Watching Jerry Seinfeld’s new Netflix special, Jerry Before Seinfeld, I couldn’t help but think about Top Chef’s third season. It was the season of Hung Huynh. Huynh’s skill set was leaps and bounds above that of any of the other cast members, especially, ugh, fan favorite Casey. It wasn’t even close. But the show kept hitting this narrative about how his food was technically precise, but didn’t have any heart. I remember a blog post Anthony Bourdain wrote for BravoTV.com, which I can’t find anymore, rebuffing this assessment, saying, essentially, you don’t get as good as Huynh if you’re don’t love it. Perfect technique doesn’t reflect a lack of passion; his passion is his perfect technique. That’s Jerry Seinfeld. Jerry Seinfeld is figuring out how to work the words “in” and “on” and “out” a total of 34 times into a two-minute joke and have each be a laugh line.
What do I mean by a Jerry Seinfeldiest Jerry Seinfeld joke? Or, more appropriately, what’s the deal with a Jerry Seinfeld joke? Though, it should be noted, it’s not clear if Seinfeld ever actually said “What’s the deal,” as it seems more likely that people just got it from the Saturday Night Live sketch he starred in, in which three stand-ups had to give answers to “What’s the deal with” questions. (David Brenner, whom Richard Lewis called the king of observational comedy, is often cited for pioneering the comparable “Did you ever notice?” joke structure.) That sketch was more likely mocking Seinfeld’s comedy imitators than Jerry himself, but it sticks partly because Seinfeld doesn’t mind the joke (he, generally, likes all jokes). That said, parody is actually a good way of getting at what a Jerry Seinfeld joke is. Watch this Seinfeld-approved bit from the The Pete Holmes Show, in which Holmes had a Jerry Seinfeld puppet who was always working on new material:
At its most basic, a Seinfeld joke is a variety of observations around a topic, often focusing on a personal annoyance, stemming from the hypocrisy of how a word is used. For example, in Seinfeld’s new special, which is meant to be a bit of an origin story, he actually tells his first joke:
I’m left-handed. Left-handed people do not lie that the word left is so often associated with negative things:
Two left feet, left-handed compliment, what are we having for dinner — leftovers.
You go to a party, there’s nobody there, where did everybody go? They left.
Not bad! Even reading it, you can hear it in his voice. Still, I think if you were to ask Seinfeld about it, he’d say it’s pretty good, but there are too many words. “I’m left-handed. Left-handed people do not lie that the word left is so often associated with negative things” is a long setup, just to get people to laugh at the word “left,” which gets me back to the “in, out, on” joke. It comes right near the start of the special, after he explains that he was born in Brooklyn, but grew up in Massapequa. “We moved out from the city, to on Long Island,” it starts. “You don’t live in Long Island; you live on Long Island. You live in the city.” The key to how this joke works, despite its incredible simplicity, is in that succinct setup. A person might’ve said, “We moved from the city, to Long Island” or “We moved out of the city, onto Long Island,” but Seinfeld figured out the exact phrasing to key the audience into the words “out” and “on.” For that matter, throughout the joke he never says “into” or “onto” because the “to” would be cutting in on the laugh. He says “in,” and the audience starts to laugh; if says “to” right away, it tells the audience to stop.
And then the bit is off and running:
People ask you, “Where you live?”
You tell people, “We live in the city.”
You don’t live on the city.
But if you move out
of the city.
You’re in it now.
But if you go out,
you’re gonna be on
Long Island is not one of those places.
You can’t get in it.
There’s nothing to get in.
You just stay on it.
I’m sorry to present it like a poem, but also I’m not. The phrasing is so deliberate and masterful, it literally makes me giddy to present it this way. Twice in this section — “But if you move out of the city” and “But if you go out, you’re gonna be on the Island” — he changes his pace up to have the word out and on at the end of a line. I think it’s a well-known rule of thumb that the funny part of a spoken joke should be at the end, telling the audience,“laugh here.” And if you look at the “left” joke, it does that. But Seinfeld specifically plays with that convention here. If you watch the joke in the special, by both putting the key words at the end, pausing after saying them in the middle, and playing with how he phrases a sentence, he gets a rolling laugh, building up to the end of each section of the joke.
I won’t print the rest, but he continues this way, discussing transportation, mostly. It’s very good. “But so what?” asks the imaginary young comedy fan in my head. “It’s just a bunch of jokes about words, what does it mean? What does it say?” Seinfeld came up in a time, and defined a time in comedy, where confession wasn’t the convention, so he reveals himself much less directly. Seinfeld is not going to, you know, pretend to jerk off a microphone, but he’ll tell this joke. It might seem like a bunch of wordplay, but ultimately it’s about his not particularly warm childhood, and how Long Island is a boring place to grow up. “There’s nothing to get in. You just stay on it.” As a person who also grew up in Long Island, in only ten words, Seinfeld reads it perfectly. He tends to start with a small idea, then figure out the big idea behind his observation, then figure out the shortest way to communicate the absurdity of that imbalance — the absurdity of putting so much stock into the smallest thing possible. Though there is a logic to every line, there is a drop of anti-comedy in just how long it goes on and, knowing Seinfeld and his “nothing matters” philosophy, there is an undercurrent of existentialism in the reverie of using words over and over until they lose meaning.
I’ve heard comedians on podcasts talk about Seinfeld and how they liked him at a time in their life, but now they’ve moved on to more revealing comedians. You see him perform, but you don’t know who he really is, they say. His work is technically perfect, but there’s no heart, they imply. Truth in comedy, right? I have long disagreed with the popular assessment of how “truth” is defined. Kristen Schaal, for example, doesn’t tell you about her childhood or the awkward times she had one-night stands or whatever real comedy is, but her work 100 percent represents who she is as a being and as an artist. The best comedy allows you to vacation in someone else’s brain — it’s a real life Being John Malkovich — and this joke is who Jerry Seinfeld is. He isn’t telling you about his mental problems, he is showing them in action.
So, who is Jerry Seinfeld? A guy who enjoys writing jokes. Jokes aren’t just the system in which he communicates what he cares about, they are what he cares about. No, he doesn’t turn over a new hour every year, because he wants to treat each joke with care and know every word in it is essential. “I would rather do for you the best of what I have,” he told me in an interview, “then all new stuff that’s not going to be as good.”
There is a scene later in the special where Seinfeld is sitting in the street, next to the accordion folder where he puts all his jokes, surrounded by pieces of yellow legal paper. He looks half like a scrapbooking grandparent and half like Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. Yes, this joke is also made up of Seinfeldian observations and wordplay, but ultimately the joke is Jerry Seinfeld.