Saturday, June 18, 2016

Jerry Seinfeld & the Craft of Comedy

Another working paper. URL at

Abstract: Stand-up comedy is tightly constructed despite appearing to be casual and improvised. In one section this working paper examines a comedy bit about donut holes and finds in it a metaphysical dimension that is, in fact, typical of Seinfeld’s comedy. Another section shows how a conversation with President Barack Obama hinges on the distinction between a social role and the person playing that role. A final piece looks at the wide range of ephemeral phenomena around which Seinfeld crafts his comedy.


Introduction: A Comedian’s Mind 1
Jerry Seinfeld and Barack Obama Have a Meeting of the Minds 3
Seinfeld Through the Donut Hole 11
Single Shots: Seinfeld’s Ongoing Anatomy of Life and Comedy 15
Introduction: A Comedian’s Mind

Jerry Seinfeld started out as and remains a stand-up comedian. I’ve never seen one of his live shows. I didn’t really become aware of him until I started watching Seinfeld, and that’s when I learned that he did stand-up. Stand-up, of course, is live performance, something I’m familiar with as a musician. And that’s where I connect with him, the rigors of live performance and preparing for it.

One of the pieces I’ve collected here, “Seinfeld Through the Donut Hole,” is specifically about that. It’s a light analysis of a specific comic bit, one about donut holes and fat people. The point about donut holes is that there’s nothing there. The point about fat people is that eating donut holes is not a viable weight reduction strategy. Just how Seinfeld connects these two, that’s the art and craft of comedy.

The first piece, “Jerry Seinfeld and Barack Obama Have a Meeting of the Minds,” is a bit different. It centers on an episode from Seinfeld’s current web-based series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. As you may know, the premise is simple: Seinfeld, who loves and collects cars, meets a comedian in a car specifically selected for them. The two go off, Seinfeld driving, and get coffee–and, more often than not, breakfast or lunch as well. They’re chatting all the time.

The conversation is “real” in the simple sense that it is not scripted. But the show we see is nonetheless meticulously crafted. Upwards of three hours of whatever (it’s not film and it’s not videotape; it’s digital bits stored in what? flash memory?) is edited down to 15 or 20 minutes of program. That makes it watchable, entertaining, and even enlightening, whereas the raw footage, if you can call it that, would be a snooze fest.

Barack Obama, of course, is not a comedian. But he’s got a sense of humor. That, and the fact that he’s President of the United States, is why Seinfeld did an episode with him. Just who approached whom about doing this, Seinfeld to Obama, Obama to Seinfeld, I don’t know.

The conversation is real in the same sense that all these CCGC conversations are real; it’s not scripted. Most of the conversation is casual chit chat. But there’s a moment where it turns real in a deeper sense, and that’s what my piece is about. The deeper revelation starts when Seinfeld asks: “How many world leaders do you think are just completely out of their mind?” It pierces the veil when Seinfeld tells Obama “the work was joyful. And interesting, and that was my focus.” That’s what makes Jerry Seinfeld tick, and, we are to infer, Barack Obama too.

The third and last piece, “Single Shots: Seinfeld’s Ongoing Anatomy of Life and Comedy,” is a bit different. “Single Shot” is a figure of speech: a single shot of cream in your coffee; different versions of a single bit, motif, or incident from different episodes of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Think of it as compressed commentary on Seinfeld. The show came to be known as a show about nothing, but it really isn’t. That is, it isn’t about nothing. It’s about the metaphysical (yes, I said “metaphysical”) oddities of everyday life, the oddities through which stand-up comedians drive their tightly constructed comedic contraptions. Each single shot focuses on one oddity, thereby bringing it into metaphysical relief.

Metaphysical? There’s that word again.

Don’t ask, don’t tell.


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