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“I approach it very carefully and scientifically because it’s so risky,” says Jerry Seinfeld of comedy as we sit down in one of his New York apartments to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s Awards Chatter podcast. “In comedy, success is not about taking risk, it’s about eliminating risk.” If that’s the case, then few ever have eliminated risk as effectively as this 62-year-old, who rose to prominence as a standup comedian in the ‘80s; co-created, co-wrote and starred in Seinfeld, the biggest TV sitcom of the ‘90s; and this summer, for his Crackle web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, became the first person ever to land a best variety talk series Emmy nomination for a digital program.
(Click above to listen to this episode now or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Kristen Stewart, Harvey Weinstein, Amy Schumer, J.J. Abrams, Kate Winslet, Samuel L. Jackson, Jane Fonda and Michael Moore.)
Raised in Long Island’s suburbs, Seinfeld, unlike many fellow comedians, had a happy middle-class childhood. “I was never uncomfortable,” he says, “but I did want a better life, a more interesting life. That was my drive.” He went off to Queens College, thinking he’d become a columnist for a car magazine (he was a car aficionado even then), but he met some classmates who were fellow comedy buffs and they began seeking out live comedy performances throughout the Northeast. “I had this secret dream of doing it,” he recalls, “but I would never say it. And then one day one of the guys said to me, ‘You know, I think of all of us, you might be the one that could do it if you tried.’ And really, I can honestly say, I had been waiting to hear that my whole childhood. Once I heard that — that someone thought that I could actually do it — then all the dominoes kind of fell.”
Seinfeld says he was “born” professionally when he began performing standup at New York-area comedy clubs in 1976. “It was a great life,” he says, though he acknowledges he often was “incredibly frustrated and cranky” because he expected to find great success even faster than he did. His style then, as now, could be described as “conservative” — no swearing, sex or politics, just “observational humor” about “small things,” which he describes as “my particular comedic fetish.” At the clubs in those days, Seinfeld often commiserated with another cranky comic, Larry David. (“Whenever we would talk,” he recalls, “in two seconds we were off to the races of something insanely hilarious, obsessive and usually minute — whatever the issue was, it was usually something minute.”) In 1981, just five years into life as a comedian, Seinfeld made his first appearance on Johnny Carson‘s The Tonight Show, the “only thing that legitimized you as a real comedian” in those days.
Although he continued to make appearances on that program throughout the decade and relocated to Los Angeles in the hopes of working more in TV, NBC “never had any interest in working with me,” Seinfeld recalls with dismay. He instead landed a job on the ABC series Benson, but was fired after just three episodes. “I had a very violent psychological reaction to someone else controlling my fate,” he says. “That bothered me deeply, and I said, ‘I will never be in that position ever again.'” His manager ultimately wrote a letter to NBC president Brandon Tartikoff pitching Seinfeld for a series of his own, which led to a meeting at which the comic was asked to come back with a premise for such a show. He reached out to David for advice and they met at a Korean deli across the street from Catch a Rising Star, where they began mocking things around them. Then, Seinfeld recalls, “He said, ‘You should do a show like this.’ I go, ‘Yeah, that would be fun. Let’s do a show like this. Two comedians. Nothing to do. Walking in and out of places in New York. Talking about stuff.’ That was it.”
That show became Seinfeld. Seinfeld dismisses as “nonsense” the notion that it was “a show about nothing” — “That was made up by the press” after Jerry, the show-within-the-show, was described as that. Instead, he says the program was a snapshot of what it was like to be a New York comic in the years before the turn of the century, and he feels it was good because it was “tight,” emulating the “crispness and precision” of The Abbott and Costello Show (1952-57) and always adhering to a simple self-imposed rule: “No hugging. No learning.” What this meant was that the show was to avoid, at all costs, the sentiment or moralizing that was then common on other sitcoms. “Our thing was, ‘We’re either setting up or paying off,'” he says. “Nobody wants to learn from a comedy. Learn somewhere else. How arrogant to presume that you could teach in addition to entertaining.”
People remember Seinfeld as a giant hit, and it was one — after a “very slow” start. Indeed, it struggled mightily to attract viewers for its first four seasons. “I used to be making the show and having a fantasy, ‘I wonder what it would be like to do a show that’s popular,'” Seinfeld recalls with a laugh. “I can’t even imagine what that would be like. It must be so fun.” Then the network moved the show from Wednesday nights to Thursday nights, after Cheers, and it quickly became the pinnacle of “Must See TV” — a genuine water cooler show — for its remaining five seasons. “To be perfectly candid with you, it was a lot of pressure,” Seinfeld acknowledges. “I’d probably have done the show a few more years if the show didn’t become so popular, because I felt a responsibility then to not disappoint the audience at the end.”
David left the show after season seven and Seinfeld became its sole showrunner on top of his other duties, which left him completely exhausted. “I knew it was about to crash and burn because I just couldn’t function anymore,” he says of seasons eight and nine. “I couldn’t keep going.” He was offered an unprecedented amount of money by NBC to keep making new episodes, but he pulled the plug. “Why would we end it? We ended it because we wanted the audience to have a great feeling about the experience that they had watching it,” he says. “It wasn’t just a business.” The series finale, in 1998, attracted 76.3 million viewers, or 58 percent of all viewers that night. No series since has approached those numbers and, in the era of cable and streaming, it’s unlikely any series ever will.
In the first couple of years after Seinfeld ended, as his former co-stars’ series struggled and people began speculating about a “Seinfeld curse,” he himself lay low. “I wasn’t doing anything,” he confesses. “I learned to play pool really well.” But, eventually, he was inspired by a Chris Rock standup performance to get back in the game. “I thought, ‘I would like to do that,'” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Hey, I know how to do that! I just have to go back.'” In addition to popping up, often unannounced, at comedy clubs around the tristate area and eventually the country (as chronicled in the 2002 documentary Comedian), he spent four years working on an animated film that ultimately disappointed him, Bee Movie (2007), and then a reality series that never quite worked, The Marriage Ref (2010-2011). But even in these disappointments, he learned lessons that he later applied to Comedians in Cars — among them, that he should stick to his comfort zone, that people behave differently in front of an audience from the way they do one-on-one and that footage can be reshaped through editing.
When he first pitched the idea for Comedians in Cars, it was because he wanted an excuse “to hang out with comedians … people I like, people I think are funny” for two or three hours, which would then be distilled down to 15- to 20-minute segments for “comedy geeks.” “All” potential outlets that he discussed it with were skeptical, he says, mostly because they thought only shorter videos get widely streamed — but Seinfeld wasn’t budging, and Sony’s digital platform Crackle decided to take a chance on him. They have been richly rewarded. Thus far, the show’s episodes, on which he is hands-on from start to finish (“I love doing the whole thing”), have been streamed some 100 million times (“Believe me,” he says, “it was a great surprise to me that people liked watching it”). Guests have included everyone from Howard Stern and David Letterman to former Seinfeld colleagues Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Michael Richards. And the show has garnered three Emmy noms, the first two in the short-format nonfiction program category, in 2013 and 2014.
The premiere of Comedians in Cars‘ seventh season took Seinfeld to the White House for “the wildest day I think I’ve ever had.” He had concluded that President Barack Obama, while not a comedian, was “very funny” with his material and delivery at the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner, and therefore would be a great guest. Seinfeld’s producer made it happen and, he says, “I was so nervous. I couldn’t believe I was doing it. It made no sense to me.” But the episode came together beautifully, from getting Obama to answer the White House phone with a joke Seinfeld scripted for him (“That has gotta be the biggest thrill of my life”) to knocking on the window of the Oval Office to hitching a lift in Obama’s one-of-a-kind ride. (For the record, Seinfeld says Donald Trump also would be welcome as a Comedians guest. “He is buffoonish enough,” Seinfeld grants, “with the long ties, the pinky-index pointing, yeah. He’s as funny as it gets.” Seinfeld would, however, have to insist on an open-top car: “I wanna see the hair fly.”)
If any other episode of the show has meant as much to Seinfeld, it’s the one with Garry Shandling, Seinfeld’s old and dear friend, which was shot shortly before Shandling’s sudden death in March. “It was unbelievable,” Seinfeld says. “It was really even a better gift than the White House, to see Garry one last time.”
Today, Seinfeld is an elder statesman of the comedy world, known to and revered by virtually everyone else in the field, with a vast fortune and nothing left to prove to anyone, and therefore free to pursue things he enjoys solely for the pleasure of it. That’s why he still does standup. He also loves comedians (he says his favorites today include Fred Armisen, Kristen Wiig, John Oliver, Bill Maher, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers and Lewis Black) and being in their company. That’s why he does Comedians in Cars.
Seinfeld shares that he recently had dinner with Fallon, a fellow Emmy nominee in the variety talk series category this year, and that the younger man brought with him photographs from the taping of the series finale of Seinfeld, which he snuck into at the age of 22. They brought back memories for Seinfeld, too. “We thought we were standing on the top of Mount Olympus in that moment,” he says. “The last thing anybody could have dreamed in that moment is that the show was just getting started and that it was yet to find its biggest audience.” Indeed, words like “shrinkage” and “yada yada yada” have become common parlance; there is a massively popular Twitter account called @SeinfeldToday which imagines the show in the present day; and Hulu recently paid $160 million for the right to exclusively stream the show’s 180 episodes on its platform.
These days, Seinfeld doesn’t watch many comedy series. “The sitcom seems like it’s not sure what it’s supposed to be in this moment,” he says, adding, “It feels a little confused.” Perhaps this aversion to post-Seinfeld comedy series is attributable to the fact that so many seem to be lesser versions of Seinfeld, from Friends (“We thought, ‘They wanna do our show with better-looking people. That’s what they’re doing here.’ And we thought, ‘That should work'”) to today’s ratings leader The Big Bang Theory (which is sort of like Seinfeld with intellectually gifted characters). But, as the multicamera/live audience format employed by Seinfeld becomes less and less common, he defends it. “When it’s a single-camera show, you’re listening and you go, ‘That was funny. Was that really funny? I think that was really funny. I don’t know. That seemed like a really funny joke, but I don’t know.'”
It’s all sort of unimportant to Seinfeld, who has no plans ever to do another comedy series again. It’s not that he’s above it; he’s simply been there and done that, and would elect to explore a new frontier, if anything. What, I asked him, would he say if, for whatever reason, Steven Spielberg rang him and asked him to act in a film not of Seinfeld’s own creation? “That sounds like fun,” he says. “I might do it.” But, he quickly adds with a smile, no respectable filmmaker would want him on his set, since he’d be unable to keep himself from cracking jokes about things. If, for instance, he was cast in the next Star Wars, he says with a laugh, he could only play someone from the dark side. He suggests a name: “Areyouserious.”
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