Humour and comedy, these days, are minefields – full of potential explosions of public vitriol and outrage. One minute a joke is funny, the next it is insulting and threatening and someone gets sued. Jerry Seinfeld has spent a lifetime in stand-up comedy and writing comedy shows. He has seen trends, themes, styles, and people come and go. He is still active in stand-up comedy, still popular, still has not been taken to court for something he said or did in his youth, and in comedy he is perceived as being famous, respected, and accomplished.
His semi-autobiographical book, Is This Anything?, consists of all the jokes, skits and funny stories that he has written and performed on stage – he kept record of all of them in notebooks and this is the result. (The end-sheets of the front cover of the book are illustrated with photos of his handwritten notes.) Each chapter spans a decade and has a brief introduction consisting of a summary of his life during the decade, making it autobiographical. But the majority of the contents consists of jokes: all the jokes, from the long, astute observations on life, to the sarcastic one-liners, all written down like scripts, presumably because that’s how he delivered them.
Larry David, one of the writers on Jerry Seinfeld’s TV comedy show, Seinfeld, said that in the Seinfeld scripts there shall be no hugging and no learning. As a result, the characters on that show were never nice, there was no character development, and no character started off as weird, dumb or nasty, and ended up as kind and noble. No-one learned any lessons. They never kissed and made up. They were what they were, and that was what made them funny. And that’s what kept people laughing at them.
What is humour?
Humour is created by taking what is normal and expected, and describing and depicting it as something abnormal, unexpected or shocking, by using, for instance, exaggeration. (Here’s an article with a list of techniques for generating humour.) People react to that by laughing, because they are relieved that it is not them, or that it doesn’t affect them, or that they are not in that position. They feel a tiny adrenalin rush of dissipated aggression.
This theory of humour (one of a couple of accepted theories) states that: “humour only occurs when something seems wrong, unsettling, or threatening, but simultaneously seems okay, acceptable or safe”. Therefore, if a joke is so inoffensive that nobody is unsettled by it, it won’t be a joke any more. People who can still laugh when the joke is on them, or it is about them, are people who are not affected by the implied threat or criticism.
Is this bit anything?
The title of the book, Is This Anything? refers to the question that Seinfeld, and other up and coming comedians, always asked themselves when they developed a new skit or line. “Is this anything?” Will people laugh? Will it be something you can keep on using to generate laughs? Seinfeld calls these pieces of comedy writing “bits”:
The book is divided into sections covering the seventies, the eighties, the nineties, the double o’s, and the teens. Each decade starts with an introduction which is laid out like a narrative poem – double spacing and irregular line breaks (as you can see in the quotations in this post). More than forty years – that’s how long Jerry Seinfeld has been doing comedy. You’d think that, after all this time, he’d be tired of it, but he’s not.
Moving with the times
By the eighties, Seinfeld had made it onto The Tonight Show, hosted by Johnny Carson – this is a huge milestone for American entertainers. With the increased celebrity, his material had to be new and original, as he explains: “You had to have killer stuff. Fresh, original and of course, completely clean.” The eighties material is noticeably longer, and has long sections of dialogue, almost like short essays. Imagine having to memorize all of that for a show – the mind boggles.
During the nineties, he was writing the Seinfeld show, with Larry David. And if you remember, each episode included scenes of him doing short, stand-up commentaries.
Is it funny? That depends.
Each era’s jokes or “bits” – those prospective comedic gold bars – are simply set down, with a header, one after the other, page after page. There is no discernible order or organization, though the book has an index. The reader reads the bit, and depending on their personality and background, they will either laugh, or smile, or not.
In Literature, each reader interprets what they read differently, meaning that a book has as many versions as there are readers. Add to that the fact that in this case, the subject is humour, wit and comedy that are absolutely idiosyncratic, depending on an individual’s culture, upbringing, language, context, thinking styles, etc., and it becomes very difficult to judge how funny this book is and how well it has been received by “most readers”. If this were a witty autobiography or collection of essays, then one could judge, but in this book, there are only the brief introductions and the jokes, as plain as plain can be.
Is This Anything? is not a laugh-out-loud type of book. It’s occasionally very funny, getting a giggle or a grin out of me, but for the most part it’s quite thought-provoking. Some of the skits of the year 2000 and after have a more cynical tone, depicting everyday situations in a complaining, mystified kind of way. As time goes on, Seinfeld’s humour becomes darker, reflecting the changing world around him and the fact that he is getting older and is getting into a rut.
The book is, in fact, a lesson in the history of comedy writing, showing the type of subject and delivery that were used during specific eras, and how they changed over time. Some subjects are mentioned more frequently, others drop away because they aren’t relevant any more.
By the time it was 2000-and-something, Seinfeld had finished his eponymous show, and was taking a break. He moved back to New York, got married, but did no stand-up comedy. He wanted to get “out of his head”, to get a fresh perspective on what he did for a living. He started from scratch in small comedy clubs to develop a completely new comedy routine.
Again he was facing the question: Is this something? That took a further ten years of, as he puts it, “belly-crawling” on small stages and facing small, critical audiences. By the last decade, the current one, Seinfeld writes that, in essence, he still works in the same way, despite the COVID crisis shutting down live acts in many venues.
Material for stand-up comedy
If you want to be a stand-up comedian, or you want to write for comedy shows, or you are a humorist, you could read this book and you will be able to see, over more than 450 pages, exactly what his comedy “bits” are. You will have enough material to plagiarize to your heart’s content.
But the catch is that reading it is one thing, delivering it to a live audience is another problem altogether. When the comedian connects with the audience, and they laugh, and they get it, and then your writing has worked.
To write these bits, you have to be a really astute observer of human nature. You have to be able to observe and describe the funny and the sad things in everyday life. You have to be truthful and accurate. Only then can you make your audience recognize themselves in the situation that you are describing and be amused at it.
For instance, in the first episode of the Seinfeld show, one of the jokes that he makes in the stand-up stage clip is about women and cotton balls. I found that hugely amusing and very well observed when I heard it the first time, and later when I reread the joke in the book, and again when I recently watched the show again. To be funny about something as mundane as cotton balls is something. To connect the cotton balls thing to relationships and the mystifying differences between men and women – now that is a whole different level of perception.
I like women.
Although, I find their bathrooms one of the most frightening places in the world.
I don’t even want to see what happens when they crank up some of that equipment. […]
Women use a lot of cotton balls.
A LOT of cotton balls.
The thing I don’t understand is, I have never needed a cotton ball.
We’re both human beings.
What’s going on?
I’ve never wanted a cotton ball.
Never had a cotton ball.
Never been in a situation where I thought to myself,
‘I could use a cotton ball right now.
I could certainly get out of this mess.’
Women need them.
And they don’t need one or two.
They need thousands of them every single day.
They buy these bags they’re like peat moss bags.
Big steel straps around them.
They have them dropped on the front lawn with a fork lift.
Two days later, they’re all out.
They’re on their way back to the store to buy more cotton balls.
The only time I ever see them,
there’s always 2 or 3 in the bottom of your little waste basket
that look like they’ve been through some horrible experience.
I don’t know what you did to them.”
Is This Anything?, by Jerry Seinfeld, pp. 14-16 (Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com)
Yes, they do look like something horrible has happened to them when they’re at the bottom of the waste basket! Mascara! Base! Lipstick!
Connecting with the audience, reader and listener
These humorous bits are like undelivered messages: it’s only when someone hears them, reacts and responds, that communication has actually taken place. Being in a printed book, some will be funny to some readers, and not funny to others. And Seinfeld will never have the gratification of hearing his readers chortle to themselves.
Which ones were funny to me? Probably the ones from the 70s and 80s, that are more politically incorrect than the ones from the past two decades. Here’s one from the 80s that I smiled at because it is well-observed and because of the puns, which are so bad they’re funny:
And here’s one from the 70s – when I read it, I recognized my childhood home, and my mother. And me, lately.
Amen to that, Mr. Seinfeld. Here’s a toast to another few decades of your comedy.