Scales hall roomates say the television star is exactly the Jerry they remember.
Actually they're attempting to talk, but sentence after sentence disintegrates into giggles or escalates into wild hoots of laughter. Soon it no longer feels like a sitcom. Jerry Seinfeld is living this scene, not acting it. He's not in his professional mode, wryly observing life in the '90s. He's personally recalling his Oswego life in the '70s, and it seems to amuse him enormously.
They pick up where they left off 1974, when Jerry Seinfeld withdrew from Oswego after his sophomore year. Seinfeld mentions a lottery ticket that brought the two together as roomates.
"Remember I had that great room in Scales, and I asked
Seinfeld shakes his head and pinches his lips together, perfectly deadpan. "That's not the way I remember it," he insists. "I believe I had that lottery ticket."
Jerry Seinfeld is teasing Larry Watson and loving it. He knows that it was Watson's ticket that brought them together.
It was 1973, and outspoken, out-going Larry Watson was a big man on campus at Oswego -- and a larger-than-life figure in Scales Hall, where he worked at the front desk and often served as unofficial social director.
Scales Hall was turning coed that fall. Half of its male population would be displaced to other dorms, based on the outcome of a spring lottery. Most residents preferred to remain lakeside in Scales, which was a high-spirited, close-knit community where residents were routinely "paprika'd with friendly insults," according to another Scales Hall veteran, Gary Hoppe '74.
In the lottery, Larry Watson drew a very desirable number. He laid claim to first-class quarters in Room 300 of Scales Hall and asked an old friend to be his roommate. It was all settled, until the roommate left school with medical problems.
Watson, on the lookout for a replacement, noticed an intriguing sophomore named Jerry Seinfeld,whose own lottery number placed him squarely on the "to go" list.
"I remember watching Jerry Seinfeld in the Scales Hall lounge, which was a very communal area," Watson remembers. "He was always holding court there, and I was kind of holding a court of my own. We found each other amusing, so we'd stop and laugh and talk."
Out of their mutual amusement, a friendship grew. Before long, Larry Watson asked Jerry Seinfeld to be his roommate for the 1973-74 academic year.
"Larry was the star," Seinfeld remembers. "He used to walk down that walk to the dining hall, and people trailed behind. He was very funny. I just naturally gravitated toward him. My whole life, I've gravitated toward funny people." A number of students of color lived in Scales Hall that year, Watson remembers."We were a close-knit family, and Jerry became a part of it."
Race was never an issue between Seinfeld and Watson. "Even though I was from a white neighborhood on Long Island," Seinfeld explains,"prejudice was something that was always alien to me."
"Jerry was just Jerry," Watson says. "He was a very open, non-judgmental person in general. He made people laugh. The African American students at Oswego really found him funny. And Jerry enjoyed our colloquial expressions, like referring to the wind as 'the hawk.' I remember Jerry and I kidding each other and saying, 'The hawk is really kicking butt today."
Carmel Reese Harris '76 remembers both Watson and Seinfeld -- and how close and natural their friendship seemed.
"Jerry and Larry were always chumming around together," she says. "I just assumed that Jerry had grown up around a lot of minorities. He didn't seem out of his norm with us. He didn't try to cross over. He was just real outgoing and friendly.
Harris remembers taking Seinfeld under her wing and teaching him to dance: the bump, the hustle and the shuffle.
"If Jerry was going to come to our parties, we told him he couldn't be a lame," chuckles Watson. "When he learned a new dance, we'd get so excited that we'd take him down to the lounge to show him off. Especially if he got the rhythm."
"We'd call people in just to see him dance," Harris remembers. "I couldn't believe it when Jerry ended up with his own T.V. show. I've watched him on late night talk shows, and he's just as silly as he always was. I'd love to get to see him now -- I'd make him dance for me again."
Jerry Seinfeld wasn't dancing -- or holding court -- when he arrived at Oswego as a freshman. It was the winter of 1972, and Seinfeld had graduated a semester early from high school in Massapequa. ("It means 'by the mall' in Indian," he'd tell audiences years later, when his confidence and comedic sense were more developed.)
"When Jerry first walked through the door at Oswego, he was kind of a quiet guy," reports Seinfeld's original Scales Hall roomate, Tom Daly '76. "I believe he was just 17. He was very trim and very clean. He read and he went to the library. He wasn't famous for being funny. He was just one of the guys. For a while, he seemed to be soaking it all in."
"But Jerry fit right in," Daly adds."By his second year, he was telling a few impromptu jokes in the union. I remember doing our laundry together in the dorm basement. Jerry could be very funny then. He'd joke about the socks dancing in the dryer, then dis-appearing before you could get them out. Later, I saw Jerry do a laundry routine like that on his HBO special. It reminded me a lot of Oswego."
When Daly thinks of Jerry Seinfeld at Oswego, he remembers him hanging out in their Scales Hall room, surrounded by friends. "There used to be people in the room all the time," Daly says, "sitting on the carpet with their backs against the wall, just hanging out and talking and telling stories."
Everyone agrees that the laughter was steady-- and the camaraderie was strong -- in those Scales Hall days. Jerry Seinfeld was starting to take courses in the speech and theater department (the fore-runner of the communications department). He says he was starting to do "a little acting." He was gaining confidence, but he was also growing restless. "Oswego was very safe and very cushioned," he remembers. "Embers of the sixties were still glowing. Everyone was still sensitive to being an idealist. Maybe I felt Oswego was just too idyllic for me.
"I was lost," Seinfeld concludes."I think I sensed that what I needed was not there at Oswego. I began to think that New York City would offer more provocation."
One Oswego professor whom Seinfeld found very provocative was Art Gittlen, who taught African American literature. "He was a guy Larry Watson and I were both fascinated with," Seinfeld remembers.
"Art Gittlen spoke his mind very directly," Watson explains. "He challenged our liberal rhetoric. He especially challenged the basic assumptions of students like Jerry, who were accustomed to fairly safe and privileged lives. He toppled them and told them to get out of their cocoons. He told them to stop living out their parents' dreams."
Gittlen, who left Oswego as well as teaching in 1980, doesn't specifically remember urging Seinfeld to leave Oswego. "But the tone of that advice would sound like me," he says."I believe that people have to do what's best for them.
"I can still remember Jerry talking ro me after class," Gittlen says. "He was a bright very enthusiastic, a big ready smile much the same character you see on TV. He seems to be playing himself."
After four semesters in the winter of 1974 Jerry Seinfeld left Oswego and headed to Colorado and California, in search of himself. "Such sojourns were very common at that time," explains Larry Watson, who remained at Oswego to graduate. "Jerry was impatient and trying to find his own path. He didn't know yet if it would be comedy or acting. But by this time, he saw himself in enrertaimnent, in the public eye." When Seinfeld returned to New York, he enrolled at Queens College and, according to Watson, "became more and more focused on what he wanted to do: standup comedy."
Once Seinfeld established his goal, Watson never doubted that he would achieve it. "At Oswego, Jerry's academic path and mine never crossed," Watson says. "But I know that he was very bright, very disciplined and very self-directed."
After Oswego, Seinfeld's and Watson's lives forked dramatically. Watson taught for a year at Auburn prison, earned a master's degree at Cornell, then worked as a dean at Cornell and Harvard. About five years ago, he resurrected a life-long dream and became a musical vocalist in Boston. He's currently in great demand as a gospel singer and a supper club entertainer. He's also an associate professor at Berklee College of Music and an educational consultant who specializes in multicultural issues.
Jerry Seinfeld, meanwhile, never detoured from his path to the peak of standup comedy.
"In the early days, Jerry and I would go together to the comedy clubs when I visited New York,"Watson says. "It was an ordeal. We'd wait all night for Jerry to go on. I really admired him for keeping his edge until he got up there."I always told Jerry that I found him to be a funny person --in person," Watson adds. "But his comedy routines didn't especially crack me up. That just has to do with my own sense of humor, which is off center to the left. Jerry's humor is very middle-American, very mainstream. Jerry finds his humor and irony in the everydayness of things. It's very intellectual. It was perfect for an unfolding yuppie audience."
During the years that Jerry Seinfeld was en route to his sitcom, Seinfeld, the former roomates talked about once a year. "When Jerry was really on the move, we sometimes lost touch," Watson admits. "But I understand how single-minded a person in his position has to be. And I could always tell by the tone of his letters and the tone of his voice that he was interested in what I was doing. He especially seemed to respect my commitment to civil rights."
During their reunion this summer in Studio City, Watson still found "Jerry to be very grounded and very genuine."
"He was very attentive as we talked about the quality of my life,"Watson says. "I could see that, while he's made his mark, Jerry realizes that the really important things in life have little to do with ratings and money. It was great to see him. He fell into his old posture, and I fell into mine. Before I knew it, we were right back in our old roles."
"In the midst of all the racial polarization we see today, it was very refreshing for me to travel back in time and revisit my relationship with Jerry," Watson adds. "The early 1970s were also very racially polarized years. But Jerry and I were able to transcend racial, cultural and even political differences and enjoy each other strictly as individuals. We just naturally found our common ground."
It's been more than 20 years since Jerry Seinfeld left the "idyllic" Oswego campus for the in-your-face world of standup comedy. They're entirely different universes,but if you listen closely to the Seinfeld show, you hear distinct echoes of Jerry Seinfeld's Oswego experience -- in the lighthearted camaraderie,the central focus on friendship, the offbeat pairings and the ever-present undercurrent of humor.
As Seinfeld's first Oswego roommate Tom Daly '76 observes, watching Jerry Seinfeld in Scales Hall -- and then watching him today on the Seinfeld show -- is "like watching home movies. He seems so familiar. It's as if he isn't a minute different."
--Denise Owen Harrigan