I just listened to an excellent Marc Maron interview with Jerry Seinfeld.
When I first saw Seinfeld’s post-series 2002 documentary, Comedian, I really enjoyed it, although like many, I was made queasy by the film’s portrayal of the far lesser-known comedian Orny Adams — talk about punching down! Seinfeld’s idolization of Bill Cosby also has not aged well, to put it mildly; I don’t know how widely known Cosby’s decades of drugging and raping women were — Tina Fey was making references to it by 2005 — and I don’t know the degree to which Seinfeld should have known, should have heard, should have listened.
So within those two moral bookends, one of which is overwhelming, what I liked about the documentary was its portrayal of the craft of comedy. I’m not the biggest fan of Seinfeld’s stand-up, but I admire his dedication to, and clarity about, the work of getting a laugh. I’ve always been interested in this, and if you are too, in addition to Maron’s WTF podcast, I recommend Jesse David Fox’s Good One, including the interview with Seinfeld that was the impetus for the podcast series.
Maron’s interview revealed rifts between the him and Seinfeld. Maron thinks, I believe, those rifts expose weaknesses in Seinfeld. I think they’re strengths.
First, Maron wants comedy to make a difference personally, socially, and politically. For him, subject matter matters. Not to Seinfeld. He’s famous for “observational” humor that gets laughs about the little things in life. In fact, the triviality of its subject matter is a big part of observational humor’s humor. As Seinfeld says repeatedly in the interview, all that matters is the laugh.
Second, Maron wants to be authentic on stage. He wants people to see who he is. Seinfeld just wants his audience to laugh. To Maron, that seems superficial. To Seinfeld, Maron’s style — which is more or less the style these days — is self-indulgent.
These rifts meant that when Maron tried to get Seinfeld to talk about the psychology of comics, Seinfeld wasn’t biting. There isn’t any one psychology, Seinfeld responds. Delving into comedy’s psychological roots therefore doesn’t tell you anything about comedy, although it does tell you something about the comedian. So long as you’re getting laughs, you’re a good comedian in Seinfeld’s book.
Focusing on craft is perhaps easier for Seinfeld — no, not because of his psychology, but because he is a comedy formalist. He likes to build a structure for his jokes so they are not just one-liners in which the jokes are related by their ideas, not by a story. It is a purer structure than most, just as Seinfeld’s process is purer than most: he writes jokes for two hours every day, or at least he used to.
I say all of this without counting myself as being much of a fan of Seinfeld’s standup. I was a big fan of his TV series, largely because of its formalist perfection, the stories folding in on themselves…and folding in on the characters’ exaggerated psychologies. You can probably guess how I feel about Hannah Gadsby whose formalism goes far beyond that of an exquisitely constructed farce; it is art and philosophy.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve appreciated craft more and more. I used to be ashamed of standing close to a great painting to see the brushstrokes that from further back turn into a sunlit church facade or a weary face. I like that magical transformation as much as I like feeling the painting’s sunlight or the face’s weariness. I am no longer ashamed.
This probably has something to do with my life as a working writer. As I’ve had the privilege to write what I want over the past twenty years, I’ve found that my main satisfaction is the process of trying to get sentences, paragraphs, or chapters to work. Publishing or posting them brings far more anxiety and remorse than pleasure.
As many have said, humor is as sensitive to words and rhythms as is poetry. In the case of a Seinfeld, we often laugh because of the joke’s formal perfection, even if all it reveals is our attitude toward Pop-Tarts. It seems I like watching craftwork purely formally as well. And as I write that, I’m only a little ashamed.