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Thursday, January 03, 2013

Jerry Seinfeld: How to write a joke

Did you guys read the recent New York Times Magazine interview with Jerry Seinfeld? What surprised me was how obsessive Seinfeld is when writing his jokes. His stand-up feels effortless, but actually "Seinfeld will nurse a single joke for years, amending, abridging and reworking it incrementally, to get the thing just so," writes Jonah Weiner in the article. Seinfeld looks for funny words ("chimps," "dirt, "playing" and "sticks" are all funny, he explains). The joke can't be too long or too short; he'll go so far as to shave off letters or syllables from a sentence to pare it down. Seinfeld also avoids four-letter words, which he thinks are a crutch: "Guys that can use any word they want—if I had that weapon, I’ll give you a new hour in a week," he says.

Here, Seinfeld dissects a Pop Tarts joke he's been working on for two years...It reminds you just how hard it is to make something look easy.

P.S. Have you heard of Seinfeld's online series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee? Including Alec Baldwin!

61 comments:

Erin said...

This is a nice reminder - particularly at a moment when I'm frustrated with the snail's pace of my own work - that anything worth doing takes some effort and some patience. Love it - thanks!

Chloe Moon said...

I've always admired him for his originality and now I think even more of him that he will take that much care in a single joke!

He is such a great inspiration for joke telling!! =)

Ergo - Blog

Sarah said...

Lol I love him. Going to see him live in Feb.!

Andrea said...

He is so brilliant.

Meaghen said...

This is SO cool. Thank you for sharing!

Amie said...

Oh my gosh! That was amazing! I loved it!

http://herestohappinesses.blogspot.com/

Lauren Ashley said...

amazing, people forget the craftsmanship that goes into comedy. Thanks for sharing!

ale norris said...

how funny...personally, i can't stand jerry seinfeld. but my husband happens to think that seinfeld was the funniest show ever written, and thinks that there's an episode that goes along with every situation/occurrence in day to day lives!

H. Grace said...

I have to say for someone who cares very little for Jerry Seinfeld's type of comedy -- that was funnier than anything I've ever seen him do. And, really interesting as well. I suppose we never consider how long and stressful it is for comedians to come up with good, effortless jokes, do we? What I find interesting is his willingness to work through it even when it doesn't go well. In writing, I think we often get frustrated, chalk it up to writer's block and chuck the work away. But, working through it while painful, tedious, and oftentimes worthless is IMO the best strategy. So, hats off to Jerry Seinfeld -- for not giving up.

Meredith said...

That's so funny, I was JUST yesterday reading about my Myers-Briggs personality type and was quite shocked to see that he and I are the same (INFJ--supposedly the most rare www.typelogic.com/infj.html). "Comedian" does not seem the most logical career! But I think it makes a lot more sense now, knowing how much thought he puts into his work.

Kj719 said...

Wow. He's as OCD as my husband who always uses the same unlined printer paper and roll ball pen for all his lecture notes. Although my husband is an economist not a comedian and there's a big difference between the two. Huge difference actually.

Yvonne said...

I loved this article. He makes it look so easy, yet there is so much thought and effort in every word he says. Wow! I really respect his work ethic.

Lejla said...

I do not know why, but I don't like jokes so much. And now I know one reason: it takes so much to think of something funny. I rather laugh at something spontaneous.

lauren claire | rebuild (health + home) said...

"But that's what people want me to do; use a lot of time wastefully, so I can waste their time."

Even that line from the video, which wasn't presented as a joke, is so invariably clever and chuckle-worthy. Well-written comedy is a great art, and I'm in awe of those who are able to do it consistently (Jerry, the writers of The Office from seasons 2-5...)

I've never been a joke teller; my friends and I used to say we liked "life jokes," which would be either the experience or the retelling of humorous situations. Another friend christened me with the tagline "I'm not funny, I just like to laugh!" Which is true, I suppose. Traditional joke-telling has evaded me.

Joanna, I'm waiting for your YouTube standup clip by the end of 2013 :)

Paige said...

I love this! Talent requires passion and commitment in order for art to truly form.

xo,
Paige

loverofthelight.com

Caitlin Scott said...

I watched the Comedians and Coffee episode with Michael Richards. We don't often see performance artists (actors, models, musicians, etc.) as human beings, and it's so awful that we don't! This made me admire Richards as a person. He's a tormented soul, just like the rest of us.

Carrie @carrieloves said...

I love this post! I can't stop watching the videos at comedians in cars getting coffee - genius.

Stephanie said...

I'v never heard of Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee...it's hilarious! Thanks for sharing!

Liz said...

I love the reminder that anything worth doing well takes time and commitment. Nothing great happens overnight. Thanks for sharing!

@ElisaMarkus said...

Great post! Couldn't have come at a better time... as part of my New Year's undertakings, I'm re-evaluating my relationship with my own stand-up material. The value of taking a craftsman approach to it is self-evident!

Katja Wulfers said...

Humour and comedy rarely garner the respect they deserve. It takes skill and intelligence to be funny.

Allison said...

love this! especially 'it was the 70's, we had toast' hahahaha ;)

eileen ragan | leanerbythelake.com said...

"chimps...chimps are funny."

I could not agree more :) love me some Jerry Seinfeld.

Thanks for sharing the online series, I'd never heard of it. Lately I've been on a BIG Seinfeld kick, so much so that I'm considering purchasing the full series for a leisurely stroll through memory lane - I always watched the show with my dad on the lazy boy (as was the case with Cheers). Back then, it was certainly more to spend time with my dad and evade bedtime, but as I've gotten older, I'm getting so much from the show that I never took from it before. The other day the Human Fund episode nearly made me fall off the bed!

leanerbythelake.com

melanie said...

I LOVE Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. The Ricky Gervais bit makes me belly laugh each time I watch it. I hadn't see the pop tart video. Where he describes it akin to writing music is so interesting and makes total sense. Thanks!

Panda Head said...

I SO DUG this article - it always amazes me when you see the separation of someone's public persona vs who they have to be to BE that - I've read Bill Murray and Ben Stiller have drastically different REAL LIVES too. I also think that's why I like Louis CK so much - in interviews, he seems to be the same in his act/show as when he's not!

Alissa said...

That clip is HILARIOUS. I’m definitely going to check out "Comedians in Cars.."

summer said...

Alec Baldwin is freakin' hilarious in "Comedians.." My favorite line.."I supppppose your looking for thisss". A friend suggested that I say it to my baby when he is looking to nurse. I giggle each time!

Jaime said...

This is amazing! Thanks for sharing :-)

bouff said...

I enjoyed this, thanks for sharing!

gster said...

I love this! The counting words, and shaving off syllables and letters, reminds me of writing picture books. Actually the whole process seems really similar! What's that Lincoln quote...? -- "I would have written a shorter letter if I had more time." ...
~Gaia

Lisamarie said...

Jerry Seinfeld is my favorite. I still fall asleep every night watching old Seinfeld episodes. I don't think there is one I haven't seen.

Catherine said...

god, i love jerry

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Little Gray Pixel said...

You should watch "I'm Telling You for the Last Time," his 1998 special. I think it is in the intro that they show his backstage ritual and how nervous he gets before stand-up ... and he always seems so relaxed on stage.

emmamweston said...

I am going to say it straight up, I have never been a big fan of Seinfeld, but the more my husband watches it (he has episodes on every electronic device you can imagine) the more I can see the point of . . . well, of there not having to be a point.

Julie Doherty said...

Hum, I like the show, I don't mind the guy, but I find it pretty pathetic to spent that long on a joke. To me, humor has to spark in a moment, bounce on little details of life, pop out of a situation, an accent, in little nooks and cronies of everyday life, you have to have that gift, to be a really funny person, you cannot prepare it, the best ones are the ones that come from nowhere, in a instant, just like ... a pop tart. Ask mister Woody Allen ;-)

Christina said...

That episode of comedians in cars getting coffee went deep and surprised me--jerry really knows when to listen and when to speak. He is humble, and I love that. He also said that he was waiting for Michael to play his instrument again...isn't that a lovely way to describe one's talent?
Thanks for this link!

Jessica Wray said...

I would have never guessed he was that way with his jokes, it comes off so effortless. I just recently watched his "I'm Telling you for the Last Time" stand up - the funniest!

the grommom said...

that is so classic! Thanks for sharing, and yes--what a reminder.
I'm enjoying catching up on your posts--I love your little family, and think you do an amazing job! :)
ALOHA

Ana Simões said...

awesome interview and article, thank you so much for sharing. the broadband part of the conversation is so absolutely true...

Tracey said...

Joanna, you have such a great blog, thank you for being you!

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Francesca said...

i love his online series. jerry seinfeld having lunch with alec baldwin i could watch forever. why couldn't they go on to tea, then supper, then the pub? :-)

Audrey Lynn said...

Joanna, I'm in the Off-Broadway show, "Old Jews Telling Jokes" at the Westside Theatre! If you'd like to come check us out, I'd be happy to send you a discount code. Depending on availability, the box office also offers $30 rush tickets an hour before each performance (cash only). Loved the post!

audreylynnweston.com

Miss Cavendish said...

I find him tremendously unfunny but am glad to see him honing his craft via revision.

Caroline said...

Love this post! I've been watching so much Seinfeld lately, too. Such a great show. And now I can't stop watching his webseries which I had never heard of before. So creative & really genuine (the Michael Richards one is funny but also a bit sad). As always, thanks for sharing!

Mohsen Ansari said...

very nice keep it up...

Cisco Training

Sabaa said...

I love Seinfeld, and I haven't heard about his online series, so thank you for the info.

Susan said...

Brilliant! I was unaware of his online series, thank you. Love that too.

sara mansfield said...

I'm always amazed at how many comedians are rather serious in "real life"...Ben Stiller, Eddie Izzard...comedy really is their job and they work hard at it!

cammie | polka dotted peony said...

LOVE this. Thanks or posting it. How do you find this stuff?!

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VictoriaVM @ Frankfully said...

This is one of those times I am so happy I read your blog! I've heard of the Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, but hadn't checked it out yet. But this video, the article, then the web series! So funny! So happy you brought this into my awareness! We all need some laughter sometimes :)

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For more free resources on joke writing, go to www.ticklemeentertainment.com/education.

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like fried chicken said...

While I think Seinfeld is pretty funny (but in a comfortable, rather than sharp way), I never really laughed out loud at his stand up. It always felt like "dad humor to me, and it has nothing to do with the lack of cussing or potty or sexual humor. I think it's because the things he "wonders" about the logical/real explanations are too obvious/un-ignorable for me. Like his joke about the socks with the tiny hangers (for a tiny closet ?!)...I immediately think well, it's so they can hang them up in the store...

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