Jason Alexander IS Donny Clay, “America’s 4th Leading Motivational Speaker,” when he visits the Count Basie Theatre on Thursday night.
By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit July 27, 2009)
“I have to tell you, Donny Clay has literally changed my life — that’s why I usually travel with him wherever he appears.”
Apart from some immediate physical differences — Donny Clay boasts a luxurious head of hair, for one — you could say that the Tony winning, Emmy nominated actor-writer-director Alexander shares a few things in common with Clay. Or that Clay bears more than a passing resemblance to Bob Patterson, the clueless self-help expert portrayed by Alexander in the 2001 TV series of the same name.
What truly sets Clay and Alexander apart is the household-name factor. The Jersey-bred actor, of course, is known to billions and visible in perpetuity as George Costanza on Seinfeld — a credit that would surely be enough to keep him in residual checks and promotional appearances if it weren’t for his restless creative spirit. Since that signature sitcom ended production, he’s starred in major stage productions (and a couple of short-lived series), voiced cartoons, directed country music videos, authored a children’s book, performed stage illusions, competed in professional poker events and served as artistic director for LA’s Reprise Theater.
Unless you’re one of the “titans of industry, Hollywood celebrities and leaders from around the world” who’ve become devoted followers of his message, however, you might not know the name Donny Clay — but you will. The author of the spurious bestsellers Do It, Keep Doing It, and Why the Hell Didn’t You Do It? (and founder of the Feats of Clay Institute) has crisscrossed the continent, taking his motivational message to corporate and organizational seminar audiences — and this Thursday, July 30, he’ll be coming to the Count Basie Theatre in a rare show for the general public.
A Donny Clay seminar is an interactive experience that goes Tony Robbins, Deepak Chopra and Dr. Phil one better, by employing “comedy, music, self-help and partial nudity” in the service of an inspirational message that’s designed to help you “overcome your greatest fears and the obstacles that keep you from total success.”
It’s also designed to make audiences laugh, with a multi-faceted attack that draws upon a lifetime in show business. Red Bank oRBit wasn’t able to flag down the busy Donny Clay for an exclusive interview, but we did get to talk with Jason Alexander — so Continue Reading to find out what would have happened to George and Kramer in the age of the life coach.
RED BANK ORBIT: Thanks for calling, Jason! Or am I speaking to Donny Clay?
JASON ALEXANDER: No, no, you’ve got Jason Alexander this time!
Great, since Donny’s out of earshot, I wanted to bring up — how do I phrase this — well, have you noticed a certain resemblance between Donny and BOB PATTERSON, the self-help character you played in your TV series from several years ago?
You remember Bob Patterson? Well, God bless you. Actually, Peter Tilden, who’s the co-creator of Donny, was the creator of Bob Patterson. He and I always thought there was a good show in there; unfortunately we premiered right after 9-11 and there was just no chance of getting the audience to tune into a new comedy at that time. What was most interesting about the experience was that ABC asked if we could do a little three-to-five minute seminar, as Bob, for some of the affiliates. And that, for me, was as much fun — being Bob in his own milieu — as doing the show.
Obviously, these characters — the self help gurus, life coaches and motivational guys — hold a special fascination with you. What is it about them that you think continues to fascinate the rest of America? Why do we keep falling for the pitch?
When I was doing research for this show, I found that nine out of ten of these speakers have at least one good thing to say. So there is something useful to take away from it.
The problem is not the content, it’s the presentation, the showbiz of it all. In every diet book, there’s about four pages worth of a good diet in there — but since you can’t sell a four-page book, you have to schmaltz it up with other crap.
Knowing what you do about the business, do you think that in an alternate universe you could have been an effective motivational speaker for real?
I don’t know about a motivational speaker — I would have enjoyed being a teacher; I think I would have motivated people that way. But as far as the top speakers, it seems they all have some great personal story of their own, some triumph of human potential — like the mountain climber who got his hand stuck in a crevice and had to chop it off to save himself. When you’re going through hard times yourself, you like to hear examples of how people persevere over extraordinary odds.
Yet, you’ve been performing engagements as Donny Clay, on the same circuit of corporate events that the “legitimate” motivational speakers appear on.
Donny Clay was actually born on the corporate seminar circuit. We started doing corporate events, with no mention of Jason Alexander — our first presentations were very low-key. And you can imagine the misery on the faces of the people who were being forced to listen to some unknown speaker for an hour. But these guys were going crazy at the end of the show!
So the show that you’re doing on your tour of theaters is essentially the seminar program that you developed in front of corporate audiences?
This is a brand new show; an interactive comedy, one-man show with a lot of music, and a lot of audio-visual work. It delivers a piece of theater in the form of a seminar — if you look at this as stand-up comedy, it doesn’t present the whole picture. I’m a singer, not a standup, so there’s a musical element here. Eventually, this could become a huge stage show, with the Clayettes on stage or something.
I’m first and foremost a theater actor, although I’ve gone into self-imposed exile as regards Broadway and that eight shows a week schedule. It’s the exact opposite of what you want to be doing if you want to be involved with your kids. When I did The Producers it took almost a year of my life — it took so much of my stamina, it was so debilitating — now I’m doing something that is more or less under my control. I can do one or one hundred shows a year, work Saturdays only, whatever.
How far into the seminar format do you get? Do you lock the doors and not let anyone use the bathroom?
It’s not EST! There are no meters, we don’t invade orifices, and the audience is free to go! But we’re taking on the issues that the motivational speakers address — body issues, self esteem, how to make more money and find true love. And it’s interactive, in that I get in there with the people in the crowd. It’s sort of a sideways gift to myself — we did Seinfeld as a play in front of an audience, and Donny allows me to get back into a room with an audience.
Since we’re on the topic of that elephant in the living room, how do you think George Costanza would have fared if he’d gotten involved with someone like Donny?
You know, Seinfeld ended before the whole life coach thing took hold, but George would have absolutely tried one — and Kramer would have become one!
We did that one episode where George takes the attitude that all of your instincts are wrong; do the opposite and you’ll succeed. Now, some motivational person really should have picked up on that — it’s great advice!
Another very important aspect of the motivational seminars is the mountain of merchandise that the speakers try to sell to people on their way out. Will we be seeing any Donny Clay books, or DVD training courses or inspirational fridge magnets?
That is certainly to come! We haven’t yet had the hubris to create merchandise — we don’t want to over-invest in it as yet, but the time may come when we’ll be seeing Donny books, such as his diet book Shut Your Mouth, Fatso. If this were Broadway, this tour would have to be considered previews.
If we could call on Donny Clay to come to the phone for a moment, I wanted to ask him about being the fourth leading motivational speaker — is the field really that competitive? Who’s Number One, and why?
DONNY CLAY: Well, Thomas, as you know I belong to an organization called SHMUK — the Society for Human Motivational Understanding and Knowledge. I’ve been the fourth biggest SHMUK for years — unfortunately I’m losing to Richard Simmons, some guy who shows people his balls in a pair of gym shorts.
Anyway, it’s not based on merit. It’s all showbiz and appearances. I’m sure you’ve noticed that bald people don’t generally fare too well in the world — fortunately, I’ve been blessed with a glorious head of hair.
Calling Jason back for a little lightning round — you’re a Jersey guy, born in Newark, raised in Livingston — and I always like to ask folks of a certain generation some site-specific questions, such as your all-time favorite broadcast personality on New York radio?
Oh, boy, there was that guy who always yelled on the radio, Bob…Bob Grant! Always screaming and yelling about something. I loved Stern, but I’d listen to this guy and he’d just crack me up!
Then on TV, well, everybody in Jersey reveres Joe Franklin. I was actually invited to be on Joe’s show, but I just couldn’t make it work, and then they took him off the air — it was one of the great losses of my life.
Greatest New York area kiddie show host?
I’m a big Sonny Fox fan — he was the host of Wonderama, before Bob McAllister. I mean, what a name — Sonny Fox! But a close second would have to be Soupy Sales.
Favorite New York/ New Jersey area discount store?
There was a store called Sam’s in Livingston — they had a huge “husky” selection, and I was such a fat shlub when I was a kid that I’d have to get all my clothes there. In other stores, the Husky Department would be a couple of pairs of jeans, but Sam’s would have racks and racks of stuff. I’d get these wide-wale corduroys — you could start a fire between your thighs just by walking in those things.
And one more. Palisades Amusement Park, or Down the Shore?
Palisades was certainly closer, but — going down the shore had such a mystique about it. I remember going down to places like Seaside Heights, taking a backstage tour of the haunted house — it was like another country down there. Like going to Uzbekistan!
Well, we here in Uzbekistan anxiously await your arrival.
Thanks — I think we may have found a niche here. It feels really right — and at some level we’re giving the audience something they can really use. People feel better when they see the show!