Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Comedian's Craft: Seinfeld (and the truth about Michael Richards)

Seinfeld will nurse a single joke for years, amending, abridging and reworking it incrementally, to get the thing just so. “It’s similar to calligraphy or samurai,” he says. “I want to make cricket cages. You know those Japanese cricket cages? Tiny, with the doors? That’s it for me: solitude and precision, refining a tiny thing for the sake of it.”
On the way to the Gotham Comedy Club for a surprise set:
Seinfeld likes pressure. He describes doing live comedy as “standing against a wall blindfolded, with a cigarette in your mouth, and they’re about to fire.” His objective at Gotham was piecework. “A lot of what I’ll be doing tonight are tiny things in my bits where I’m looking for a little fix, where something isn’t quite smooth,” he said. “A lot of stuff I do out of pure obsessiveness.” One bit began with the observation that “tuxedos are the universal symbol for pulling a fast one.” “That line works,” he said. “But I want to get from there to a point about how the places where you see tuxedos are not honest places — casinos, award shows, beauty pageants, the maitre d’ — all these things feel shady.” He added: “But I’ve been having trouble getting the audience to that. I’m trying to bring that to a punchline.” ... “I have this old ’57 Porsche Speedster, and the way the door closes, I’ll just sit there and listen to the sound of the latch going, cluh-CLICK-click,” Seinfeld said. “That door! I live for that door. Whatever the opposite of planned obsolescence is, that’s what I’m into.”
After the set, which got him a standing ovation:
“I’d say two-thirds of that set was garbage,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Whether it was lines coming out wrong or the rhythm being off.” He said he’d counted “probably eight” jokes that failed to get the kinds of laughs he desired. “There’s different kinds of laughs,” he explained. “It’s like a baseball lineup: this guy’s your power hitter, this guy gets on base, this guy works out walks. If everybody does their job, we’re gonna win.” I told him about the khaki guy’s spit take, and Seinfeld cracked up, calling this “a rare butterfly.” Nevertheless, “there wasn’t one moment where I was where I wanted to be. That was just a workout. I had to get it going again.”
Seinfeld has an office, which is not in his home. After he's taken his kids to school and worked out in the gym, he does to that office and works:
No street noise penetrates. The pages of the pad are destined for either a wastebasket or a master file containing Seinfeld’s entire act, handwritten. The other day, perusing this file, he found a joke in which, discussing touch-screen phones, he likens the act of scrolling through a contact list and deleting names to the effete, disdainful gesture of a “gay French king” deciding whom to behead. Seinfeld wrote the joke a year ago and forgot it; having rediscovered it, he’d be telling it onstage that weekend. 
Seinfeld’s shows last a little over an hour, but he has about two hours of material in active rotation, so he’s able to swap in different bits on different nights. There is a contemporary vogue for turning over an entire act rapidly: tossing out jokes wholesale, starting again from zero to avoid creative stasis. Louis C.K. has made this practice nearly synonymous with black-belt stand-up. Seinfeld wants no part of it. “This ‘new hour’ nonsense — I can’t do it,” he said. “I wanna see your best work. I’m not interested in your new work.”
On dirty language:
Almost from the beginning, Seinfeld has forsworn graphic language in his bits, dismissing it as a crutch. “Guys that can use any word they want — if I had that weapon, I’ll give you a new hour in a week,” he said.
Now he gives us a glimpse into the inner workings:
“I had a joke: ‘Marriage is a bit of a chess game, except the board is made of flowing water and the pieces are made of smoke,’ ” he said. “This is a good joke, I love it, I’ve spent years on it. There’s a little hitch: ‘The board is made of flowing water.’ I’d always lose the audience there. Flowing water? What does he mean? And repeating ‘made of’ was hurting things. So how can I say ‘the board is made of flowing water’ without saying ‘made of’? A very small problem, but I could hear the confusion. A laugh to me is not a laugh. I see it, like at Caltech when they look at the tectonic plates. If I’m in the dark up there and I can just listen, I know exactly what’s going on. I know exactly when their attention has moved off me a little.
Of course, it's not just their attention to him. It's the impulses running around in their brains. Comedy depends on timing. The punch line has to come at exactly the right time, not a tenth of a second too soon, and not a tenth too late. The punch line has to be timed so it has a catalytic impact on the neural flow set off by the joke.

Think of this as a matter of coupling, the performer's mind with the audience, and vice versa. Audience members give the performer direct access to their minds; the performance goes straight to the lizard brain without being filtered. But, to use that coupling, the performer has to open himself to the audience, to be aware of every twitch and twitter.
“So,” he continued, “I was obsessed with figuring that out. The way I figure it out is I try different things, night after night, and I’ll stumble into it at some point, or not. If I love the joke, I’ll wait. If it takes me three years, I’ll wait.” Finally, in late August, during a performance, the cricket cage snapped into place. “The breakthrough was doing this”— Seinfeld traced a square in the air with his fingers, drawing the board. “Now I can just say, ‘The board is flowing water,’ and do this, and they get it. A board that was made of flowing water was too much data. Here, I’m doing some of the work for you. So now I’m starting to get applause on it, after years of work. They don’t think about it. They just laugh.”
When you drop "made of" you drop a few tenths of a second from the build-up and change the timing of the joke. And I'm sure he's right about the effect of repeating that phrase, first with "water" and then with "smoke." That kind of repetition has an effect on the neural flow, it disturbs The Force.

And, like most (every?) performers, he needs space to transition from everyday mode, to performance mode. That is, he needs to set up his mind so he can become coupled to the audience:
“When Clark Kent turns into Superman, he needs a moment — a phone booth, a storage room!” Seinfeld said, describing the breathing room he relies on to get into show mode. “If I’m at home, I don’t have the physical or mental space to don my costume. It’s horrible. There’s no closing of doors: I have little kids. As soon as you close the door someone’s banging on it. And when I’m home, I love that. I don’t want any personal space, I want them crawling all over me. But when I do this other thing? I can’t tell you I enjoyed it that much.”
And just to underline the point that performance mode IS NOT everyday mode, Seinfeld comments the incident where Michael Richards lost it and yelled "nigger" at hecklers:
In the controversy that followed, it was hard not to see the rant as a moment of unfiltered ugliness, but Seinfeld says this interpretation reflects a category error. Speech on a stage, delivered in a performative context, is unique, he argues, and bits — even those that come off the cuff — are different from straight confessions. “It was a colossal comedic error,” Seinfeld said. “He was angry, and it was the wrong choice, but it was a comedic attempt that failed. In our culture, we don’t allow that, especially in the racial realm. But as a comedian, I know what happened, he knows what happened and every other comedian knows what happened. And all the black comics know it, and a lot of them felt bad about it, because they know it’s rough to be judged that way in that context. You’re leaping off a cliff and trying to land on the other side. It was just another missed leap.”


  1. Great post! The build-up to the punchline? Harmonic oscillators at work?

  2. comedy is yet another form of hypnosis, i think.. comedians are craftsmen of a certain kind of hypnosis.. which basically works because we are hardwired for entertainment (or ecstatic collective engagement)