Seinfeld sees comedy as 'deadly serious' craft

Last updated 05:00 11/08/2014
Jerry Seinfeld
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CRAFTSMAN: Jerry Seinfeld

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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 mashup 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, and frequently funny, insights about what makes him - and his humor - tick. (This conversation has been edited for length.)

Q. This may be my first celebrity interview that began on time.

A. Really? I didn't know that about celebrities. I never interview them. Well, I guess I do now.

Q. Tell me about your current tour. Is there much new material?

A. I don't really track any of that. I'm always developing new stuff, and I'm always doing stuff that I still like, for whatever reason. It's just a big messy sandbox for me. I don't know what people are coming to see, or want to see, or don't want to see. It's so complicated, if you really stop to think about it.

Q. You're known as a meticulous technician.

A. Extremely meticulous, yes. I love the precision of a comedy bit that works.

Q. Such meticulousness implies that every joke is fixable. What if it's not the joke's fault, but the audience's?

A. 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.

Q. Has anyone told you that they just don't get you?

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A. 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.

Q. In the 2002 documentary "Comedian," you tell a story about musicians arriving at a gig by plane, in the middle of a snowstorm. As they trudge past a cozy cottage, one of them looks through the window on a scene of domestic bliss and says, "Ugh, how do people live like that?" Is it essential for a comedian to maintain that sense of the outsider?

A. Yes. When I'm at a party and somebody comes up to me and they're not a comedian, I still clench up inside and go, "What am I going to say?" They're going to say, "Boy, isn't the food great?" I'm like, "What would a normal person respond to that?" I try and do an impression of normal people that talk about food and traffic and the weather. I listen to what those people say, and I repeat what they say, but I don't understand any of it. If someone said to me, "Boy, the food here is great," I would just want to say, "But we're all going to die anyway, what's the difference?" They would be shocked.

Q. How do you stay an outsider after success, marriage and kids?

A. 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.

Q. Is the world funnier or less funny from your Mount Olympus vantage point?

A. [Laughs.] Everything in life is funny to a comedian. Everything is absurd. You have to find a way to communicate what you're seeing.

Q. Is it genetic?

A. I think so, yeah. I think it's an inborn thing.

Q. 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."

A. [Laughs.] 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.

Q. It presumes a caste system where you're at the top and we're at the bottom.

A. 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.

Q. Are comedy geeks the target audience for the show?

A. I thought that's who would like it. I did think of comedy geeks. There are so many stand-up geeks these days. I thought those types of people might enjoy something like this, but it seems to be doing a bit better than that, I'm happy to say. I always give the Jackie Gleason answer when people ask me about "Seinfeld" or "Comedians in Cars": It's funny. People always asked Gleason, endlessly, "What was the secret to 'The Honeymooners'?" If it's funny, that proves that I am not a walled-off elitist.

Q. So you don't live in a gated community. . . .

A. No gate.

Q. . . . urinating in jars like Howard Hughes.

A. No. I'd like to. I don't know where you get people to pick up those jars.

Q. You've conquered the TV sitcom, you did a movie, you're reinventing the talk show for the Internet age. Why keep pushing yourself?

A. 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, to any artist, 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.

Q. So jokes matter?

A. 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.

Q. Not even a five-minute grace period at the top of the show?

A. 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.

Q. In a previous interview, you said that you were asked to host the Oscars but turned it down.

A. I don't think I was supposed to talk about that. I'm sorry I said that. Yeah.

Q. I suspect that your name comes up in almost any context where someone is required to be funny. Yet you've never appeared on "The Simpsons." You have been the butt of a joke on the show.

A. What joke?

Q. "My mom is not dating Jerry Seinfeld" was a chalkboard gag. And the name "Jerry Seinfeld" appears on Ned Flanders' list of "laudable lefties."

A. That's funny.

Q. Doesn't that seem like an oversight?

A. Maybe they were busy with other things. I know what it's like to do a show. You're not thinking we have to get each significant person. You're just trying to get that show done for that week.

Q. If you were to do the show, which is known for self-parodying cameos, who would you play?

A. I would like to play myself as a sealed-off elitist, occupying a rarified atmosphere where I never need to ask for a fork.

Q. If you were making a sitcom about your life today, what would it be like?

A. 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.

Q. Sounds a little like "The Marriage Ref." Have you thought about why that show didn't work?

A. Yes, I have. It was pretty obvious, once we set about doing it, that the audience perverted the conversation. Things people say to each other at the dinner table, they don't feel comfortable saying in a TV studio. That's kind of what took me to "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee," which lets me keep it private and see what I can discover about conversation.

Q. How about a marriage movie?

A. Yeah, if I had it in me. I don't really get movie ideas, those kinds of big ideas that only a movie can hold. I don't really even like the size of movies, really. I'd much rather watch Laurel and Hardy two-reelers than any of their features. I think they're much funnier, and I like the size. I like the size of stand-up bits. I like the size of a funny TV commercial. I like the size of a sitcom. I have never liked the size of movie comedies. It just feels unwieldy. It tends to crush a small, quirky idea, which is what makes a great comedy.

Q. You've described the movie industry as doomed.

A. Fear generally runs the world. Look at movies now, even the comedy movies. They're really wrapping it up and tugging the heartstrings, and they have to hit all these notes. The audience has to come out feeling good. When you put all those things in a comedy, again, you crush it. The atmosphere of fear ruins it. This was what was great about doing the sitcom. We could do a show where Kramer finds the Merv Griffin set, and get away with that, because it's just 20 minutes, and then it's gone. It's like a cartoon. That's where comedy thrives, in my opinion. I want to be doing the best comedy, so I look for it in smaller portion sizes. I think a great stand-up bit stays with people much longer than a good comedy movie. I like the simplicity of that.

Q. What makes a great bit?

A. It's the way it stays with you. It's never the jokes you think. I love Brian Regan's "Donut Lady." I'm sure when he first wrote "Donut Lady," he didn't think this is going to really hit people hard. It's one of his famous bits, about going to this doughnut place and ordering 12 doughnuts, and the lady counts down as you pick them: "You have eight left . . . you have six left." It's become this legendary bit. That's not planned. It just happened.

Q. Is there a perfect joke?

A. No. There are jokes that are perfect for you. There's some study about how they can never get a group of people to agree that five jokes are funny, or five jokes are not funny. There's always someone that disagrees in the group. That's just the nature of comedy. It's very, very personal.

Q. Do you have a comedic Spidey-sense?

A. I do have a Spidey-sense. I could do a set, and we could play it on a monitor, and I could show you the number that it reaches on the level meter, like, "Oh, that's a laugh, that's something that will stay in the set," and "This one will have to go." I could show you numerically. I don't know what that number is, but I could figure it out. It's like baseball. There's a batting average that keeps you in the majors, and there's a batting average that does not. It's the same with jokes. Like everything else, there are rules. You have to figure out the rules.

Q. Are you still figuring them out?

A. No, I figured them out a long time ago. I was trying to work on this bit about those stickers - the family member stickers on the back windows of minivans where people show their family members as little stick figures. I have a whole bit about that, and then it goes into this other bit about fatness. A lot of comedians do bits about the weight problem, and it's always a thing of trying to figure out "How much can I insult these people and get away with it?" If you call the audience fat, they might not like that. But if you tell them in a funny way, they might like it. These are things that are not known.

-The Washington Post

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