The most-watched stand-up comedian ever is not Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin, Chris Rock, Bill Cosby, or Kevin Hart. It’s not George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Sarah Silverman, Louis C.K., Aziz Ansari, Larry the Cable Guy, Dane Cook, Amy Schumer, or Woody Allen. It’s Jerry Seinfeld: No, not Jerry Seinfeld the stand-up comedian who created Seinfeld, but Jerry Seinfeld, the fictional comedian on it. As the lead character on the most popular show on television, that comedian altered comedy by changing the relationship fans had with comedians, and what they expected from them.
Seinfeld lands on Hulu today, when interest in stand-up and comedy is at all-time high — we are currently at the peak of a Second Comedy Boom, one that Jerry Seinfeld helped define and foster with Seinfeld and his documentary Comedian. “Millennials have a deeper connection to comedy than previous generations,” Chanon Cook, Comedy Central’s head of research, told me in March. And according to Cook, it’s because of TV shows like Seinfeld, which gave that generation an understanding of comedy conventions. “Seinfeld was our generation’s beacon calling us all together,” comedian Pete Holmes, a Seinfeld fan who did a bit called “New Material Seinfeld” on his TBS show, said in an email. “It was like a Comic-Con for comedy dorks that you didn’t have to leave the house for.”
Through Seinfeld, the comedian became more than a person who stands in front of a brick wall and tells jokes. “It provided a beginning to the appreciation of the stand-up lifestyle,” as Holmes puts it. “What do they do all day? What is their job, exactly? What do they talk about offstage? Do they ever think ‘I’ve been on the Tonight Show’ while trying to work up the nerve to make a move with a girl?” That was the point of Seinfeld, as originally conceived. Seinfeld and Larry David first thought of Seinfeld not as a show about nothing, but a show about a comedian named Jerry Seinfeld, and how he came up with material. And though the show moved on to be much more than that, still at its core it was spending 30 minutes with Seinfeld observing the world. Where other sitcoms were adapted from a stand-up’s act, Seinfeld was about a stand-up’s life.
And much of character Jerry Seinfeld’s life was having conversations. The current generation of comedy fans is eager to listen to comedians talk about their childhood, sex life, diet, video games, and so on for two hours, and it’s because the most popular sitcom of their childhood was essentially that. Holmes, who hosts one of those weekly, two-hour conversation shows, the popular podcast “You Made It Weird,” agrees: “Those George and Jerry conversations really were the first taste of the modern podcast.” Comedy nerds expect to be spoken with, not performed to, and that started with that famous booth at Monk’s. As Holmes explains it, it’s about authenticity. Modern comedy fans want to see a comedian talk onstage like they do offstage, or at least how Seinfeld showed us they do offstage.
Often that means talking about jokes, not just telling them. It’s a more meta approach — a stand-up who acknowledges she’s doing stand-up; an audience, as Holmes says, who “[knows] what a bit is.” This winds back to Seinfeld as well. Take the opening to “The Checks”:
Jerry and Elaine come out of a drugstore. Elaine has a couple of carrier bags she’s fussing with the contents of.
JERRY: Hey, have you seen all these new commercials for indigestion drugs?
Pepcid AC, Tagamet HB.
ELAINE: Ugh, the whole country’s sick to their stomach.
JERRY: Now, you know you’re supposed to take these things before you get sick?
Jerry and Elaine begin to walk along the street.
ELAINE: What is this, a ‘bit’?
ELAINE: ‘Cos I’m not in the mood.
JERRY: We’re just talking. Is this not the greatest marketing ploy ever? If you feel good, you’re supposed to take one!
ELAINE: Yeah, I know that tone. This is a bit.
JERRY: They’ve opened up a whole new market. Medication for the well.
ELAINE: (tired) Alright, are you done with your little amusement?
JERRY: (hopeful) Then you admit it was amusing?
ELAINE: It was okay, but move the ‘medication for the well’ to the front, and hit the word ‘good’ harder.
JERRY: (thinking) Great. Thanks.
All of these cultural shifts — comedy as a lifestyle, comedy becoming more conversational, interest in the craft of stand-up — were taken to the next level with Comedian, Seinfeld’s 2002 documentary about getting back into stand-up. Along with documentaries like The Aristocrats and The Comedians of Comedy, it succeeded in capturing the comedian as artist. “Comedian humanized the craft. The anxiety, the rejection, the glory: It was all there. It helped everyone understand we’re not robots — we’re trying to do something very difficult, and we need you [the audience],” Holmes explained. “It’s like how if you know the backstory of the boxers, a boxing match is infinitely more interesting. So stand-up moved from a thing that you watched to get a few laughs while you got drunk in some shitty club to a craft. They got the backstory.”
The irony to all of this is Seinfeld’s actual stand-up comedy is not particularly influential anymore. (And this has nothing to do with the whole p.c. thing, as Seinfeld’s act was never particularly politically incorrect in the first place.) His style of polished, tightly written, hyperobservational comedy is not at all en vogue, as comedians are expected to be loose, improvisational, and personal. You go to a comedy show in the back of a bar in New York or the back of a comic-book store in L.A., and you’ll see Louis C.K.’s influence, Sarah Silverman’s influence, Mitch Hedberg’s influence, Chris Rock’s influence, Janeane Garofalo’s influence, Dave Attell’s influence, but you won’t see much Seinfeld. The exception being John Mulaney, the beloved modern stand-up who has a way with metaphors similar to Seinfeld (though his act does tend to be more personal). But he was criticized for being retrograde when his Seinfeld-ian sitcom, which was also about a comedian and his friends and also started with a comedy monologue, Mulaney, debuted on Fox, and was canceled soon after. This isn’t necessarily a knock on Seinfeld — in many ways, he spurred this shift away from himself by establishing a comedian-fan relationship with Seinfeld that has grown more and more intense in the 17 years it’s been off the air. (A relationship Seinfeld himself has tapped into with Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.) “That show helped mutate comedy into the hyperpersonal, whole-picture, inner-demons, recent-divorces, biggest-fear, sexual-failure arena that it’s in now. It’s not better or worse,” Holmes explained. “It’s just more raw and real.”