Takes One to Know One
The best thing about comedy for Jerry Seinfeld is talking to other comedians
Comedian David Steinberg continues in his role as “ear”—that is, a sounding board—to some of the funniest people working today.
David Steinberg: Thank you for doing this.
Jerry Seinfeld: This is one of my favorite things. The greatest thing about being a comedian is knowing other comedians. And you get to talk to them. It’s the most fun.
DS: I was watching Comedian, your documentary about going on the road. Did you enjoy doing that?
JS: When you’re in comedy, people always come up and say, “Oh, it must be so hard.” It really isn’t hard unless you’re not good at it. If you can do it, it’s really kind of fun and easy.
DS: After Seinfeld, what surprised you most about being on the road?
JS: Well, after the show, the road was really a lot easier. There’s a much higher and broader intelligence level today.
DS: They’re smarter.
JS: Everyone’s more aware of everything now.
DS: And there’s nothing regional anymore.
JS: Not as much. My friend Spike has a theory that there’s just too much of everything.
DS: I agree with that.
JS: That’s what’s happening to us.
DS: Yeah, there’s too much—you see someone interesting on TV on Tuesday, and by Friday you hate that person.
JS: You’re tired of them. Don’t you find you’re tired of shows you’ve never seen? You hear of some show’s farewell episode, and you go, “Thank God they’re done—enough of that crap.” And you’ve never seen one episode of it.
DS: Do people come up to you and say, “Here’s a joke.”
JS: No, but what I get is people trying to be funny. I don’t know why. I don’t need you to be funny. I don’t want to be entertained. Maybe they want to return the favor. You know, crankiness is at the essence of all comedy. My wife and I were discussing the different types of cranky. There’s entertaining cranky, annoying cranky, angry cranky.
DS: Do you ever get cranky and angry?
JS: Well, all comedy starts with anger. You get angry, and it’s never for a good reason, right? You know it’s not a good reason. And then you try and work it from there.
DS: Right. I’m that way about the phone. I don’t like it when people call me assuming I have nothing better to do than stop what I’m doing and talk to them.
JS: The phone has become for some reason this thing we really want security around. Who needs to know who’s calling—star 69 and caller ID and caller ID block? I mean, it’s like this war and anti-spy thing. There was a time the phone would ring, and people would say, “I’ll get it.” Remember that?
DS: So, what’s got your curiosity today?
JS: Nothing of any consequence.
DS: Nothing about life, death...
JS: That’s sort of interesting. A friend and I like to talk about these companies that work on things—like paper-towel people, with the absorbency issue they have. Like we’re paying attention. Like any of us are saying, “This one isn’t quite that absorbent.” And I’m thinking, Get on to something else. Get on to eliminating the long piece on the bottom when you tear it off. Just move on.
DS: Does it bother you to hear the side effects of all the pharmaceuticals now?
JS: No, it doesn’t.
DS: I’m bothered when there’s a new potato chip out and they tell you it has a side effect. Then they talk real fast so you won’t hear it, but what they’re saying is, “There’s a slight possibility of anal leakage.” I mean, for a chip, would you really risk anal leakage?
JS: Not at all. And the fact is that possibility always exists.
DS: You have a lot of material about animals, I notice.
JS: I do, yeah.
DS: Why is that?
JS: I’m good at making them speak in a very human voice.
DS: Oh, that’s good.
JS: I had a great bit I don’t do anymore, about how do they know so definitely the expiration date on milk? Do the cows tip them off? Do they look back and say, “July 3”? I’m actually a good puppeteer as well.”
DS: Oh, really?
JS: Yeah, my wife is always pushing us to go to these birthday parties. But the birthday party clown always wants to talk to me about his comedy career and why he can’t get to the next level. And I say to him, “Believe me, I completely understand the difficulty of going from entertaining four-year-olds to getting your own show. Because I went from having my own show to these four-year-olds’ birthday parties myself. I know the route.”
DS: How many kids do you have?
JS: I have three kids—girl, boy, boy.
DS: Boys will give you no trouble. The girl’s gonna drive you crazy. I have two, and they were teenagers at the same time. And it’s just not right. Every boy who comes to the door is the worst version of you.
JS: Right. I can’t even imagine. You’re upsetting me just talking this way.
DS: Yes, it’s upsetting, because when the boys knock on the door, they could say, “Hi, Mr. Steinberg.” No matter what they say, I hear, “We’re here to have sex with your daughter.” But I don’t have boys. Boys are dumber.
JS: Yes, right from the beginning. They really think their head is a helmet. You can see how the skull evolved when you have kids. They use it like a hammer. I love being a dad.I just love it. I got married at 45. Obviously, I had some issues.
DS: You don’t talk that much about your family. Your father was a sign painter?
JS: He had a sign shop. He was a very, very funny guy, extremely funny. I would always kind of watch him—and sometimes, I swear, I can feel myself physically doing him or taking on a physical position that he would. I was never, ever funny around my family. Out with my friends I’d be funny, but around the family I was embarrassed. I thought it was somehow undignified. I graduated college because I knew I had to do that to make them happy. And they said, “Have you had any thoughts about what you want to do?” and I said, “I think I want to be a stand-up comedian.” I was 22 years old. I had never said anything funny around them. And they just went, “Okay.” And then when they came to see me, oh God, that was just a nightmare.
DS: Do you remember your first Tonight Show appearance?
JS: Oh, sure. I was 26. I’d been doing comedy about three and a half years, so I was pretty green.
DS: That’s very young.
JS: Yeah, it is. I thought I was pretty good, but I had never performed for an audience bigger than maybe 150 people.
JS: And so you go on The Tonight Show—just the studio audience was 500 people—and then, of course, your entire career was on the line, too. It was scary. You get scared, and you just scream. You do your act as loud as you can when you get scared. I screamed, “The wanted posters in the post office...! Why didn’t they hold on to this guy when they were taking his picture?” Yeah, that was my joke.
DS: That’s a good joke. Your approach is very Talmudic. You’re always asking questions: “But why this, and why that, and how does
JS: Yes, I figured that out pretty quick.
DS: And you started out as a comedian by doing someone else, right? Doing anyone’s jokes that you heard.
JS: I used to do you.
JS: Yeah, it’s the reason I’m doing this interview—I told you, David, I don’t need this, but I felt so indebted to you, because back when I was just thinking about comedy, you were already doing it, and you were such an idol of mine. You and Bob Klein and Bill Cosby and George Carlin. You were like a constellation to me, you four guys. You had quality balls, you really did.
DS: Thank you for that. So, you’re going along doing your stand-up, and then you get the show Benson?
JS: I had a part on Benson—three episodes.
DS: You were excited to get it?
JS: I was so excited. And then I got fired. But the part was so small, and I was so irrelevant to the show, they didn’t even bother to tell me. Noboby—not even the director. It was just, “Get out of here, kid.”
DS: So humiliating.
JS: That was actually one of my great experiences, because it made me so angry that they had the power to just take this away from me. I valued my stand-up career in a different way for the first time after that. Then I started really focusing and writing and working hard and saying, “I’m gonna be a comedian, ’cause they can’t take that away.” From then on, it was just stand-up, stand-up, stand-up. I was doing The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and I was doing Letterman. And then when it came around to NBC being interested in me to do something, I had my own career that I was very comfortable in. And so I said, “Well, you know, this is the way it’s gonna be, or the hell with it. I don’t care.”
DS: I read that your influence for Seinfeld—yours and Larry David’s—was The Abbott and Costello Show.
JS: Yeah, that show was about comedy. There was no explanation of anyone’s life. Nothing made sense. There were always a lot of inexplicably evil people on that show, and we took that right on to ours: The garage attendant who tells you, “We can’t get your car out. We just can’t.”
DS: It’s simple.
JS: And that was the law of the show—that comedy is boss.
DS: What else did you like about Abbott and Costello?
JS: I love to play straight. Bud Abbott is really funnier to me than Lou Costello, because a really good straight man keeps bringing the logic back. In stand-up, it’s all about this rigorous logic. Like when George and Kramer teach people to make their own pizzas in their own ovens, you have to have somebody going, “Well, you can’t have people sticking their arms in 500-degree ovens.” That’s the funny part of the scene.
DS: Have you ever thought of going back to TV?
JS: No, I have not. That was nine years...I gave it everything I had, and I couldn’t have had a better ride. I had it all. I did the show I wanted with the people I wanted. And I had all the fun. I could only do it worse. And there’s no point in that.