In a New Yorker Festival conversation with the magazine’s editor, David Remnick, Jerry Seinfeld covered a wide range of topics in a 90-minute session that was equal parts stand-up, deconstruction of stand-up, and reflections on his singular path to the top of the comedy heap.
Given a fond hometown welcome at the Society for Ethical Culture, where he and Remnick both sent their children to private school, Seinfeld showed that at 63, his keen observational skills and scientist’s sense of where the joke lies had not abandoned him. He wowed Remnick with a detailed explanation of how the acoustics in the room, which is lined with wooden pews and has a decidedly early-20th century aesthetic, would affect his enunciation and rhythm. Succeeding at comedy, he said, is about fine-tuning each second of the time on stage: the delivery of jokes, the pauses, the laughter, which can take infinitely different shapes.
“You could play me a laugh and I could tell you the joke that came before it,” he said. “Comedy is like a science experiment.” The technical side of comedy is also a core theme of Seinfeld’s Netflix special, Jerry on Seinfeld. While Remnick played a clip and referenced the special, he steered clear of any questions about the comic’s big payday from the streaming service or the decision to move his Emmy-nominated Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee from Crackle to Netflix.
Early in the night, Remnick asked about Seinfeld’s inspirations and he mentioned Bill Cosby. Asked about the sexual abuse morass that has toppled Cosby from the comedy pantheon, the comedian admitted being “unable to enjoy his material as I once did.” He also said recent reports about Jerry Lewis cutting his children out of his will “depressed me” and caused him to re-evaluate Lewis a bit. “But so many comedians had horrible lives you don’t admire,” he said. “If you knew everything about everyone, you wouldn’t like anyone.” (Yogi Berra would have smiled.)
After a clip was shown of a Seinfeld episode, “The Cigar Store Indian,” Seinfeld said flatly, “You could never do that today.” When Remnick asked if that was a loss to culture, Seinfeld shrugged, “One door closes, another opens. … There’s always a joke; you’ve just got to find it.”
While not known for introspection, Seinfeld showed flashes of insight about his path. His maniacal drive to succeed in comedy, he said, was a byproduct of starting when he did, in the mid-1970s, just after the idealistic 60s and a time when America was “less of a success culture and more of a soul culture” that encouraged people to pursue their passions. Equally fortuitous, he added, was having parents who were both orphans who married in their mid-40s, hardly the norm in the Eisenhower era. “It was benign neglect,” he said. “They treated me like a raccoon. … And it was incredibly freeing.”