Jerry Seinfeld: The Art of Craft

The Art of Craft

At the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House, Jerry Seinfeld demonstrates why he’s still master of his domain. That would be stand-up.

published Sunday, June 9, 2013

“It’s just fun being a comedian,” said Jerry Seinfeld from the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House stage Saturday night. With his many millions, he certainly doesn’t have to tour. But for all the things he’s done—star in Seinfeld, author several books, co-write and produce Bee Movie, produce The Marriage Ref, direct Colin Quinn’s Long Story Short—at his heart Seinfeld is a stand-up comedian. As he states on his archives website, “When I was ten years old, I started watching stand-up comedians on TV. I fell in love with them and I’m just as fascinated with stand-up comedy today.”

Seinfeld is seamless. He writes and edits his material in longhand, and then writes and edits it some more. His cabinets of comedy notebooks are legendary. And yet he’s no automaton, simply dispending memorized words. His two shows at the Winspear varied in content and construction, with much kvetching on technology in the first and downplaying it for the second set in favor of marriage material, yet he remained polished every step of the way. He’s looser with the curse words these days, which ups his affability, but retained his professional projection in a charcoal grey suit, navy striped tie and dress shoes.

Everything about a Seinfeld set is finely crafted. He moves about the stage, not nervously pacing but projecting just the right amount of energy to draw the audience in, even engaging those in the fourth tier of the Winspear. That’s craft. He turns toward and addresses all sections of the hall, even peering as if to see the very back rows. That’s craft. Many animated comics use lavalier microphones, but Seinfeld favors a conventional voice mic, holding it in his right hand exactly six inches from his lips for the entire 90-minute set, regardless of what physical position he takes, to the point that it becomes invisible. That’s craft. He never pauses to remember what’s next, or acknowledge dropped lines, or rely on artificial segues and space fillers. It all just flows. That’s craft and why Seinfeld is ranked by Comedy Central as No. 12 of the 100 all-time top comedians.

Seinfeld embodies causal, continual indignation. Apexes and punchlines are conveyed in a slightly screechy ascending voice with a quizzical overlay of disbelief. Such as the OnStar satellite navigation and security system for high-end cars.  “Is this why we conquered space? Because you locked you keys in the car? Again? ‘Forget the two cent wire hanger, I’ve got trillion dollar OnStar.’ It should be called MoronStar. ‘Hello, moron, what did you do now?’ ”

Current material by Seinfeld covers the idiocy of leaving instructions on your answering service (“I think we’re all up to speed on the beep”), the ill thought out reasoning of selecting *69 as the code for automatic redial (Really? Not one person at the phone company went through junior high school?), and life as movement from one chair to another, finally to bed and ultimately to the deathbed. New material is blended with semi-classics like the post office routine: “Your business model is from 1630. Change your business model! You’ve been losing money for 50 years. Raise prices a penny? Raise them a dollar!”

Seinfeld’s not a deeply philosophical person. He’s a misanthrope who’s perplexed as to why we’re on this human ride at all and has stated that having kids is the only thing imparts meaning to his life. But his excellent extended routine on stuff, which has been developing for years, gets rather deep. Everything, every animal, every person, he says, is on one long, slow slide to the dumpster. Our purchases are pre-garbage until they get relegated to the closet (“So we don’t have to see the mistakes we’ve made”), and then to the garage (“It only differs from garbage by one letter”). Final stop is eBay (“Where we mail our garbage back and forth”), or worse, the storage unit, where we pay rent to visit our garbage. All of it laced with zingers about the futility of grasping, showing shades of his interest in Zen Buddhism.

Seinfeld bits evolve into blocks and then full routines. His long-time observation on babies—“Why do we think they’re cute? They’re here to replace us”—is now joined by a pantheon of material from actually raising them. Sleeping in bed with a young son is described as sharing space with a small goat tied in a pillowcase, all heat and unruly motion. Marriage gets a unique spin, highlighting the conundrum of excitedly ordering tickets for a date night, and then overcoming domestic inertia the day of the event. With the machinations of babysitters, and deciding what to wear, who is to drive and where to eat dinner, “Simultaneous house exit is the biggest accomplishment of marriage.”

One of Seinfeld’s most endearing techniques is his Bill Cosbyish anthropomorphizing of objects. A unique routine on commercial bathrooms—“Do they design them so that every noise emitted comes out in Dolby stereo?”—detailed the illogic of stalls having gaps in the construction and described belts and pants crumpled on the floor as looking “sad and defeated.” Food speaks, buildings engage in conversation, and appliances voice opinions. Though not done Saturday night, a bit on a balloon a being like a man, soaring so strongly a woman passionately holds on to the string, to doddering above the floor in deflation and dragging its limp string, embodies the degeneration of human mortality with a little sexual innuendo thrown in.

Seinfeld’s all about the little things, the commonalities of life that have nothing to do with the topical wash of current affairs. Besides his wife and children, three things bring him pleasure: cars, coffee and talking with comedian friends. He’s combined all three into a web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Now in its second season, in each episode he picks up a comedian friend in a car that matches them, often from his own extensive collection, with vehicles ranging from limited edition Porsches to classic Mustangs or VW vans. The conversational repartee is fun and often insightful, made even more wry by the knowledge that Seinfeld finally found a way to get a tax benefit from his car fetish. And that’s crafty.

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