With today’s episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, featuring guest Jimmy Fallon, Jerry Seinfeld wraps the fifth season of his popular web series. But the 60-year-old comedian has plenty of other things to keep him busy, including a cameo in friend and fellow comedian Chris Rock’s Top Five and a constant presence on the stand-up circuit. Vulture spoke with Seinfeld, who talked about why he never had an interest in hosting The Tonight Show and how he deliberately chose a different path, career-wise, from Adam Sandler.
Jimmy Fallon’s a fitting guest: You’ve had a long and storied history with The Tonight Show, going all the way back to 1981, when Johnny Carson was hosting and he gave you your big break. I imagine the show holds a special place in your heart?
Oh, the most special place! I mean, I went from a club comic to The Tonight Show to my own TV series, all in the same building. And then I kind of retired from show business. I mean, my career was really that simple: nightclubs, The Tonight Show, TV series, done.
A few years back you were rumored to be in talks to take over The Tonight Show. But given that you tell Fallon in the new episode that being a late-night talk-show host is some kind of sick experiment wherein we watch a comedian inevitably go insane over 30 years, I take it you never had any real interest in the job?
Honestly, I never considered it for other reasons. Chief among [them] is I don’t think I have any talent for it. The way this show, Comedians in Cars, started was I thought, There is a group of people I can talk to. But they’re all comedians. So with the idea and the internet and streaming video and miniature cameras, it all just happened to happen at the same time. It could not have happened at another time. That’s how I was able to do a talk show. But I could never do a real talk show. I don’t have that skill set.
There’s one important piece missing: To be a real talk-show host, you have to be able to pretend you’re interested. And I am missing that piece.
That’s probably a good thing. I’m curious to find out why, despite all your massive success, you still are constantly out on the stand-up circuit, playing theaters, workshopping your material at small clubs. Is it almost a compulsion?
You could call it a compulsion. I’m totally guilty of that. You could use the word obsession. I mean, I think of it as a lifelong love affair. There’s just something romantic and exciting and weird and unique about this profession: a guy or woman by themselves, up there, telling jokes. I’ve just been fascinated by it from the beginning. I’ve loved all the other things that I’ve done also, but they didn’t hold that kind of fascination for me. A lot of people really expected me to go into production. I could have done what Adam Sandler did. I could still do it. I could have a production company and I could be making all kinds of things. I would rather sit there with a notepad and a pen and just try and figure out a funny bit about doughnut holes.
Do you have any interest in doing any more scripted work?
Well, I did a lot of it. In screen time, in terms of the screen time that we made on the TV series in the ‘90s, you know, I’m up there with some of the most prolific directors in the business. We made 90 hours of stuff. That’s a lot of stuff. And I don’t really … I like this other form of expression, I guess. It drives me in some other way. I can’t explain it. I learned how to do it on the TV series, and I could certainly have continued doing it. We could be talking about my movie coming out right now. Maybe not in TV Guide. But I don’t know. I’m just not attracted to the process and the experience and the result. I don’t have what it takes. You’ve got to know what you’re good at. Everyone in life has to figure out what they’re good at.
And with Comedians in Cars, by contrast, there’s a freedom, which you told me about last time we spoke, which you find inherently appealing?
No rules. Complete freedom. And the biggest network to reach humanity that has ever existed is at your fingertips. I just found that irresistible.
It’s interesting how you embrace this new technology and yet you still write down all your jokes on a legal notepad, super old-fashioned.
Yeah. Still very low-tech: It’s just a pad and a pen. I was talking to Chris Rock the other night. I was saying, “I want to get 30 new minutes in the next year.” We were saying that it’s not easy to do, but we both know exactly how you’ve got to do it: pad and pen, into the small clubs night after night. There’s no other way. You can’t get it any other way. It’s like, if you want to get gold, you’ve got to get a pan, you’ve got to roll up your pant legs, and you’ve got to stand in the stream and pan. And that’s it. There’s no easy way to get it. So that’s kind of nice.
And the appeal of the small clubs is that you can fall on your face and no one gets hurt?
Yeah. Who cares? And they’re not paying to see you. When people are paying 75 or 100 dollars or whatever it is, I don’t want to be up there experimenting. That’s just my philosophy. I like to give them my finished work in those venues.
You talked to Fallon about the feeling of proving yourself to an audience similar to when you were first starting out as an opening act.
It’s fun to convince people who don’t think that you’re funny that you’re funny. And there’s an element of that in every stand-up set no matter who or where or what it is. I’m gonna do [a stand-up set] Thursday night on Jimmy’s show, but I just heard it’s airing next Tuesday. And that’s somewhat the same. But when you walk out as a total unknown, and they introduce you and there’s no applause, it’s kind of a cool game if you’re up for it. That is what these guys [who guest on Comedians in Cars] are about. That’s why I love doing this show about them. They like that. They’re like, “Yeah, let me try and do that. Let me go up in front of people who really don’t want to see me. They just want to see the headliner. They don’t want to see this other guy.” And you have to turn them around. It’s fun.
A few years ago in a New York Times profile, you mentioned you still wavered at times between believing your comedic chops were on point. Where do you stand now?
Yeah, I mean. It’s a tricky thing. It can disappear in a second. You just stumble over a word, there’s a wrong pause, the line isn’t in your head when you need it. And the whole thing just stops dead. It’s not like a song or a play that kind of moves along. When a stand-up is working, if he wavers for one second, everything comes to a stop.
I guess that’s the fun of the game.
It is. It’s part of the fun of the game. I’ve always said it’s much more like a sport than an art, and you kind of win or lose.
Last time we spoke, you explained how it was your 13-year-old daughter Sascha who turned you on to the YouTube comedian Miranda Sings. I take it your daughter has inherited the Seinfeld comedic gene? Would you encourage her or your two sons to pursue a career in comedy if they were so inclined?
I mean, they can do whatever they want. As far as my daughter is concerned, she’s got it. I don’t know what she’s gonna do with it, but she’s stuck with it. She’s got that same bug I have of trying to make everything funny.
I imagine that sometimes comes back to bite you in the ass as a parent.
No. I love it.
How do you relax when not obsessing over your bits or working on your web series? I know you’re a longtime practitioner of transcendental meditation.
I’m obsessed about that, too. In fact, that’s what I’m going to do as soon as we hang up. I started doing TM in ’72, and that’s kind of how I recover from doing things that are tiring. It keeps my energy really high. I don’t know if it clears your mind. What it really does is it helps your body and mind to rest. They don’t really get a good rest in sleep. And this has been studied by virtually every medical school in America these past 40 years or whatever that this stuff has gotten popular here. And if you just look at the medical research of what goes on in the brain and the body in this process, it’s totally different from sleep. So forget about relaxation or anything like that: It’s the ultimate work tool to me. It’s like you have a phone and someone hands you the charger and you go, “Just try plugging this in and watch what your phone will do now.”