Thursday, May 30, 2024

The Scholar of Comedy | The New Yorker

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The cartoon of Jerry Seinfeld is that he is the comedian who goes on “about nothing.” The nihilist of the Upper West Side. And yet Seinfeld is, like Chris Rock and few others in comedy, as serious and self-conscious about his craft as the best musicians. We were once having a conversation in front of an audience at the Society for Ethical Culture, on West Sixty-fourth Street, and, after a few minutes, he stopped to take note of the echo in the hall. The way the echo affected how the audience took in his jokes. And the subsequent effect on the quality of the laughs.

Seinfeld made a fortune with “Seinfeld.” He could easily have lived out the rest of his life going to Mets games and eating cereal. Instead, he writes jokes for hours each day, as disciplined as a concert pianist. Larry David, of course, was his partner in creating “Seinfeld,” and Seinfeld appeared from time to time in David’s long-running HBO series, “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Seinfeld’s series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” indulged his passion for cars, sure, but it was really about his comedian friends, their common craft, and their joy in talking––freely and without inhibition. In 2020, he published “Is This Anything?,” which contains some of his best standup work but also delves into his craft and his devotion to it.

And now, for the first time, he has directed a movie. It is about a Russian Orthodox monk in the sixteenth century who starves himself to death rather than give in to the depredations of tsarist society. No, it isn’t. It’s about the race in the early sixties between Kellogg and Post to invent the Pop-Tart. Yes, really. It is called “Unfrosted” and will air on Netflix on May 3rd. It is extremely silly, in a good way.

Seinfeld came to our studio at One World Trade Center for The New Yorker Radio Hour. He was very well dressed and in good spirits. He immediately started ripping me to shreds. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity and sometimes to preserve my ego and dignity—though no editing could manage that entirely.

How are you?

You really, really look like a doctor. Doesn’t he look like a doctor?

I do?

If he walks in and says, “I’m your cardiologist,” you would just feel so calm.

Would you?

I would feel, Oh, I’m in good hands here.

Jerry. It’s nothing to worry about. We’ll take a few tests—

Oh, you got the tone!

Come into my office. Jerry, we can’t do anything about dementia—

Right. But they always frame it positively. Here’s the good news, right?

You’ve got the good dementia.

Here’s the good news. You didn’t have much to begin with.

How are you?

Fantastic. How are you?

Good. Jerry, are you doing a lot?

This is my first thing since the “Curb” finale. No one’s talked to me since that.

I was once talking to the writer Adrian LeBlanc, who’s been working on a book about comedy, and I asked, “Who are the two smartest comedians about comedy?” I expected her to name two obscurities. And she said you and Chris Rock, because you study it. You’ve been thinking about this; it’s not just a bunch of jokes.

Yes. Chris is the smartest person, maybe, I’ve ever met. You would be up there. You are really smart. But I was with Chris a couple of weeks ago, and he was talking about a young comic. He was asking the comedian about what he did that day. And the guy said, “Nothing. But I’m going to do a set tonight.” And Chris explained to him, “You make money during the day. You collect it at night. During the day is where the money is made.”

What does that mean for a comedian?

Comedians don’t generally think they have to do more than perform onstage every night. They don’t think there’s more to it than that. But there is quite a bit more to it than that.

And it shows if they don’t.

Well, it shows when you try and go to different levels or different worlds. If you have a really solid work ethic and have some sense of writing, you can move into different fields more easily.

If they watch “Seinfeld” or “Curb,” the two of you, in those shows, are patshke-ing around all day. You’re chatting. You’re at the diner. They don’t see you working working.

It’s a show, David. It’s not a MasterClass.

What does working mean for you? You published a book of all kinds of attempts at jokes. It was almost like a master’s notebook.

It was. In case I depart early—just, if anyone cares, here’s what I did. I’ve been reading a lot of Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations” book, which I’m sure you probably read when you were fourteen.

Four.

And the funny thing about that book is he talks a lot about the fallacy of even thinking of leaving a legacy—thinking your life is important, thinking anything’s important. The ego and fallacy of it, the vanity of it. And his book, of course, disproves all of it, because he wrote this thing for himself, and it lived on centuries beyond his life, affecting other people. So he defeats his own argument in the quality of this book.

Do you have any thoughts of how long your work will last? Do you have any hope for—

No. I really have adopted the Marcus Aurelius philosophy, which is that everything I’ve done means nothing. I don’t think for a second that it will ever mean anything to anyone ten days after I’m dead.

Here we are, one day after the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” finale was on, and, I’ve got to tell you, I watched this thing and I thought, Larry David has been told for years that the finale of “Seinfeld” didn’t work. It was overstuffed, it was too long. And he’s basically telling us, “You didn’t like it the first time? Here it is again, baby!” How do you see it as somebody who performed in it, but also as a viewer?

Well, I am not comfortable complimenting myself. That’s going to be your job.

I’ll get to it.

I absolutely thought it was sensational. And you’re going to be the only person I speak to who might understand or might see exactly what happened there.

How do you view it?

I’m not going to brag on it because I just love it. I love it. We paid off a joke with a twenty-five-year lag. We made you wait twenty-five years. Not planned—inadvertent—but we paid off a joke. We set it up on May 14, 1998, and paid it off in 2023. It aired this year, but we shot it last year. Think about what had to be in place for that to happen. Two series, two characters playing themselves who worked together twenty-five years ago, come back together twenty-five years later and relate these two events.

How do you feel about the “Seinfeld” finale? Did you think it was a misfire?

When we were shooting the last episode of “Curb,” we spent the whole day talking about it. What did we do wrong there? Just because Jeff Schaffer was there, who worked on the series, and Larry and me, and they were telling me how they watched it, and they were going, “You know, it was really pretty good until the very end. That’s where we could have done a better job.”



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