I saw Jerry Seinfeld on October 6, at a school auditorium on the Upper West Side. David Remnick interviewed him there as part of the annual New Yorker Festival. The two of them were very entertaining together, and Jerry shared anecdotes about his personal journey to becoming Forbes’ highest paid comedian around today (and in my opinion funniest of all time), with income of $69 million between June 2016 and June 2017.
I was amazed to see Jerry Seinfeld live, after loving the show Seinfeld and growing up in Burnaby, BC (a middle-class suburb of Vancouver), where nothing ever happened. I never would have dreamed that one day I would actually be in the same room with Seinfeld, close enough to hit him with a spitball.
Imagine the leap, from watching a star on a TV screen in my dismal college apartment (my neighbors in the apartment about six feet across from my window used to regularly vomit and urinate out the window onto the concrete below) to attending The New Yorker Festival on the Upper West Side of New York City. This is a leap all the way across the continent, to a location very close to Tom’s Restaurant, where parts of the show were filmed (and where I’ve actually eaten), to seeing Jerry Seinfeld and David Remnick in person. I truly had no idea this would happen one day.
I remember being at writing school in the early 90s and coming to class the day after a new episode of Seinfeld. We all watched the show and marveled at the clever writing and just how funny it was. I have never laughed as hard in my life as I did during the episode where George told his date he was a marine biologist and Kramer shot the golf ball into the whale’s blowhole (Season 5, episode 14). This must be one of the funniest things that’s ever not really happened. Interestingly, this was the episode Jerry mentioned as an example of how the writers on the show came up with situations that suited the characters. It started with the idea of Kramer driving balls into the ocean (something that no one else would ever do), and took off from there.
Jerry spoke a lot about his love of comedy and how it motivated him to pursue that goal, regardless of financial success, which of course he also enjoys at this point in his career, aged 63 (and looking fantastic). His success is phenomenal and impressive, but it’s hearing how he has worked hard at it—due to his love of it and not wanting to do anything else—that is inspiring to me. He listened to comedy records in his room as a kid, and later worked at his routines in small venues with a handful of people in the audience. He just wanted to be an opening act for a band. But his whole world was comedy, and comedians, and getting jokes to work.
He said the audience tells him what works. “The laughter has so much information in it. They sometimes go ‘Yeah, but, it’s not funny…’ Every laugh is totally unique. You could play me a laugh and I could tell you the joke.” It’s a weird dichotomy, because he’s trying to get the audience to understand his unique view on something, but at the same time, he is acutely conscious of the audience’s response and crafting his wording and delivery to communicate the idea to us, so it’s a highly interactive process.
I was struck by how he puts his whole being into this life of a comedian. He shared a story of working on a particular bit for 10 years. He thought it was funny, but no one else did, and he kept playing around with it until he could get other people to see what he saw.
I am inspired to see someone who loves something whole-heartedly and expresses it in the world at the peak of what is possible. Living in New York, I have the opportunity to see the best ballet, modern dance, and theater in the world, and hear the best musical performances. Obviously, Jerry does this with comedy. What’s clear is the single-minded interest and intention it takes to get that good at something.
No one knows this about me, but when I was a kid, about 6 or 8 years old, I used to dream of being a comedian. I got a book of jokes from the library, and used to practice the jokes in the cold concrete-floored basement of our suburban house. But I didn’t think I was funny, and of course at that age I didn’t have the depth of experience to communicate the nuance of the idea in the joke in a funny way. And those jokes probably weren’t that funny to begin with, come to think of it!
After a painfully shy adolescence, I overcame my fear of public speaking during a program called the Advancement of Excellence, in the late 80s, and since then I’ve taken singing and guitar lessons, some acting classes. I’m now studying dance at the Joffrey Ballet Center, and I’ve taken a lot of different dance classes over the years. As some of you will recall, I was given the opportunity to dance onstage (and conduct the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra) at the Orpheum Theater! I’ve taught yoga and led vision quests in the desert. I’ve given presentations as a professional writer, and spoken publicly in large crowds. I like the limelight now, and love the feeling of saying something that makes a group of people laugh.
When I came to New York, the first writing course I took was a comedy writing class at Gotham Writers. The instructor, Nelsie Spencer, was hilarious. Everyone in my class was hilarious. Sadly, I learned that I was not. Though I did have the class laughing at one or two of my dating (read: sex) misadventures.
In a way it is a curse being pretty good at–or at least enjoying–a lot of things. I’ve never had a really strong sense that there is ONE THING that I am meant to do and am passionate about. Though maybe writing is the thing that comes closest. I wrote my first story in grade 6, and now I’m a couple decades into a writing career. I believed this was my passion and my destiny at one time, but now I’m not sure! I’ve taken a few other courses at Gotham, and as you can see, I’ve been writing this blog pretty consistently since 2008. I just don’t know. Is this really it?
Seeing Jerry has had an impact–seeing someone like a Mozart, who has one passion and follows it right to the very end, the very peak. I have the feeling that isn’t my destiny in this lifetime. But I am looking forward to contemplating this question for a while. Where does my passion take me? Where does yours take you?