from the outside.” When you say to politicians, “make a change,” their answer is when are you going to make me?

That I think is the great role that we can play and I’m playing as best I can right now — that’s to become very educated about things that really affect a lot of our lives and become active in the process of trying to change things for the better. The biggest one that I’m working on at the moment and trying to get educated on is the real need to reform our campaign financing because the process as is has become so destructive that no matter what your political stance is and no matter what your agenda is or your issues are, we no longer live in a country where everyone’s voice is equal.

That is the absolute bedrock of our constitution, and we have thrown it away. Until we get the money out of our election process and our political process, which is doable but very hard, we will never be able to turn this downward spiral around.

I hope at some point that you can bring your wisdom, your courage, your humor and your candor to that process.

Well thank you, sir. I appreciate that!

* * *

“An Evening With Jason Alexander and His Hair” opens at Harrah’s for a four-week run starting April 11, and his team is hoping that the mix of humor, music and conversation will be extended longer so that we all get to know more of the real Jason Alexander. “I want to change the expectations of the audience,” he concluded.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

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