At his hit TV-show peak and just after, the most interesting things attached to Jerry Seinfeld were products of his wealth — how rich he was, how he could afford that vast and growing car collection, the romantic predicaments he could get himself into such as dating a teenager when he was in his Woody Allen 40s, succumbing to the charms of a married gold-digger who set her cap for him, and got him, her way of turning that notoriety into her own “brand.”
Before and after that, there was little about him that could pass for “fascinating,” and he’d be the first to say so. A stand-offish only child, middle class with middle class tastes, a little prickly, an ambitious workaholic and craftsman, then-and-now.
He may be married and comedy royalty in his 60s, but he still wears his formative years like a uniform, not unlike the one he sports on stage most nights — bespoke sports jacket, comfy shoes, jeans, black sweater or T-shirt at clubs, a designer suit in the big venues. Nothing changed him. As they used to joke in creating “Seinfeld,” there’s “no GROWING here.”
But what’s fascinating to longtime Seinfeld watchers is the way he’s set out to “give something back” to stand-up, which made him, going out of his way to break down “How I got here.”
Sure, he told his story in his autobiography. But he’s also demystified the work, broken down his style, toured with his “greatest hits,” which he then retired, and showed us just how hard it is, doing what he and others do in the stand-up documentary “Comedian.”
If you remember his TV series, and “Comedian,” you remember the phrase he trotted out backstage to friends and colleagues whenever he thought he was onto something potentially funny.
“Is this anything?”
That’s the title of his new book, basically a collection of his “accordion folder” file of bits, polished, memorized and trotted out for audiences in clubs and then in performing arts centers and big theaters as he became the most successful stand-up of his era, Bob Hope rich and similarly regarded as King of the Comedy in his time.
It would be a LOT more interesting to see the rough drafts, false starts and then what authors and publishers call “the copy text” — the jokes in their finished form, ready for our consumption. But he already kind of did that in “Comedian,” letting us see him re-start his stand-up career post-“Seinfeld” — bad jokes, forgotten lines, note cards or yellow notepad consulted as he tried to get this new “act” down.
His material, broken down by decade here, is formatted on the page like a “large print” book for an aged readership — lines separated by lots of space. I can’t recall, did he ever take TV news reporting and writing in college? That’s what this looks like, broadcast news copy — airy so that you can read it easily on the page. It’s broken down — one thought per line — with room for the timing he is famous for in between each line. He gives the listener/viewer time to let it sink it.
A sample from “the teens,” the chapter devoted to his more recent material.
“The drive of the male is to simplify.
“All men put things into one of two categories.
“It’s either ‘That’s my problem,’
or “That is not my problem.”
It’s short, punchy rhythmic speech and lays bare his style for all to see and attempt to mimic, if you dare. The “bit” is both in his style, and totally about his mindset and way of approaching life and comedy. “Simplify.”
One thing I’ve picked up from him over the decades (interviewed him three times, that I can recall) is his patience. It’s not just letting the joke breathe, leaving room for “anticipation” or “recognition of the obvious” laughs. There may be video of him from a more high-voiced, manic early days guise still floating around Youtube. But the hallmark of Peak Seinfeld was his very deliberate, lean-in, lean-back way with a comic riff.
Creating material, mastering the bits like an actor prepping for a role is part of it. But his real mastery is having the confidence to not rush, not stumble past potential laughs. It’s Cosby-like, almost a zen state of delivering a 20-30 line “bit.”
That’s one of the reasons the stand-up samples of “Seinfeld” that opened and closed many episodes were rarely funny, no matter what the laugh track insisted. The samples were too short. The episode was often about how he’d get to that point in his comic thinking, so it wasn’t a loss. But chopping the bit down to a couple of lines almost never worked. There’s too little of the massaging, waiting, anticipation and in some cases, milking the laugh.
The most personal pages in “Is This Anything?” are in the forward, and in the page or two he uses to introduce each decade/chapter. He remembers changing tastes, changes in his life and in the times we live in as he sets up where his comedy took him during that decade.
That makes the book more for Seinfeld completists and students of stand-up than for the general public. We can hear his voice and his timing in the bits, but as they’re all pretty familiar by this time that he’s not giving us much in the way of new insights. If he’d shown us the scratch-outs, earlier versions that didn’t work and how he realized that and fixed them, it would be more instructive.
Perhaps Simon & Schuster wants him to save that for another book.
“Is This Anything?” by Jerry Seinfeld. Simon & Schuster. 470 pages including index. $35.