Seinfeld sees comedy as ‘deadly serious’ craft
The Washington Post (*)
The 60-year-old comedian comes across as more craftsperson than crazy manWASHINGTON — Jerry Seinfeld doesn’t do angst. His comedy may be born of the alienation that many — maybe even all — comedians feel. But in conversation, the 60-year-old comedian comes across as more craftsperson than crazy man. He approaches joke-telling with the care and thoughtful precision of a jokesmith, in the truest sense of the word: a gimlet-eyed professional calibrating and tuning each bit until it hums.
In the 16 years since his Emmy-winning sitcom went off the air, Seinfeld hasn’t rested on his laurels. He’s returned to his first love — stand-up — regularly working on his act in New York comedy clubs, and then taking it on the road, as with this current national tour, which runs through mid-October. He finally settled down, marrying and fathering three children. He co-wrote and starred in an animated film (2007’s Bee Movie, in which he played a litigious honeybee). And he produced The Marriage Ref, a short-lived mash-up of game show and reality television.
We caught up with the fastidious funnyman for a phone chat about his new life, his old show and the surprise success of his most recent venture, the Web talk show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, now in its fourth season. Seinfeld offered deep insights about what makes him — and his humour — tick.
You’re known as a meticulous technician.
Extremely meticulous, yes. I love the precision of a comedy bit that works.
Such meticulousness implies that every joke is fixable. What if it’s not the joke’s fault, but the audience’s?
That’s never the case. There are jokes that can’t be fixed, but it’s never the audience’s fault, because they’re the ones that decide if it’s a joke or not. If they don’t approve it, it doesn’t survive.
Has anyone told you that they just don’t get you?
They don’t really go to that kind of trouble. That would be a very mean person. They just don’t come. And they don’t walk up to me either. Who would be that horrible? Oh, I know they’re out there.
How do you stay an outsider after success, marriage and kids?
I guess I just never wanted to be an insider. I’ve had the same old friends for, like, 35 years. I hang out with the same people, talk about the same things. I don’t have a different life. I have a better life in terms of material things, but I don’t really do anything different. I still hang out with comedians and work on jokes. My life, to me, in the important ways, has not changed. It’s changed in a lot of other ways that are great, but me having kids, I have the same experiences that everybody else has that has kids.
A recent essay in The New York Times described Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee as “pairs of rich guys chatting about the gilded joys of their lives and careers and cars, about the sealed-off world they inhabit and we don’t.”
I saw that piece. That made me howl. And his example — it was such a poorly reasoned argument — his example of the sealed-off, elitist world was Alec Baldwin wanting a fork, in a diner. It was really pathetic.
It presumes a caste system where you’re at the top and we’re at the bottom.
If that was true, I could never stand in front of an audience and do my thing. If I was really that person, I’d be finished. Nobody would come to see these shows, they’d be so horribly annoying — this elitist person from the sealed-off world.
So you don’t live in a gated community. . . .
… urinating in jars like Howard Hughes.
No. I’d like to. I don’t know where you get people to pick up those jars.
You’ve conquered the TV sitcom, you did a movie, you’re reinventing the talk show for the Internet age. Why keep pushing yourself?
I wouldn’t call it pushing. It’s just fun to do stuff. And it’s really fun to invent stuff. If I wasn’t writing new material, I would not do stand-up anymore, because it’s the new stuff that I can’t wait to see if it’s going to work or not. The same with Comedians in Cars. To me, it’s a science experiment. You make something, and you see if people like it. There’s something about comedy: when you make someone laugh, it really feels like you’ve made the world just a tiny bit better. It just feels so worth the effort.
So jokes matter?
To me they do. But it’s kind of hard to say that. I am deadly serious about everything that I do in comedy. Deadly. Mostly because it’s so unforgiving. This concept that I can go in front of any audience and do well is the funniest thing. Nobody automatically does well. That’s why I wanted to be back in stand-up after the TV series. Because there’s just no cheating, and there’s no gimmes.
Not even a five-minute grace period at the top of the show?
When I go out there and fumble the first joke, it’s quiet. It’s totally quiet. Any joke, if it’s not timed right and said right and done right, dies.
If you were making a sitcom about your life today, what would it be like?
That’s probably why I haven’t done it. The life I occupy now doesn’t really have the charm of being a young and up-and-coming stand-up comedian. Once you’re old — it would have to be something about marriage and family. I find marriage to be one of the funniest subjects. I’d probably start with the idea of a guy who gives seminars on wife-ology.