Do you know what Jerry Seinfeld has been doing for the last fifteen years, since his eponymous sitcom went off the air in 1998? My daughters are big fans of Bee Movie, so I knew he starred in that and was sort of aware that he wrote or produced it several years ago. And he’s certainly done other worthwhile projects in the intervening years. But I learned in a New York Times profile of him last month that he’s mostly been doing two stand-up sets a week all around the country and world. And he doesn’t mail these performances in. He works on them every day, by himself, sort of maniacally. In the piece we learn:
“On a typical weekday, after getting the kids . . . to school and exercising in his building’s gym, Seinfeld walks [into his home office], grabs a legal pad and a Bic pen and sits at his desk. No street noise penetrates. . . . [He] will nurse a single joke for years, amending, abridging and reworking it incrementally, to get the thing just so. ‘It’s similar to calligraphy or samurai,’ he says. ‘I want to make cricket cages. You know those Japanese cricket cages? Tiny, with the doors? That’s it for me: solitude and precision, refining a tiny thing for the sake of it.’ ”
And he basically doesn’t stop trying to refine the tiny thing. His first appearance on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” in 1981? He practiced his five-minute set 200 times beforehand.
My favorite part is this:
Developing jokes as glacially as he does, Seinfeld says, allows for breakthroughs he wouldn’t reach otherwise. He gave me an example. “I had a joke: ‘Marriage is a bit of a chess game, except the board is made of flowing water and the pieces are made of smoke,’ ” he said. “This is a good joke, I love it, I’ve spent years on it. There’s a little hitch: ‘The board is made of flowing water.’ I’d always lose the audience there. Flowing water? What does he mean? And repeating ‘made of’ was hurting things. So how can I say ‘the board is made of flowing water’ without saying ‘made of’? A very small problem, but I could hear the confusion. A laugh to me is not a laugh. I see it, like at Caltech when they look at the tectonic plates. If I’m in the dark up there and I can just listen, I know exactly what’s going on. I know exactly when their attention has moved off me a little.
“So,” he continued, “I was obsessed with figuring that out. The way I figure it out is I try different things, night after night, and I’ll stumble into it at some point, or not. If I love the joke, I’ll wait. If it takes me three years, I’ll wait.” Finally, in late August, during a performance, the cricket cage snapped into place. “The breakthrough was doing this”— Seinfeld traced a square in the air with his fingers, drawing the board. “Now I can just say, ‘The board is flowing water,’ and do this, and they get it. A board that was made of flowing water was too much data. Here, I’m doing some of the work for you. So now I’m starting to get applause on it, after years of work. They don’t think about it. They just laugh.”
Seinfeld was estimated in 2010 to be worth about $800 million, so one could argue he’s bought himself some leeway in making sure things are just so. But I think his approach offers real lessons to those in the performance business – of whatever kind. Trial lawyers and others who have to speak in front of other people might do well to think about how careful Seinfeld is with words and how they interact with each other. If you care about detail and craft, you could do a lot worse than to read this profile.