Watch Jerry Seinfeld Explain ‘How to Write a Joke,’ Plus the 6 Best Takeaways from His NYT Profile
As for the article itself, here's the sparknotes version:
1. He really, really doesn't care how long it takes to perfect a joke
Seinfeld will nurse a single joke for years, amending, abridging and reworking it incrementally, to get the thing just so. “It’s similar to calligraphy or samurai,” he says. “I want to make cricket cages. You know those Japanese cricket cages? Tiny, with the doors? That’s it for me: solitude and precision, refining a tiny thing for the sake of it.”
Developing jokes as glacially as he does, Seinfeld says, allows for breakthroughs he wouldn’t reach otherwise. He gave me an example. “I had a joke: ‘Marriage is a bit of a chess game, except the board is made of flowing water and the pieces are made of smoke,’ ” he said. “This is a good joke, I love it, I’ve spent years on it. There’s a little hitch: ‘The board is made of flowing water.’ I’d always lose the audience there. Flowing water? What does he mean? And repeating ‘made of’ was hurting things. So how can I say ‘the board is made of flowing water’ without saying ‘made of’? A very small problem, but I could hear the confusion. A laugh to me is not a laugh.
2. He views a successful cadre of jokes akin to a well-rounded baseball lineup
Seinfeld retired to a dressing room, plopping down beside a bucket of bottled water. I congratulated him on the performance. “I’d say two-thirds of that set was garbage,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Whether it was lines coming out wrong or the rhythm being off.” He said he’d counted “probably eight” jokes that failed to get the kinds of laughs he desired. “There’s different kinds of laughs,” he explained. “It’s like a baseball lineup: this guy’s your power hitter, this guy gets on base, this guy works out walks. If everybody does their job, we’re gonna win.” I told him about the khaki guy’s spit take, and Seinfeld cracked up, calling this “a rare butterfly.” Nevertheless, “there wasn’t one moment where I was where I wanted to be. That was just a workout. I had to get it going again.”
3. He believes “funniness is genetic.”
When his father, Kalman, was stationed in the Pacific during World War II, he’d transcribe jokes he heard and store them in a box for safekeeping. “In the army, that’s kind of how you got through it,” Seinfeld says. “People would tell jokes by the score, because what else are you going to do to maintain sanity? The recognizing of jokes as precious material: that’s where it starts. If you’ve got the gene, a joke is an amazing thing. It’s something you save in a box in a war.”
Over coffee at his hotel in Milwaukee, Seinfeld talked about his home life, characterizing his children as the opposite of rich brats. His daughter grew upset, he said, upon receiving an iPhone 5 from Jessica, calling it a “mean-girl phone” and requesting something cheaper; his son Julian tells Jerry he’s “spoiled” and implores him to sell his cars. The kids have inherited the comedy gene. “I’ll say, ‘O.K., it’s time for dinner,’ ” Seinfeld said, “and they go, ‘Oh, like I didn’t already know that.’ I say, ‘That’s me, you can’t do me!’ ”
4. He doesn't think Seinfeld was “a show about nothing”
Seinfeld disagrees that his show was, as the saying goes, about nothing. “I don’t think these things are trivial,” he says, pointing to how political commentators compared President Obama’s renewed bravado the day after his lackluster Colorado debate performance to the “Seinfeld” episode where George, insulted at work, devises a comeback too late. And Seinfeld says that as his act has grown to address marriage and fatherhood, the laughs have deepened. “It hits them in a totally different way,” he said. “Once you step into that area, you’re in their kitchen, in their bedroom, deep in their life. It’s a very intimate and potent comedic thing.”
5. He's quite cynical, but in a sort-of uplifting way
Beneath the surface, Seinfeld says, much of his act concerns “the pointlessness of life itself. I’ve got jokes where I’m saying your life sucks, your possessions are garbage, you’re not important.” Larry David, to whom Seinfeld remains close, told me, “Jerry doesn’t get enough credit for his misanthropy — it’s why we get along so well.” In a new bit, Seinfeld likens a man to a balloon. At the outset of a romantic relationship, the balloon is buoyant and beautiful and “the woman holds on tight” for fear he’ll fly away. Flash forward, and the balloon’s doddering around, off in a corner somewhere, low to the floor, pathetically unable to “even lift up its own string.” It’s as elegantly crushing a joke about human decay and dashed hopes as has been told.
6. He believes that in an increasingly virtual world, live stand-up is now as big as ever
Earlier this year, Seinfeld started a 10-episode online series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” in which he wheels around in gorgeous old Triumphs and Karmann Ghias and cracks wise over mugs of coffee with friends like Larry David, Alec Baldwin and Carl Reiner. The show’s intended audience, Seinfeld says, is “this bubble world of people who love funny and want to get into it a little closer.” But while he acknowledges the Internet’s usefulness in keeping comedy relevant — podcasts, video channels and Web sites devoted to comedy are booming — he sees stand-up as, at bottom, an antidote to technological alienation. “We’re craving the nondigital even more these days, the authentically human interaction,” he says. “We need to see some schmuck sweat.”