What We Can Take Home From Jerry Seinfeld—Apart From Laughter

By Shlomo Maital     


   A recent New York Times magazine article profiles Jerry Seinfeld, star of the long-running Seinfeld TV show.  Seinfeld will be 59 next April.    His sitcom Seinfeld ran for 9 years; he co-wrote it with comic Larry David.   Seinfeld basically invented, and in fact nearly owns, a brand of comedy known as  observational humor,   focusing on personal relationships and uncomfortable social obligations.    If you do a Google search on “Seinfeld quotes”, you’ll come up with hugely funny lines from Seinfeld in a wide variety of social situations; here are just a few —  The Visa, The Pothole , The Wink , The Deal , The Ticket , The Ex-Girlfriend , The Parking Spot , The Abstinence , The Heart Attack , The Baby Shower , The Stranded , The Cheever Letters , The Watch , The Note , The Pen , The Cadillac …the list is endless.

    According to The New York Times, Seinfeld is worth $800 m.  !   Syndication fees for Seinfeld  are enormous and will go on forever.  They are profitable, because once you make the show, there are no more expenses…you simply cash the checks and clip the coupons.  Seinfeld has a huge collection of Porsche’s, several dozen, and he lives in a sumptuous New York dwelling right off Central Park.  He has a wife and three children.

   So – what does Seinfeld do with his time? And what can we learn from him?

   He writes stand-up scripts and jokes, catalogs them, polishes them, endlessly revises them, and then goes often unannounced to bars (like Gotham), where he tries out his routines for 20 minutes or so.  He does them, prior to taking his road show out around the whole U.S., to play in front of huge audiences of 3,000 or more.  Sometimes the audiences laugh. Sometimes they don’t.

   Why in the world does he do this?  Because, well, Seinfeld is a stand-up comedian, that is what he does, he does situation or observational comedy, and he does it because he loves it, he truly loves doing it, he did it from an early age, and because his father Kalman, who fought as a U.S. soldier in the Pacific, used to tell jokes as a way of keeping his sanity during a bitter war.   Seinfeld is the polar opposite of Woody Allen.  Allen made a fortune out of his neuroses. (“I’m not afraid of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”).  Seinfeld made a fortune out of his normality – out of the normal relationships he had with Elaine, with Kramer, and others, that were entirely normal and immensely funny, because all of us have had similar encounters. 

    What I learn from Jerry Seinfeld is really simple and clear.  Find what it is you are meant to do on this Earth.  Do it with excellence and with passion. (Seinfeld writes out every routine he does, even the shortest, files it, catalogs it, and analyzes it; he is brutally honest with himself.).  Keep doing it as long as you can, even when you don’t have to do it any more.  But if you’re doing something you’re tired of, even if you’re good at it, if you’re just going through the motions, then quit.  Quit now! Try something else.  Because you’re wasting your time.  And time is the most precious resource any of us own.

   By the way, Seinfeld does not accept the standard view that Seinfeld was about “nothing”.  “I don’t think the subjects in Seinfeld were trivial,” he says. And I agree.  How we relate to others is not trivial.  It is not nothing, it is everything, and it is universal.  The essence of comedy lies in everyday situations perceived in a different way. Count on Jerry Seinfeld to see things in a different way.  Like the way he sees the dog Farfel.  Elaine: “Dogs taken to the pound are put to sleep, when nobody claims them.  It’s a shame.”  Seinfeld:  (looking at Farfel): “How late are they open?”.