How to Be a Standup According to a Pre-Famous Jerry Seinfeld

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

This week, Warren Littlefield’s oral history on NBC’s Must-See TV block, Top of the Rock, hit stores and it serves as an entertaining and candid behind-the-scenes look at one of the most lucrative collection of TV shows in the history of the medium. (To illustrate how much I enjoyed this book: I did not skip over the chapter on Mad About You, which means that I have now spent more time reading about the show than actually watching it.) Today, we’re going to look an interview from the Paley Center archives with the powerhouse of the Thursday night block, Jerry Seinfeld, from the days before he was a household name.

In 1990, before we had a Comedy Central it was known simply as The Comedy Channel and it featured a much different schedule (many more reruns) and attitude than what’s there today. One of their original shows, which took a serious and insightful look into the world of comedy was Alan King: Inside the Comedy Mind. The best way of describing the show to a contemporary audience would be to say that it’s basically WTF without Marc Maron: a (mostly) serious interview program about the ins and outs of comedy.

For those unfamiliar, Alan King was a comedian in the early days of entertainment. At one point in this episode of his show, as he talks with Seinfeld about how in his day there were no comedy clubs, he mentions that as he started out he would open up for Judy Garland and Leena Horne as his way of performing for crowds. After beginning his career as a one-liner style comedian, his style evolved into a much more conversational style and developed more of a dialogue with his audience, and no doubt because of this style, Seinfeld, Larry David, Bill Cosby and Joan Rivers all cite him as an influence. King had a long and storied career, perhaps most notably acting as the MC at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961.

The thing about this episode of King’s interview show that I found most interesting is that it serves as a bit of a time capsule to show the mindset of one of this generation’s most predominant figures in comedy just a short while before he would make it big. When this interview originally aired in 1990, the TV show Seinfeld would have still been in its first season. And keep in mind; this was a first season that was made up of just five episodes that were just barely made due to some creative accounting on NBC’s part. The show wouldn’t become the enormous hit that it is today for at least a year when it was given the coveted time slot after Cheers. In his talk with King, the two primarily discuss standup, but we also learn a lot about Seinfeld’s perspective on comedy during this formative period.

According to Jerry, the reason he prefers standup to any other form of creative expression is the control one has on stage. If you’re directing or writing, he says, you rely on so many other people to make things go smoothly, but when you’re doing standup, it’s just you on stage. He likens the process to surfing: “People think the comedian leads the audience. He doesn’t really. He rides that…wave that can crush you at any time. While you’re doing your maneuvers you look like you’re in control, but you’re really not.” In addition to the simplicity of standup, Seinfeld also says the he enjoys the process because he “doesn’t like people.” He elaborates, saying, “I don’t want to work with them. I don’t want to know them.” He likes the purity of one man entertaining a crowd found in standup.

This idea of purity is also reflected in his writing. As King and Seinfeld talk, the generation gap becomes more and more pronounced, and one topic that the two seem to disagree on is the writing of material. Alan tells us that during his time it was completely fine for comedians to borrow material from one another, and cites Milton Berle as an example of someone who out-and-out stole jokes from others. Seinfeld explains that the modern comedian who is caught stealing jokes is a pariah in the community. With the explosion of standups that came out of the 1980s and 90s, according to Jerry originality is the only thing that a comedian can truly sell. Seinfeld acknowledges the fact that there are some standups who will buy jokes from others, but he seems very proud of the fact that he is not among them. “I like the audience to be in the room with the comedian and the guy who thought of it at the same time. That’s the craft of it; the romance of it.”

Also on the topic of writing, as someone who didn’t come up in the time of comedy clubs, King is curious about what happens when there are other comedians going up ahead of you who might do a similar “girlfriend” joke. To this, Jerry has a simple response: “no girlfriend jokes.” His basic statement here is you have a joke that someone else could come up with and might do before you get on stage then it’s not original enough. A comedian has to push himself or herself to come up with something that no one else can think of.

From looking at just this much of the discussion, it might sound as though Jerry is painting a picture of standup as an easy endeavor, where if you write your jokes and tell them in front of people, then NBC will give you a sitcom. Not so fast. Jerry spends a lot of time talking about how he really doesn’t have much of a desire to perform. He doesn’t like getting attention, but only fights for it as a function of doing his job to perform his jokes. To illustrate this, he claims that he’s never gone over his allotted time. While he lives for the rush he gets from an audience’s laughter, he’s not someone who will stop at nothing to get their attention at all times. Later in the show he reflects on his personae, or more accurately, his lack of one. He says he doesn’t have a hook. “I’m not ‘the guy that…” I’m just ‘that guy.’”

The tone of the show throughout is one of conversation and friendly back and forth, but there is one moment where Jerry shows a little bit of passion, and it comes when King asks him what it means to be described as a “clean comedian.” Seinfeld then goes on to basically describe cursing in one’s act as being lazy. “You can get a laugh with a profane word in a joke that’s not funny,” says Jerry. “The joke may be funny. It might not be… It’s like Hamburger Helper. Where’s the meat? Where’s the bread?”

So where does the material come from? Well, Jerry claims not to really know exactly where it comes from, but he talks about the idea of a comedian’s third eye. It’s the observer; the voice that is disengaged from actual life that looks for the funny angle. He explains that even while he’s having a conversation with Alan King, his third eye is up there, watching, pointing out how ridiculous it is that these two are talking about nothing that anyone will ever care about.

From Alan King: Inside the Comic Mind to his documentary Comedian to last year’s HBO special Talking Funny, every few years Jerry seems to like to sit down and talk about his philosophy of comedy. What’s impressive is the fact that any of the statements Seinfeld makes in this 22-year-old TV show could still be true of his work today. Jerry Seinfeld’s solidified comic voice, despite the fact that he may not have a hook, ensures that at whatever point in his career that he’s expounding on comedy, the smart thing to do would be to listen.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.

How to Be a Standup According to a Pre-Famous Jerry […]