Quietly and in a matter-of-fact tone, Jerry Seinfeld is explaining how he had a breakthrough while performing the work of a Japanese surrealist playwright. ShortList is pretty sure this is a world exclusive, as well as a fairly weird story.
Writer Kobo Abe was the Japanese Kafka. Briefly a Marxist, his dark plays and novels explore gloomy visions of the individual’s place in society, alienation and rootlessness. Obviously the perfect showcase for improvised comedy.
Unlikely as it may seem, though, the star of the biggest sitcom in history — the man who gave us the Puffy Shirt and the Soup Nazi — discovered his yearning for stand-up while performing a work by this infamous avant gardist.
“I was young, at school, in a play,” he tells us. “I remember making it funny and the director saying that I should tone it down because it was detracting from the rest of the play.
I thought that maybe if I wasn’t distracted by these other people, maybe if I had less help, I would be better.”
It’s worth considering just how much humour must have been pent up inside the young Seinfeld if the author of An Elephant Calf Is Dead and Loving Glasses Are Coloured Ones brought out his funny side. (Also, why didn’t they just do Oliver! like a normal school would?)
Where so many comedians cite a deprived or difficult upbringing, claiming they developed humour as a way of combating poverty or bullying, Jerry Seinfeld grew up with a funny dad. His father, Kalman, was a sign-maker and his only son talks about him with a warmth that suggests their house in Sixties New York lived up to the reputation of the city and the Jewish humour it has exported around the world. “My father was always telling jokes — he was funny all the time. What makes a comedian is part nature, part nurture.”
The odd thing about talking to Seinfeld is that we’ve all spent much of our lives watching him play a made-up version of himself. The real Jerry sounds like the TV Jerry and turns his phrases like the TV Jerry, but is actually quite different. What quickly becomes apparent is that Real Jerry is driven, competitive, passionate and intimidatingly smart. The drifting, feckless cereal-obsessive of the series may have looked and sounded like the Real Jerry, but he would never have made it to owning one of the world’s biggest Porsche collections (46 at last count).
BACK TO HIS ROOTS
Seinfeld first tried stand-up in the mid-Seventies and in 1979 was given a small part in Benson: a sitcom about a butler. He played a character burdened by comedy routines no one wanted. A decade later, along with Larry David, he co-created The Seinfeld Chronicles, as it was first called. US listings magazine TV Guide called it “the greatest show ever” and it ran for nine seasons, with the momentous final episode airing in 1998.
The 57-year-old is currently promoting his first UK live dates since he played the London Palladium on the night of the 1998 World Cup final. There were two shows on the same night and ShortList was lucky enough to have seen one. Now the comedian returns to England, this time on the epic stage of The O2 Arena.
The Palladium gigs had the feel of a long-anticipated sporting event. Tickets were hard to come by and the sense as the man strode on to the stage was that we were about to witness the best in the world show us his moves. Speaking to Seinfeld, it becomes clear that he also sees stand-up as something skilled and competitive.
“I loved it when once a club owner asked me to do an extra show for free because, ‘All you do is talk,’” he tells me. All he does, of course, is practise, hone and study.
Asking whether he remembers the Palladium night, his response is instructive: “We did two shows and the people at the Palladium said that no one had ever sold out two shows on the one night. I remember the audiences being really great.” The man reputed to have earned $85m (£52.5m) in a single year still recalls a box-office record he set over a decade ago. This is someone who has pushed himself back into one of the world’s most terrifying vocations without any financial incentive whatsoever.
It is said he turned down $110m (£68m) to make a 10th series of Seinfeld. It is stand-up that he loves and stand-up that he takes very seriously. I glibly ask if he’s planning dry-ice and costume changes to fill the bigger O2 space. “It’s such a fantastic place for comedy. I talked to Ricky Gervais about it. There’s no need to make any adjustments to the act at all — there won’t be a wire rig,” he deadpans.
RULES OF COMEDY
It’s only when I ask about the irritations of international travel that some of the fictional Jerry creeps in. It’s hard not be excited by that tone of baffled outrage familiar from the sofa of his famous fictional New York apartment as he starts to build up the familiar rhythm of a comedy riff. “The paperwork for travel still seems ridiculous,” he says. “We’re not going to other planets. It just seems ridiculous that we still have to sign things and stamp things like it’s the Middle Ages.”
As western civilisation’s most finely tuned chronicler of misadventure and awkwardness, I ask him whether he ever finds himself in a crisis and thinking privately, ‘This will be funny later…’ “That’s not the first thing I think,” he replies. “At first it feels like my head is gonna explode and
I can’t take this. Then I think that if I’m going to get a joke out of it, it’s all been worth it.” You sense that for Seinfeld, the pursuit of the perfect joke is something of a life mission.
He has three children now, so does he have rules about using them as material?
“There are no rules because it’s all lies anyway. No one pays to see a comedian to hear the truth.”
A typically technical reply. One again hears ‘Seinfeld the comedy athlete’ — he is so focused on his job and so aware of what makes it work and fail. I ask him to explain to a layman how we can tell really good stand-up from the merely average. “That’s a good question,”
he responds. “My advice to you would be to see how many jokes a comedian can get in succession, starting from a basic idea. Most comedians make a joke, and they get one or two laughs. Those getting three or four or five are the guys who are working at a very high level.”
It will be impossible to ever watch on-stage comedy again without keeping a joke tally. Casually, he also dismisses lesser talents who rely on swearing for their routines. “Most of the time, when you hear the dirty words sprinkled in, it’s someone who’s lost and scared and uses swearing to save their tail. It’s a style thing for me. It’s not a question of not wanting to be offensive. I don’t find swearing offensive — it’s just my approach.”
I wonder whether he carries a notebook with him to capture moments of inspiration. “I have been asked this question before. It always amuses me. As if it might be difficult to get a notebook if you wanted one. Notebooks are readily available to anyone, and are useful.”
He is warm and generous about his famous comedy friends and dismisses any idea that these people who risk on-stage humiliation night after night are competitive. “I’ve always had relationships where we’re very helpful to each other — Ricky [Gervais] and I talk about, ‘Should I do this or do that project?’ I’m also friendly with Sacha Baron Cohen. He’s working on a new movie and I’ll go over the script with him.” And if a riff starts, do you negotiate over who owns it? “No, whoever started, it’s theirs.”
Does being one of the world’s biggest and most successful sources of laughter leave him feeling pressured to make everyone laugh as he goes about his daily business? “I’m sure I’m a huge disappointment to everyone who meets me, because I would never try to be funny. I never feel the need to impress on people in daily life that I’m funny. I just don’t think about it.”
The one audience who do see his funny side without the need for arena tickets are his three children. “I really do act silly around the kids, which is fun for them because most grown-ups don’t act silly, and I want them to know that you can still act silly when you’re a grown-up.” How silly does he get when being silly? “Well, there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do. It’s the most free feeling. Especially if they’re embarrassed — then I just do it more.” You imagine that it will not be long before the young Seinfelds begin counting the dad-antics Jerry can wring from a single incident.
Finally, I ask what in particular should draw us to The O2 for his first live UK dates in 13 years? His answer is typically competitive and full of a consciousness of his craft: “There aren’t many comedians who can cross the water. It’s a tough thing to do for Americans coming over here and for British comedians going over there, so it’s interesting when someone can do that.” Only Seinfeld would drive an audience to his show by claiming that itwill be an ‘interesting’ exercise in transatlantic relevance. It’s pretty much guaranteed that his show will also be warm, funny, illuminating, confident and something to boast about having seen for many years to come. Oh, and don’t forget to count the jokes. He will be.