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Is This Anything?


Is This Anything?

In 2003, when my son was a senior at Syracuse University, he invited me to join him at a Jerry Seinfeld performance at that city’s historic Landmark Theatre. On that evening I learned one meaning of the term “painfully funny.” By the time the comic had reached the finale of his roughly hour-long set, my pleasure was mingled with relief that the show was ending because it simply hurt to laugh anymore.

For all the extraordinary success of his unlikely 1990s comedy series about “nothing,” at heart Seinfeld has always considered himself a stand-up performer. He likens the comedians he saw on “The Ed Sullivan Show” during his 1960s childhood on Long Island to “astronauts or Olympic athletes,” never dreaming he someday could join their ranks. But he has devoted a lifetime of study to the high-wire art of live comedy, something that is reflected in his conversations with fellow practitioners on his popular Netflix series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” In a 2012 New York Times Magazine profile, at a time when he was performing more than a hundred times a year, he spoke about his devotion to his craft:

“It’s similar to calligraphy or samurai. 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.”

"After all the laugh-out-loud funny moments in this book, those who enjoy [Seinfeld's] comedy will be hoping he gets to do even more, and that the day he returns to the stage comes soon. We certainly could use the laughs right now."

The result of that obsession is copiously displayed in IS THIS ANYTHING?, a compendium of hundreds of Seinfeld’s comedy routines, organized by decade, from the beginning of his career at an open-mic audition at Catch a Rising Star in New York City in May 1975 to the present (there are even a couple of timely jokes about the coronavirus). He describes the book as “the map of the forty-five-year-long road I’ve been on to become this odd, unusual thing that is the only thing I ever really wanted to be.” In all that time, he has never departed from writing his jokes in longhand, on yellow legal pads, the source material for this volume.

The only drawback to having to approach this book as a reviewer is the need to read it cover to cover, rather than opening it to any page at random and diving into one of Seinfeld’s bitingly observant, if often slightly cranky, takes on modern life. As he told his Times profiler, sometimes he will labor over a joke for years until he has gotten it just right. At the time of the profile, for example, he was refining one about Pop-Tarts (“frosted, fruit-filled, heatable rectangles, in the same shape as the box it comes in. / And with the same nutrition as the box it comes in, too”), and you can see the result in IS THIS ANYTHING? Imagining their creator coming out of the lab carrying them like Moses with the two tablets, he concludes:

The Pop-Tart is here.
Two in the pocket.
Two slots in the toaster.
Let’s see you screw this up.
Why two?
One’s not enough.
Three’s too many.
And they can’t go stale.
Because they were never fresh!

Mundane but cockeyed observations like those and others about the persistent frictions of daily life provided much of the source material for “Seinfeld.” Here avid fans will recognize jokes transformed into plots, like a bit about discovering your dry cleaner is wearing one of your jackets or the obligatory visit to see a friend’s new baby, as well as countless riffs on the complexities of relations between the sexes, a recurring theme of the series. He’s a keen student of the quirks of contemporary language, meticulously explaining how “sucks” and “great” --- “the only two ratings people use anymore” --- have come to mean the same thing, or musing about how a murder can be anything other than “execution style.”

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the book is watching what some might think of as the progress of American culture through Seinfeld’s humor, from pay phones and Polaroids to smartphones (he hates them) and OnStar (a service he wants to rename “Moron Star” for the idea that it’s easier to “bounce a signal off Neptune” than it is to find a “two-cent wire hanger” to open a car with the keys locked inside). It’s also entertaining to watch him mature --- sort of --- as he evolves from a single guy enmeshed in the dating world to a married man and father.

Though each section of the book features a brief introduction, readers will have to wait for a full-length memoir of Seinfeld’s career. In a recent interview in Parade, his questioner commented on how “Zen” he was dealing with the enforced hiatus in his busy touring schedule brought about by COVID-19. “I’ve been doing this every day of my life, and all of a sudden, they made me stop,” he replied. “I realized the reason is because I got to do it. I’m 66, and I’ve done way more than I ever thought I would get to do.” After all the laugh-out-loud funny moments in this book, those who enjoy his comedy will be hoping he gets to do even more, and that the day he returns to the stage comes soon. We certainly could use the laughs right now.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on October 9, 2020

Is This Anything?
by Jerry Seinfeld