Vulture’s Good One podcast will be recording a live episode with comedian Bill Burr at this year’s Vulture Festival on Sunday, May 21, at 6:30 p.m. in New York. Tickets are available now on VultureFestival.com!
The origins of Good One, Vulture’s new podcast about jokes and those who tell them, date back two years ago, specifically, to the second Vulture Festival. I was tasked with interviewing Jerry Seinfeld, a real (albeit intimidating) dream come true. It went well, with us talking about Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Bee Movie memes, and jokes. There were a lot of questions about jokes. So much so, that afterward, Seinfeld told me, “You’re really interested in jokes,” you know, for someone who isn’t a comedian. Thinking back, this comment and interview inspired me to start a podcast about jokes and how they are constructed. Ahead of Good One coming to Vulture Festival this weekend, with Bill Burr as a guest, we decided to run that Seinfeld interview as a special bonus episode.
You can listen to the episode and read an edited transcript below. Tune in to Good One every Monday on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. Buy tickets for the live Good One at VultureFestival.com.
Why did you decide to lead off this season of Comedians in Cars with the Julia Louis-Dreyfus episode?
You really see a relationship that I think people may have been curious about. I often get asked, “Are you still friends?” And, you know, a lot of times people work together for a long time and don’t end up friends at the end, so I thought there was something very sweet about it.
How is your relationship different than, say, you and Larry David, who was the first episode of the series?
They’re all totally different. There’s no relationship between the one I did with Larry David and this one. With Larry, you could actually see how we wrote together. With Julia, there’s just that, I think, sweet brother-sister thing there that we always had. It’s part of what made the show work, so there’s more commonality than difference.
In David Letterman’s final episode, Julia Louis-Dreyfus joked about how she’s going to be part of another bad finale, obviously making fun of Seinfeld. Do you like the joke that it was a bad finale?
I like all jokes. That’s what do. That’s what I live for. There’s really nothing else I care about more than jokes. I don’t really care who the victim is or whose feelings have to be hurt. If it’s a good joke, I’m into it. We actually fought hard for that particular joke. The writers had a different joke that Julia came to me and said, “I don’t know if this joke works.” I read the joke and I go, “No, that’s a bad joke.” She had flown from L.A. to New York just to do the one line. It was a big deal. We were really excited to be on that show. It was a really cool experience to be on Dave’s last show and I didn’t want her to go out there and tank. I’d been at this a while. You don’t always know 100 percent, but in this case, I knew it was a loser. So we went to the writers and it was quite a long negotiation and then they came up with this other line, which was sensational. I wonder, actually, did they have that or did that write that? Maybe they didn’t want to hurt my feelings? Of course, not knowing me, not knowing that I don’t have feelings.
With Letterman, that was another one of your peers that was retiring, and I know you said you’ll never really stop doing stand-up, but I was wondering what drives you to do this show?
I never thought it was a show. I started to think this is something I missed from talk shows, casually hanging out. The real estate is too valuable, and people want to push their product. The reason I never did a talk show is because I can’t really talk to people that aren’t comedians and be funny.
It’s only been 3 minutes, so we’ll see.
Stand-up has become so popular for so many young people now. There’s so many stand-up geeks. I thought they would like this, so I just made a few of them and just threw them on the internet.
An episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is just you doing just that, but what is the process of making it into a thing?
The big process is after we shoot it. I call somebody I love, who I just think is funny, maybe three months in advance because people are busy and they always say yes. We do the thing and then it’s nothing. Now I’m making the show after that — all of the work, like the music and the editing.
I’ll give you an example of something that I got away with here. Julia and I are talking about Net-a-Porter and I say, “Do you use that thing?” and she says, “Yeah, I use that. I think I have a problem with it.” I asked to see if [my wife] Jessica knows, so I decide to call Jess right there. I call her, they talk, and then she gets off the phone. I think, I need something funny to get out of this, so I say to Julia, “Just take the phone and thank my wife for turning me into a human being.” She is not on the phone with Jessica. It’s totally fake and I do a lot of that. I do a lot of fake things like that. She’s obviously such a great actress, you have no idea that she’s not on the phone. It’s just “Do this,” “Do this,” “Do that.” There’s no second take. I didn’t say do it again.
Or if there’s a shot of something that I’m missing. For example, the guy who says to me, “Hey, want to trade, Jerry?” when I pull up into Julia’s driveway. Well, you can’t hear that guy because it was just a real guy and there’s no microphone to pick him up, so somebody in editing just said it and then I subtitled it at the bottom. It is what the guy said, but if it wasn’t a funny line, I would have changed it because who cares. There’s this incredible latitude of making this show. If I don’t have the shot, I’ll just say, “Send some kid out with an iPhone.”
You are crafting the jokes in editing?
What I am good at, and what every comedian is good at, is knowing how to carefully manage an audiences’ attention span. To go back to that little scene with the telephone about Net-a-Porter. When the show was first cut together, Julia says, “Ask your wife about Net-a-Porter.” I say, “You know what, I’m going to ask her right now,” and I take the phone and I dial the phone. Jess picks up and I go, “Hi Jess, I’m sitting here with Julia. We’re right in the middle of doing an episode. She has a question about Net-a-Porter. Can I ask you right now? Are you busy?” You got to get rid of all that. All of that goes because it’s just boring. Now, it’s not boring in a TV series. When you’re watching a TV series, you’re watching an episode of a sitcom, there’s a story that you’re hooked on and there are characters and this is going somewhere. This thing is going nowhere. Even when they first cut it together, they even had me dialing. No, no, no, you can’t have that. That microsecond. The internet is the most brutal medium for attention spans. As a stand-up comedian, you must master that attention span dynamic of an audience and it’s no different from trying to do jokes for four drunks in a nightclub at two o’clock in the morning. You got to get their attention and hold it. We have to spend our life doing it and that’s what you have to do on the internet to survive.
Did you learn anything from watching people watch it?
I will go back and reedit it. I’m a little compulsive, a compulsive tinkerer. I love to go, “Let’s try this. And maybe shrink that section a little bit.” That’s what stand-up is, it constantly moving the accordion to different sizes.
There are a lot of comedians who write onstage. They go up with a premise and over time carve it down. But you write and then it changes. What is the process of how your jokes get ready?
It’s just a grueling process of iterations. I’ve been working on this thing about doughnut holes recently. I just love talking about doughnut holes. As soon as you bring it up, people go, “Really? That’s what you’re going to talk about?” It’s a silly thing to talk about and I had this thing about how I’m a very literal person. When you’re that literal, you wonder, “Is it really holes? If they were really doughnut holes, the bag would be empty and the doughnut holes are not doughnuts because they don’t have a hole, so what is this? What are you selling?” It’s quite complicated to bring that subject up and take an audience through its moronic logic, but audiences love to hear about something very stupid that I impose a very rigorous intellect to. That joke is kind of philosophical. It’s just if you have the will to get up onstage night after night and say doughnut holes, let’s try this again, and then when you get it, if you do get it, it’s unbelievably satisfying. The big thrill is you go to another comedian, “Did you see my doughnut hole bit?” And they go really, “You got a bit?” “Oh, I got a whole thing on doughnut holes.” And they go, “Gee, I’ve seen doughnut holes, I never thought that that was a bit.” I go, “Oh, it’s hilarious.”
Will you keep on tinkering with it for years?
For years, yeah. Some things just fall together, like the bit about the post office, where I do the postmaster general going, “We’re going to go up a penny on the stamps.” And we’re at home going, “Dude, we don’t even know how much a stamp is. If FedEx is $18, then we got a problem. You got to catch up to the world.” So that bit, once that gets nailed down, I won’t touch that. But certain things wiggle around, and you can’t nail ’em, and you keep changing little things.
Comedian, your documentary about getting back into stand-up after Seinfeld, is considered to be really pioneering in creating a generation of comedy nerds. I was wondering what you thought about an audience that knows the mechanics, that knows what a bit it, that want to see the process.
I always thought that audiences learning more about stand-up might spoil the magic for them, but it doesn’t seem to. I think we just need the laughs that much. I watch comedians and I watch them do the exact same set two times in a row. I’m a comedian, I really love jokes, but you can laugh a second time. You can think that’s a good joke and you can enjoy it again.
How do you think it changes the way you do comedy, if an audience knows more about the mechanics?
I don’t know if they know. I don’t care if they know. It’s not my job to know. Young people have gotten off on this thing of having a whole new hour every year. That’s very wrong-headed, in terms of bringing yourself to the highest level you can get to.
I’ve read that you don’t have intention to film a special. [Editor’s note: He has since decided to release two specials on Netflix.] How much material are you currently walking around with?
I don’t know exactly, but it’s probably two hours, maybe three. You can just pick things off a shelf — I think I’ll do this, or I think I’ll do that. I would rather do for you the best of what I have, then all new stuff that’s not going to be as good.
You’ve had Louis C.K. on. Aziz Ansari, Chris Rock, Kevin Hart. They’ve all played Madison Square Garden. Do you ever think about doing it?
I don’t know if that many people would want to come see me, but I don’t even know if I would like it. I only played a place like that once, in London at the O2, which is 13,000. You make a lot of money, but the show doesn’t have that intimacy. I can do shows in front of 3,000 or 5,000 people, where you can actually feel that you are hurting people physically — they are laughing so hard. You want to hurt people. You want to kind of wipe ‘em out. You can’t do that in front of 15,000. There’s just too much air in the room. Last time I was in Memphis, Tennessee, it was just a wonderful audience, and the show got to this place that we’re in this very tight sync. It’s very, very exciting for the performer and the audience, and that can only happen in a certain-size venue.
In a few episodes, you brought up the question of if comedy is an art form. When you were talking to Fred Armisen, it was like, “Why isn’t George Carlin seen as an artist?” But you often compare yourself to an athlete. So are you an artist, or what part of what you do is the art?
There’s nothing about it that’s not art because it’s made out of air. It doesn’t have a reason. It doesn’t need to be here. There’s absolutely no difference between the greatest painting ever made and a joke; it’s just something someone invented that someone else likes. That’s art, and it has no reason to exist except its own virtue, so that’s what it is. But when there’s a two-drink minimum, and people are getting drunk to make the guy seem funnier …
You don’t have any intention of retiring, but if you knew a thing was going to be your last set, where would you do it and would you do an hour, would you work on new material?
Honestly, I would do the set I did last night. I go up every night, going, If this is my last set, I want to give them the absolute best that I could possibly give. And I got that from Joe DiMaggio, who’s one time playing in a meaningless game in August, and the Yankees were out of it, and he was just killing himself trying to make these plays in center field, and the game didn’t mean anything, and afterward, they asked him, “Why are you trying so hard? The Yankees are out of it; the game means nothing.” He said, “There might be a kid in the audience that never saw me play, so that’s why I try.” That’s my code. There might be somebody out there that’s only going to see me this one night. I want to give him the best I have.