If you think Jerry Seinfeld’s a bad comedian, there’s a good chance it’s because you’re not actually thinking of Jerry Seinfeld.
His observational style and years of opening stand-up segments from his sitcom have forever associated Seinfeld with the cheesy, brick wall-backed comics that were legion in the ‘80s and early '90s. Back then, Seinfeld’s name was practically next to the word “comedian” in the dictionary. The upside of that is that he’s one of the most recognizable comedians in the world. The downside is that far too many people, upon seeing him, do a silly voice and say, “And what is the deal with airline food?”
Seinfed is not that guy, though he could probably turn out a solid 10 minutes on airline cuisine if you pressed him. He is, in fact, one of the most polished, brilliant stand-up comics the world has ever known. He’s as good now as he was three decades ago–stil a master of timing, reading an audience and weaving uproarious laughter from the utterly mundane.
While it’s unlikely that there will ever be another Seinfeld, there is a potentially replicable secret to his success beyond his natural gifts. It’s simple, really: You must love jokes beyond all reason, and you must be willing to work and work to make even the dumbest idea great.
Seinfed outlines both of those principles in a fascinating new interview on Vulture’s Good One Podcast. When asked about a joke about the Seinfeld finale Julia Louis-Dreyfus delivered on the final Late Show with David Letterman, Seinfeld revealed that it was actually his idea.
“I like all jokes,” he said. “That’s what do. That’s what I live for. There’s really nothing else I care about more than jokes. I don’t really care who the victim is or whose feelings have to be hurt. If it’s a good joke, I’m into it. We actually fought hard for that particular joke. The writers had a different joke that Julia came to me and said, 'I don’t know if this joke works.’ I read the joke and I go, 'No, that’s a bad joke.’ She had flown from L.A. to New York just to do the one line. It was a big deal. We were really excited to be on that show. It was a really cool experience to be on Dave’s last show and I didn’t want her to go out there and tank. I’d been at this a while. You don’t always know 100 percent, but in this case, I knew it was a loser. So we went to the writers and it was quite a long negotiation and then they came up with this other line, which was sensational. I wonder, actually, did they have that or did that write that? Maybe they didn’t want to hurt my feelings? Of course, not knowing me, not knowing that I don’t have feelings.”
His discussion of his joke-writing process is an even more insightful look into Seinfeld’s once-in-a-generation comedic mind. Every comic works differently. Seinfeld writes a joke, then goes onstage to polish it. He illustrated this process by breaking down a new bit about, of all things, doughnut holes.
“It’s just a grueling process of iterations,” he told Vulture.“ I’ve been working on this thing about doughnut holes recently. I just love talking about doughnut holes. As soon as you bring it up, people go, 'Really? That’s what you’re going to talk about?’ It’s a silly thing to talk about and I had this thing about how I’m a very literal person. When you’re that literal, you wonder, 'Is it really holes? If they were really doughnut holes, the bag would be empty and the doughnut holes are not doughnuts because they don’t have a hole, so what is this? What are you selling?’ It’s quite complicated to bring that subject up and take an audience through its moronic logic, but audiences love to hear about something very stupid that I impose a very rigorous intellect to. That joke is kind of philosophical. It’s just if you have the will to get up onstage night after night and say doughnut holes, let’s try this again, and then when you get it, if you do get it, it’s unbelievably satisfying. The big thrill is you go to another comedian, 'Did you see my doughnut hole bit?’ And they go really, 'You got a bit?’ 'Oh, I got a whole thing on doughnut holes.’ And they go, 'Gee, I’ve seen doughnut holes, I never thought that that was a bit.’ I go, 'Oh, it’s hilarious.’
If you’re a comedy nerd or just a Seinfeld fan, the whole interview is well worth a listen. It’s funny and facinating, but it’s also more than a little inspiring. After all the years he’s worked and all the money he’s made, Jerry Seinfeld is still willing to put in the work on doughnut holes.
Listen to it here.