When Jerry Seinfeld was eight years old, he remembers a day when he was watching television with his family, and a comedian was on, and he was telling stories, and his dad said, “See that guy on the TV? His actual job is to be funny.” Something obviously took because 20 years later that little kid became one of the best at that job, ever. And, today, you can’t have a conversation about TV history without celebrating Jerry Seinfeld.
Jerry Seinfeld is an example of the most-skilled comic—his standup is impeccable and he’s on the road all the time. He’ll make you laugh no matter what age you are or how smart you are. He’s so at home in front of an audience because he works on his material tirelessly. Like many of us, Jerry’s love of comedy started at home, whether his folks understood comedy, like Jerry’s dad, or like mine, not so much. “My dad used to collect jokes in a box of cards. And he would write down the jokes so that he wouldn’t forget them. He always used to say to me that if he had an opportunity, he would love to have tried to do it. He told jokes at the dinner table all the time. Joke jokes. And he was a wonderful joke teller. But, David, really your moment, when guys like you came along, you and Robert Klein were the guys that just cracked the glass and made it seem like there’s a whole other way to do this.”
Titles for Jerome Seinfeld, best known to hundreds of millions of people as Jerry, stand-up comedian, actor, writer, producer, director. Funny thing is, he started out as a stand-up in college productions, and after creating the most revolutionary comedy series ever, Seinfeld, and banking hundreds of millions of dollars, living a family-centered life with his wife and three teenagers, spending his time collecting hundreds of vintage Porsches, he has returned to stand-up, touring all over the country.
Why, you ask? It is really so simple. He loves it. Purely, totally, in a way perhaps only other comedians can understand. The joy he gets from the challenge of making people laugh sends him back on the road to practice his craft. Whether it is in a club for 20 people or in an arena for thousands—simply, it is where he is happiest. Just look at that smile.
Jerry explains. “People watch me do stand-up, after all my success, watch the documentary about my tours, and think it is so hard. Really? It isn’t hard at all, unless you’re not good at it, and if you are not good at it, then it is the hardest job in the world. But if you can do it, it’s really kind of fun and easy.”
Jerry’s comedy is just impeccable. It’ll make you laugh no matter what age, no matter your life experience or the knowledge you have. He is so at home in front of an audience—he’s done it before, he works in it, he changes it and changes it and changes it and changes it, and it works.
And that tells you everything about this man and his love of his work. Young comics who think they’re going to be like Seinfeld don’t realize the years he’s put into it. He’s like the virtuoso cellist Pablo Casals—he doesn’t stop practicing, he doesn’t stop trying new things. You need to be an outsider to do comedy well, and you have to recognize what it is that you’re outside of. Audiences identify with outsider comedians the most. It’s surprising as to who everyone is, as opposed to their image. There is a certain mythology around the comedy world now because it’s so scrutinized. An example of something I hear all the time is that on Seinfeld, it was all Seinfeld and it wasn’t Larry. That’s not true. Jerry is an amazing writer, and he wrote Seinfeld with Larry. They wrote it together. Having directed Seinfeld, I would leave the lot at midnight, after staying with Jerry and Larry, who were still writing, and there would be no other cars on the lot except for theirs, every night. I just can’t get that image of how hard they worked out of my mind.
I remind Jerry that I started out Talmudic, always asking the audience questions. “Why this? Why that?”
Jerry figured that out pretty quickly, asking questions of his audience. “Start off as a comedian by doing someone else,” he recounts. “Do anyone’s jokes—I used to do you! When I was just thinking about comedy, you were already doing it, and you were such an idol of mine, you and Bob Klein and Bill Cosby and Carlin. You were like the constellation to me, you four guys—you had quality balls. You really did!” Jerry graduated from college with a degree in communications and theater, but that doesn’t explain how he found his passion for comedy, for stand-up. It began with appearing at open-mic nights, which led to being discovered and small roles in TV sitcoms. Like his father had said, a job where you just have to be funny. On May 6, 1981, like others (like myself), Jerry first made an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and so impressed Johnny that he became a frequent guest on The Tonight Show and then on Late Night with David Letterman. It was all about stand-up.
After a few years of stand-up, Jerry got a part on the TV series Benson. “Three episodes,” he points out. “And then I got fired, and the part was so small, and I was so irrelevant to the show that they didn’t even bother to tell me. So I showed up for work, and I sit down in my chair at the table read where everyone gets their script the first day of the week, and everyone reads through the script, and I sit down and say, ‘Hey, where’s my script?’ And this guy calls me over—I am out. They didn’t even bother to let me know. You know, politely say, ‘Get out of here kid, you’re out.’ But that actually was one of the great experiences that I had, because it made me so angry that they had the power to just take this away from me. And I started focusing on writing and working hard and saying I’m going to be a comedian because they can’t take that away. I really valued my stand-up career for the first time in a different way after that. I really resented that. So then it was just stand-up, stand- up, stand-up, and all of a sudden I was doing The Tonight Show with Carson, and later, Letterman.”
Since I had been doing The Tonight Show for years, I knew how Jerry felt. It was the pinnacle. And it was terrifying. Like my first Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, for Jerry, it was a seminal moment. The biggest thing. But more complex than you might think.
“I remember every moment. May 6, 1981. That was the only time I ever felt electrified. There’s nothing better for a comedian than being hemmed in, having been closed off, shut out, not welcome; that’s nutrition. That’s what you want as a comedian. Acceptance is a dangerous thing for comedians. But that night—was magic. Because the truth is, that kind of stand-up is the most intimate performance that there is. That relationship, when it’s locked in, is so intense, and rich, that all of the negative things about comedy that people say—how difficult it is, how humiliating it can be—I embrace all that. Because I think the ledger still tips in our favor. You get so much. And you’re also so much more in control of your life and your destiny and your art than anybody else is.
“And then, when it came around to NBC being interested in me to do something, I had my own career, which I was comfortable in, and that’s why I could say, ‘This is the way it’s going to be, or to hell with it.’ ”
What happened next changed television history.
“Around 1989 I met up with Larry David, who I always thought was one of the brightest comedians I had known from those days. I told him, ‘NBC is doing a show, and they asked me what it could be.’ We went to the Korean deli across the street from Catch a Rising Star and made fun of the products around the cash register, and Larry said, ‘This should be the show. Just this, two guys making fun of stuff. A show about nothing.’ And that’s really how it started. And when we went into NBC, and they said, ‘What is that? That’s not a show.’ We went, ‘No, that’s the show, that’s what we’re doing.’ ”
Jerry reminisces. “It was so unlikely! I mean, what happened to me was ridiculous. That was not the plan. The plan was to do the TV show, hang on for a couple, two, three years. Like an obscure little cult thing. And I’ll pump up my ticket sales at the comedy clubs. That’s why I called it Seinfeld. I thought, ‘Well, at least I’ll sell some tickets.’”
There is a bit more behind this. You may have heard Jerry explain that their influence for the show was The Abbott and Costello Show.
“It was,” says Jerry, “because that television show that they did, I think it was in 1952-53, was about comedy. There was no explanation about comedy or of anyone’s life. Nothing made sense; there were always a lot of inexplicably evil people on the show, and we stole that. We took that right away. We always had people on the show like the garage attendant who tells you, ‘You can’t get your car out, you just can’t.’ It’s simple. And that was the law of the show, that comedy is boss.”
I have always thought there was another reference in Jerry’s character, which was Jack Benny, because Benny always gave away everything—everyone around him would do things that were just nuts, and he would just stare at them, as if he was the audience’s point of view a lot of the time.
Jerry agrees. “I love to play straight, playing straight to me is funny—Budd Abbott is really funnier to me than Lou Costello because a really good straight man who keeps bringing the logic back is funny. In stand-up, there’s all this rigorous logic, so we brought that to the show. Like when Kramer says, ‘Well, I’m gonna teach people to make pizzas in their own ovens.’ Well, you can’t have people sticking their fingers in five hundred degree ovens! That’s the funny part.”
Lucky maybe, but also smart. Jerry and Larry (who had been a writer on Saturday Night Live for one year) knew Julia Louis-Dreyfus from SNL, and knew Michael Richards and Jason Alexander from their work as actors/comedians. And the rest is history. Originally named The Seinfeld Chronicles, the show became Seinfeld, ran from 1989 to 1998, and although I don’t count awards much, this is just overwhelming: the show and its cast won 10 Emmys (nominated for 68, a record), 3 Golden Globes (nominated for 15), 6 Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards (nominated for 17), and more.
It was huge, beyond anyone’s comprehension.
In truth, Jerry and I agree. “If people live lives of quiet desperation, stand-up is a life of loud desperation. Noisy desperation, that’s what it is. When I finished my TV series, I was a big star, and successful, and I had a lot of open doors. And I saw this as a dangerous thing. And so I left LA and I tried to break back into the middle. After being on top, I said I gotta break back into the middle. Going on the road and working it made me feel comfortable. To be honest, I never felt great being at that pinnacle. There was a point when the show was really at a very high level—it was the thing for a period of time. And I just thought, ‘This is not good. This is not where I belong.’ You know what I mean? I felt like, this is not comedy. I always thought comedy and star are mutually exclusive. There’s no comedy star. Either you’re a star or you’re a comic.”
I was lucky enough to direct a few. Of course, I had little to do with the success of Seinfeld, but since Jerry and Larry and I are all stand-up comics, they listened politely to my suggestions, used a few of them, and I won an Emmy for directing the episode titled “Tapes,” in which Jerry suspects that somebody is sitting in the audience and stealing his act, a subject near and dear to all three of us.
“I actually had a similar experience recently. Believe it or not, I was asked to perform at the White House. They were honoring Paul McCartney. I don’t even know how I got there. And all I kept thinking the whole time is, ‘Why am I here?’ And getting up onstage in the East Room of the White House and performing for the president and Paul McCartney felt like my first Tonight Show. I haven’t felt like that. Even at the White House, where you would think it would be hard—not really. It went well, and it was a huge thrill.”
Jerry remembers it word for word.
“Thank you very much, Mr. President, First Lady, Sir Paul McCartney, other people. Sir Paul, you have written some of the most beautiful music ever heard by humans in this world. And yet, some of the lyrics and some of the songs, as they go by, you can make one, unsure, even concerned sometimes, about what exactly is happening in this song. Songs such as ‘I Saw Her Standing There,’ and I quote, ‘She was just seventeen, you know what I mean.’ I’m not sure I do know what you mean, Sir Paul.”
As Jerry tours the country now with his stand-up, other issues emerge. “I do little places, and I do my regular shows in theaters around the country. And I try and do new stuff there. I still struggle with it.” And then there is age. “Some comedians, as they age, really struggle, because so much of comedy requires physical force—not stand-up as much, for you and me—but others? Look at Don Rickles, who, at 84, was not in great shape. There were no elliptical machines at the Sahara in the 60s! But he defied those ‘age-old’ adages—he had the same energy he always did—so that is some crazy DNA in him! It’s miraculous for someone that age. I got to see him at Town Hall with Chris Rock, who had never seen him in person. And this is a few years ago, in 2017, just before Don died, and everyone told us that ‘he may not be in his prime, but you’ve gotta see him!’ So we go to see him, Chris and I. And after the show, they set up a chair backstage, in this horrible, not even a real backstage area. They just put a chair on the ground and everyone stands there, and we wait for Don to come out. We wait like forty minutes. I don’t know what he’s doing back there.”
I have to interrupt Jerry, because I know what Don is doing.
“Showering,” I explain. “He comes out with the towel, right? It’s the old tradition—you had to do at nightclubs. And, in the lounges when he worked in the 60s, his show would start at midnight, and he’d do 5 shows, from 12 am until six am. That’s a lot of showers!”
Jerry shakes his head. “When I finish my show, I can talk to you ten seconds after I’m done, I’m right there. I’m not doing anything. For Don, forty minutes later, he comes out, he sits down in the chair, Chris and I stand there, and he just insults us all for another twenty minutes. And we are laughing hysterically ’cause he is so funny!”
Jerry can’t stop. “This is another favorite story of mine about Don. Before I was really known, I went to see Don in Vegas. They gave him a note that I was in the audience, and onstage (and so far, decades later, this is the farthest from my name that anyone’s ever gotten in terms of mispronouncing it), Don says, ‘We have George Stanbury in the audience.’ And then he insulted me. You know, David, if there’s a pure white light of comic energy, Don had it. He was remarkable for the antenna he had for what he could say to you. And he improvised all the time. There was no real structure to it, just so purely funny. That’s why I think he was such a special comedian.”
Back to stand-up. It always somehow comes back to stand-up. Jerry and I agree—which is probably why after decades writing, producing, and starring in the most successful comedy series of all time, Jerry is back to doing stand-up in clubs across the country.
“Stand-up is the most intimate performance, I think, that there is,” he says. “That relationship, when it’s locked in, is so intense, and rich, that all of the negative things about comedy that people say—how difficult it is, how humiliating it can be—I embrace all that. Because I think the ledger still tips in our favor. You get so much. And you’re also so much more in control of your life and your destiny and your art.”
Excerpted from Inside Comedy by David Steinberg. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Knopf. Copyright © 2021 by David Steinberg.