Saturday, April 24, 2021

Analyze this! The first bit from Seinfeld’s book “Is This Anything?”

Jerry Seinfeld’s published a new book, Is this Anything?, in which he publishes every joke he’s ever written, from first to last. As you may know. Seinfeld first works out his material on yellow, eight-and-a-half by eleven, legal pads. Then he takes them on stage, gets feedback, back to the pad. Etc. He’s saved everyone of those pads.

Well, Amazon kindly allows you to download samples of new books to Kindle, so I’ve done that. I figure I’ll analyze some of these jokes from time to time. Maybe it’ll go somewhere, maybe not. We’ll see.

From the front matter

It was my agent Christian Carino that convinced me people would like to see all this stuff and that we should put it out as a book.

A lot of people I’ve talked to seemed surprised that I’ve kept all these notes.

I don’t understand why they think that.

I don’t understand why I’ve kept anything else. What could possibly be of more value?

I understand. I’ve got notes on this computer going back to 1984 when I bought my first Macintosh and started keeping my notes on those little 3.25 floppy disks. I used a different disk for each general area of investigation. I also wrote my papers on the Mac. Had boxes and boxes of those little disks. And I’ve got paper files going back to my undergraduate days at Johns Hopkins in the 1960s ¬– class notes, term papers, research notes of various kinds, diagrams too. I’ve kept it all.

Seinfeld goes on:

In the sixties and seventies they would say on TV about certain comedians, “And he writes all his own stuff.” Because that was a new thing.

Comedians like Bob Hope and Jack Benny would actually joke about their writers as part of their act.

Stand-up comedy in the sixties made the same turn that music did with singer-songwriters becoming the way it was done.

I’ve never done anything else.

There was an episode about this in The Rockford Files, Season 4, Episode 6, “Requiem for a Funny Box.” A washed up comedian tried to pin a murder on his buddy Rockford; meanwhile he’d lost his funny box, his collection of material. I believe that sometime back in the 30s, perhaps, Disney paid some guy, I believe he was a professor somewhere, good money for his gag file.

The Joke

This is the first joke in the book. That makes it the first joke Seinfeld ever worked out. I’ve heard him deliver it on various YouTube clips. Perhaps his first Carson gig is one of them?

I’m producing it just like it’s laid out in the book, short lines and double spaced. I’m guessing that the line-length is about timing and phrasing. I’ve inserted numbers corresponding to comments I make after the joke. I’m not pretending that there’s anything particularly deep about my comments. There isn’t. It’s pretty obvious. Still, worth attending to.

The Left Bit

I’m left-handed.[1]

Left-handed people do not like that the word “left”

is so often associated

with negative things.[2]

Two left feet.[3]

Left-handed compliment.[4]

Bad ideas are always “out of left field.”[5]

What are we having for dinner?


You go to a party, nobody’s there. [7]

“Where’d everybody go?” [8]

“They left.” [9]

The Analytic Description

I suppose we can call 1 the topic while 2 is the comment. Notice the progression, though, from “left-handed”, to naming the word, left, to associating the word with negative things. Notice the pacing, the emphasis and tone of voice implied in the spacing.

Back to the body, 3, but not Jerry’s body, not his feet, but anyone’s body, the body in general. At 4 we’re pretty abstract, a complement is left-handed. What can that possibly mean? Do complements have feet as well? Staying abstract at 5, but a bit more abstract. A compliment is something you say; it’s a chunk of language. But an idea, what’s that? A thing in a light bulb handing over a character’s head in a cartoon?

[6] And now he switches up. He asks a question – rising tone of voice. He’s not asking it directly of anyone. He’s just asking you to imagine the question. It’s a question about food, something utterly simply and basic for life. Can’t life without it. He pauses, giving you time to register the fact that an answer is needed, and then he answers the question, “leftovers.” There’s that word again, left.

Now it’s conjoined with two more syllables so that it means something that didn’t quite make it to someone's mouth the first time. What a very peculiar property that is, being leftover. Being short, green, fast, or loud, these are straightforward kinds of properties. But leftover, that’s a role in a little story about people sitting around a table, having a good time, eating food, and then finishing up, walking away, and leaving some food on the table. That food is leftover. It’s not any particular kind of food – meat, vegetable (root or leafy), fruit, drink, dessert – it’s not even tasty or bland or downright awful. It could be any of those things. All that it is is that it isn’t eaten.

What I’m saying is that all that is there hanging in a little light-bulb over your head in that pause after the word leftovers.

Seinfeld gives us another scene, a party, 7. Notice that he doesn’t say, “but no one was there.” He asks a question, 8. He asks a question, which puts you just a little deeper into the scene. Maybe you even half imagine the room, the furniture, the lights, the leftovers scattered about on tables, maybe even some streamers or confetti the floor. The remains of the festivities. He gives you a split second to think about the answer to the question. And then he tells you, 9: “They left.”

That word again. We started at 1 with a very concrete thing, Jerry’s left hand. We end with an empty room. Not merely empty because no one is there. It’s empty because people once were there but now they’ve gone somewhere else. But one and the same word form, left, designates both those things, the particular left hand you see before you on Jerry Seinfeld, and the emptiness you feel because you were late to the damn party.

In fact, we have two different words wearing identical clothing. They have different histories. One (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) derives from Old English lyft, left ‘weak’ (the left-hand side being regarded as the weaker side of the body), of West Germanic origin. The other (6 and 8) derives from Old English Old English lǣfan ‘bequeath’, also ‘allow to remain, leave in place’ of Germanic origin; related to German bleiben ‘remain’. You don’t need to know this in order to appreciate the joke – I didn’t until, out of curiosity, I looked them up in the dictionary. But it’s worth noting that Seinfeld switches from one to the other in the middle of the joke.

This is verbal slight-of hand. Seinfeld presents you with an adjective at the beginning and switches it for an unrelated verb in mid-stream. Since they sound the same we bite. And then he springs the trap.

Like a finely-tuned machine

But this is all so obvious, you say, and, frankly, a bit tiresome. Well, yeah, I didn’t promise you anything deep and profound. As for the tedium, look at what it takes to explain the obvious, all those words. Seinfeld talks of jokes as finely tuned machines. He’s right. I want to understand how these machines work. And the tedium of my description is a crude, very crude, measure of the subtlety of that machine.

Look, if I could, I’d draw you a diagram of some machine. And each of those numbers in that joke up there, and in that description would point to mechanisms in that machine. But a drawing wouldn’t been good enough. Maybe an animation, of an actual little machine. Probably not a machine though, but some kind of circuit, with lots of wires and lights and stuff. Lots of blinking.

And there’d be more than nine mechanisms to point out. How many more? you ask. Haven’t figured it out yet.

* * * * *

An exercise for the reader: This is Seinfeld’s first joke. His bit about the donut hole is much more recent. But these two bits have a deep kinship? What is it? And what does it have in common with the oft-repeated, but not entirely accurate, characterization about his TV show: a show about nothing?

For extra credit: What does the style of these two bits have in common with deconstruction? And I don't mean deconstruction in the degraded sense it's come to have where it just means to unmask or expose. Think about how Seinfeld exploits the relationship between signifier and signified.


  1. I scanned it before reading. Although not a comedian, its a script, get a sense.

    "What are we having for dinner?"

    Everyone in the room, has to be at 'the table' on "we."

    It's very direct, to the whole room. Everything rides on getting that line perfect.

    Or that is what it looks like on first read. I would not like to do it, comedy audiences with first time, unknown comedians, potentially hostile, lot of potential distraction, the line won't work without holding the room.


    1. You're right about that line. This is a very precise business.

  2. Precise and it certainly is a business. Working in rep as a teenager, dying days of variety. I worked closely with a number of comedy actors that really were part of that older variety tradition.

    Big shock for me was to discover that everyday language 'jokes' are worth money. Very observational, lift anything and everything that can be converted in to performance= cash.

    Higher status comedy actors would negotiate a writing contract as well (more money), they placed a strong emphasis on it, precarious business, really rather a ruthless business.

    Constant search for material, maintaining status and the ability to both script and perform, demanding.

    Constant scanning of the every day world/every day language for what can be taken and sold.

    1. Yes, Russell Brand speaks to this issue of material as being a commodity. Tangentially related, he does a video about a recent release of some women rappers doing an unusually over-the-top sexualized work. Brand responds to the question of whether this is some landmark and pivotal piece of women's expression. he says, "Commodity." Taken and sold.