Jerry Seinfeld (2014)

I couldn’t wait to talk to Jerry Seinfeld again for this book, thirty years after our first interview. Jerry is someone I have known a little bit for a long time. Whenever I’m around him, though, I usually don’t speak much. I’m still a little bit intimidated. The truth is, most comedians don’t understand why he’s so happy when they’re so tortured. But I look up to him more than ever, and every conversation with him is an opportunity to learn. You’d be a fool not to take advantage of what Jerry Seinfeld has to offer. When we did this interview, I had just started doing stand-up again, after a twenty-year hiatus, and it seemed like a perfect moment to grill him about his current joke-writing process, and to soak up some of his stand-up wisdom. And, once again, he lite a fire under my ass–no one else also had the opportunity to ask him questions about how he raises his children and his spiritual life, which is something I always wanted to do. Also, this being a few decades after our first interview, it was fun to remind him of what his dreams were back then, and to ask him how it feels to have made every single one of them come true.Judd Apatow: You know how, back in the day, I interviewed you for my high school radio show?

Jerry Seinfeld: Yes, it’s still resonating.

Judd: Well, I thought I’d start out by talking about that interview, back in 1983-which I remember and you shouldn’t.

Jerry: No, I do remember. I do. It was an odd thing.

Judd: We did it a your apartment in Santa Monica. Do you remember that?

Jerry: I mean, I’d never had a kid come to interview me with a tape recorder before.

Judd: I remember you had a funny look on your face because I don’t think you knew a child was coming. The tape recorder I used was literally straight from the AV squad at Syosset High School–this huge green cassette recorder.

Jerry: How old were you when we did this?

Judd: I was fifteen. But I was aware of you, I think, from your earliest TV performances. I was watching way too much Merv Griffin Show for a kid my age. I saw you on TV before you ever did The Tonight Show.

Jerry: Wow. Boy, those were the days.

Judd: Is that the greatest moment in a comedian’s life, doing The Tonight Show for the first time?

Jerry: Yeah.

Judd: Do you remember it?

Jerry: Well, Leno recently told me that he came to my first Tonight Show–which I didn’t even remember.

Judd: The other thing that I remember about our interview is that your apartment had nothing in it. Like, it was not decorated.

Jerry: Oh, I was a minimalist from the beginning. I think that’s why I’ve done well as a comedian.

Judd: No distractions.

Jerry: If you always want less, in words as well as things, you’ll do well as a writer.

Judd: That whole high school radio show thing happened because a friend of mine decided he wanted to interview rock bands–we were like fiften or sixteen years old–and then he goes off and interviews R.E.M. one day. And it occurred to me: Maybe I could use this high school radio station to meet my heroes and ask them, like, “How do you become a comedian? How do you write jokes?”

Jerry: Wow, that’s great. Not to take you off track here, but I heard you were doing some stand-up at the Cellar recently. Is that true?

Judd: It is true.

Jerry: I want to know what that was like.

Judd: Well, I was interviewing Pearl Jam for their last record and as I was writing questions–you know, I think about them a lot because they’re my age and they’ve had, in a way, a similar experience to us in the arc of their careers. And I just kept thinking, These guys get to write songs, and tehy spend their lives singing them and enjoying themselves. But I make these movies, and there’s all this stress and then, when the thing comes out, I’m not a part of the experience at all.

Jerry: I understand.

Judd: So I was making a movie with Amy Schumer, and she kept talking about doing stand-up and I finally said to her, “You know what, I’ll do a set and see how it goes.” I hadn’t done it in twenty years. And the first set went well and I went on every night, after we would finish shooting, for the next three months. I’ve been doing it ever since and it’s literally like I spent my entire life directing movies just so I could get better spots in comedy clubs.

Jerry: It’s really fun. You find that you’re this breed, you’re a dog breed. I always thought that it was weird that dogs would bark at other dogs. They should be barking at everyone elese. And that’s the way I see comics. I didn’t feel comfortable anywhere until the day I walked into a comedy club. But where do you think you’ll go with your stand-up, Judd?

Judd: I have to say that I am loving the fact that there’s no career goal connected to it. It’s purely for the joy of trying to get good at something that I was just okay at back in the day. It’s unfinished business. And it would just be great to figure out how to tear the house down consistently.

Jerry: Right.

Judd: It’s been so much fun–oddly, way more fun than anything else I’ve done.

Jerry: Now, why would you say that?

Judd: Because it’s immeidate. I mean, I’m sure you had this experience making Bee Movie–you spend your whole life in meetings and editing rooms, isolated and alone, arguing about budgets and time frames. And there’s that moment you share with an audience, where they relate and a joke works, and it brings you so much more joy. But you don’t always get that from a movie. If it’s the first time you show a movie and the place goes nuts, that feels great, but still: not as great as a good stand-up set. Also, it only haappens once or twice per movie and each movie might take four years. So you’re getting two hits off of four years’ work.

Jerry: Bee Movie was a very unhappy experience, from start to finish. I remember standing in the back of the theater and it wasn’t great, but it was decent and, and I remember listening to the laughs and thinking, These laughs are shit. That was not worth it.

Judd: I completely relate to that.

Jerry: And does the audience react when you are introduced. Do they know you?

Judd: I thought a lot about how you always say that buys you about ninety seconds.

Jerry: Yeah.

Judd: It buys me like thirty seconds. But I think they feel like they know me a little bit from the movies, so it’s as if they havea ehad start understanding my point of view. But I couldn’t enjoy it more. I’m fully addicted to performing again. I put as much time into my stand-up as my movies.

Jerry: Good.

Judd: I always remember you and Larry Miller saying that to be a comedian, you have to sit down and write. That’s the job. How much time do you spend at a desk.

Jerry: I just finished wrestling with a bit, actually. I couldn’t stop. I do it compulsively. I write with a pad and a pen. I like a big, yellow legal pad. And once I get that pad open, I can’t stop. It’s kind of like free-diving, you know. You have a certain amount of air and then you just have to come up. I’m good for an hour or two and then I collapse on the couch and sleep.

Judd: Do you have a legal pad organizational system?

Jerry: Oh, it’s very complicated. I have the legal pad and then I ahve one of those accordian folders with a different slot for each letter. Once I’m done with the bit, it either goes in the garbage or the accordion folder. Those are the only two desinations. And then it’s in the air. It has to survive on its own. Bits are like turtles right after they hatch, running to the beach.

Judd: Have you ever had a period where you were sick of it?

Jerry: No. No. No. Never.

Judd: Not even for a second?

Jerry: If this is something you have a gift for, it’s going to suck you along into it. All you have to do is transition from looking at your phone to putting the phone down and opening up the pad where there’s nothing goin on. There’s no light hitting your retina. So, no, I’ve always found it to be–I just see something and I write it down and I go, Gee, that almost worked. That kinda worked. Maybe that’s the good part. Let me get rid of the bad part and write a different intro to the idea. And the next thing I know, the day is gone.

Judd: Do you feel like your act has changed in a substantial way? Has your work become more personal, now that you have kids?

Jerry: No, it’s just–you know, I’m still mud wrestling with a pig.

Judd: Is there a line for how personal you will go in your work?

Jerry: I’m doing a thing about my dadness–you know, when you reach dadness fully, no one in your family can hurt your feelings anymore, because you don’t have feelings anymore. Feelings are too much of a problem to have, so I just got rid of them. That’s true, you know. That’s a true thing about becoming a dad. But you get to a point where–if my wife or children insult me in any way, I’m just like, “I don’t care. I don’t care if you like me. I don’t care what you think of me.” When you start out in this family thing, you’re a human, and then, as you go along, you realize that you’re an android. I’m doing this bit now, I have this thing in an episode of Comedians in Cars, where I’m driving a Ferrari and I describe it as a machine that stirs, you know, that stirs deep, human emotions, and that I really need that because I don’t have any. I guess that’s personal, but I don’t feel like I’m revealing anything. I’m a person that denies emotions very strongly. I’m only interested in what gets a laugh. I often get the “Why don’t you talk about politics or talk about this or that?” stuff. I’ll talk about anything that I think is funny or will get a laugh. If I could get a laugh with politics, I’d be doing politics.

Judd: I find that everything about a family is drama and emotions and tears and yelling. How is that for you as somebdoy who doesn’t live his life that way? How do you deal, in the middle of the madness of kids, when someone wants something so badly they will scream and push you emotionally until you crack to get it?

Jerry: My kids never get me to crack. It’s because of my stand-up training. Like, “You’re nothing compared to the Comedy Cellar.”

Judd: That’s so funny.

Jerry: “You think you’re tough?” My kids said something to me last night, and I said, “That line is so weak, give me my last name back. You don’t deserve it.”

Judd: I have the opposite thing with my daughter. She said to me the other day, “Dad, all those things you say that you think are jokes are not funny.”

Jerry: Oh, my son had one even worse than that. We were making up words as a game at dinner one night and I said, “You know, I’ve made up a lot of words that people actually use as words.” And my son said, “Uh, really, like what? Unfunny?”

Judd: That’s brutal. I do feel like there’s no larger pride than in seeing your kid get funny.

Jerry: No larger pride. Do you think they pick it up around the house or do you think it’s genetic?

Judd: It has to be genetic but I think that as they watch us reacting to things, over and over again, and see how we look at things, they also just pick it up. But Leslie and I, you know, from day one, the second our kids started terrorizing us with their emotions, we would crack immediately. Like when they cried because they wanted to sleep with us, we would always wind up sleeping with them.

Jerry: We were the same. I just mean, my kids will never get me to yell. I will not yell.

Judd: You’ll give in, though?

Jerry: I’ll give in, but I will not yell. Nor will I show any emotion.

Judd: How old is your oldest child?

Jerry: They’re fourteen, eleven, and ine.

Judd: So you’re in full puberty mode.

Jerry: Not quite. I’m an inch away.

Judd: Because I’m in the mode where suddenly boys are calling and boys are around and when they’re in the house, I have this very primal hatred of all of them. They’re all scared of me. I think I’m being nice, but I’m not.

Jerry: I am going to try my darnedest to avoid all those clichés. I’m going to be fine with the boys, fine with the mischief. It’s just too cliché to be, “So you’re interested in my daughter, huh, young man?” I don’t want to be that.

Judd: Well, it’s also that all the boys are so unamusing, it buys you. If they were funnier, you might like them. They just have so little to offer.

Jerry: But don’t you think there’s just going to be just a natural, powerful editing process that goes on? Your daughter is not going to be able to hang out with unfunny guys forever, right?

Judd: That’s an interesting thing I’ve noticed. Because of my job, my daughters have gotten to hang out with some of the most interesting, funny people around–and it makes them think less of their friends.

Jerry: That’s good.

Judd: They think they’re so uninteresting and so not funny.

Jerry: They’re right.

Judd: They acutally have a problem with it sometimes. They don’t like what their friends talk about, or what interests them.

Jerry: That’s a great contribution you’ve made.

Judd: What was your family situation like, financially, growing up?

Jerry: We were fine. I grew up straight middle class.

Judd: I’m interested in how you approach having money and raising kids and making sure you instill some sense of values.

Jerry: We talk about it a lot and we make a big deal about it and they have absorbed it. They understand the natural, obnoxious vibe that people are going ot have of them–that they’d better watch it, you know, because they’re going to be hated for this.

Judd: “Everybody knows what we have, so you’d better be cool.”

Jerry: I have cars. And my son, when I pick him up at camp, says, “Dad, you better not come in a different car. No one’s impressed with your cars. Come in the same car every day so no one knows you have more than one car.”

Judd: I find myself saying to my kid, “I earned this moeny, not you.” I’m allowed to enjoy it, but you go make your own money.

Jerry: I say that, too. “You’re not getting any of it.”

Judd: Do you subscribe to the Warren Buffet theory? Are you going to give your kids nothing?

Jerry: No, I don’t. I wish I subscribed to that theory, but I don’t. I honestly don’t even know what to do about that. Let them fight over it.

Judd: For me, I wanted to be a comedian and I wanted to work from a very early age because I was afraid of being broke. What was your core motivation?

Jerry: To never havve to do anything else. I learned very young in this business that you bust your ass or you get thrown out of the kingdom. My motivation was not wanting to leave the kingdom. Plus, I just love the life of it. I love my independence and the joy of hearing laughs and making jokes. It’s as simple as that.

Judd: Does the TV show seem like this weird littel dream that happened in the middle of your stand-up career?

Jerry: That’s a very good description of it.

Judd: Like this odd distraction for eight or nine years and then back to real life?

Jerry: Obviously, after the show, I saw there were many other avenues available for me. I missed the solitude. I missed the griminess and the simplicity of the life. I remember working it out with a friend of mine, James Spader. I said, “What do I do with my life now?” And he said, “Well, what has been the best experience you’ve had so far?” And I said, “For me, it has been performing for live audiences.” You kind of get to do that on TV, but TV is so much work and the pipeline is just too long. In stand-up, you get addicted to that intensity: You have an idea for something, and then you’re onstage that night and people are reacting to it. That’s very intense.

Judd: How did you handle the grind of doing the show, with scripts coming in and not being good and having to deal with fixing them and everything? At The Larry Sanders Show, we did fewer episodes than you per year–you know, we would usually do thirteen. I think there were two seasons where we did eighteen. But by the end, everyone was decimated by it.

Jerry: Decimated.

Judd: And we didn’t do it anywhere near as many years as you did Seinfeld. How did it feel to be in the center of that storm?

Jerry: We were killing ourselves and the reason why I stopped the show was I literally phsyiscally couldn’t go on. We were doing twenty-two episodes a season. And then once Larry [David] left, I was doing all the rewrites–to rehearse all day and then to do all those rewrites and all the editing and all the casting, it was just…I was lucky the show happened when I was young and healthy. You’re strong in those years and you’re pretty smart. I coulndn’t have done it before or after.

Judd: People don’t understand how it grinds you down. They don’t understand why people who have done it don’t ever want to do it again.

Jerry: Right. “Why did you stop doing the show?” I don’t have a good answer for that. I can’t explain. You can’t explain what that is.

Judd: There’s no way for people to understand what you give to a show like that.

Jerry: Yeah, and when your name is the show–I mean, it was the best possible experience in that medium, but you can’t do it forever. And the thing is, are you willing to compromise quality to keep it going? Of course, the answer to that was no. And that’s why the show ended when it did.

Judd: Sometimes, when I think about my career, I think of it in this weird way. I had this show that was a financial failure, Freaks and Geeks, which didn’t even last a full season. But in my head, I have tricked myself into believing it was a major accomplishment. I tell myself, Well, at least I accomplished that. And then I look at the rest of my life and career as post-Freaks and Geeks. Whatever I do, it doesn’t matter because I pulled it off once and that was enough. I look at the rest of my career as gravy. Do you look at like your career in a similar way, as post-Seinfeld? When something so enormous is accomplished, does it just reframe everything?

Jerry: Mostly, it just frees me from having to do press. And I travel in comfort. That’s what it gave me. No, I mean, it gave me everything, and that was always my thought when I was doing it. If I sacrifice every cell of energy that I have into doing this, the rest of my life will be pretty good. So I just died on the shield. I went to the point where I though, If I keep going, I could lose my sanity. That was how far I took it mentally.

Judd: I had that at the end of a season of The Larry Sanders Show. I took a job punching up Happy Gilmore right afterwards, and I stressed myself out so much trying to do a good job that I started having these crazy panic attacks. Which was my body telling me, you need to lay down.

Jerry: This is one of the great perils of the job. You can work yourself to destruction. Because the work is interesting and exciting and all these opportunities are rare and wonderful and hard to resist.

Judd: Two years ago, I took my first Transcendental Meditation class. Just to get centered.

Jerry: Oh, really?

Judd: You started doing TM in college, right?

Jerry: I started doing it in college. While everyone was at lunch, I would go back to my room and do a TM. I did it once a day. But about a year ago, I was talking to a TM instructor, and he started telling me, “You know, if you do two a day, it’s a lot more powerful.” So i just recently started doing that and it has completely changed my life. I honestly will do four a day sometimes. I pop them like Tic Tacs.

Judd: How is it possible that, in all those years, no one told you that most people do TM more than once a day?

Jerry: All I think about now is what the experience of the show might have been like if I had applied this as the real antidote, which is what it is. It’s the antidote to that difficult life.

Judd: Is there any part of you that thinks that a certain level of bad energy and exhaustion helps you reach some other comedic place?

Jerry: No, I don’t believe in that.

Judd: One of the funniest things I’ve seen is on a DVD extra of the Larry Sanders Show DVD, you and Garry Shandling debating whether or not you need pain to be funny. And you’re saying, “Well, what about talent? Some people just have a God-given talent.” And Garry says, “Why are you so angry, Jerry?” But I agree with you. I think the TM thing is very powerful. Sometimes I actually have a phobia of feeling good. I resist it because I’m not used to feeling that way.

Jerry: I don’t fall prey to that.

Judd: Do you think your general disposition comes from a place of spirituality, or were you like this from the get-go?

Jerry: That’s a tough question. I was drawn to a lot of Eastern thought, a lot of Zen stuff. I’ve always been drawn to Eastern philosophy and religion more than Western or Jewish, I guess. Which is why I took to TM so quickly. No question. But going back to our thing about emotions, I just don’t accept irrational emotion as part of my behavior. I’m not going to act on an irrational emotion. So I think that’s probably built in, but reading some of the Zen stuff I’ve read over the years and doing all the TM has definitely shored it up. Now I’m this guy, whoever that is.

Judd: I read a lot of Zen but it ultimately makes me unhappy because I don’t want to be one drop in the ocean.

Jerry: I do.

Judd: How do you get over that hump?

Jerry: You look at some pictures from the Hubble Telescope and you snap out of it. I used to keep pictures of the Hubble on the wall of the writing room at Seinfeld. It would calm me when I would start to think that was what I was doing was important.

Judd: See, I go the other way with that. That makes me depressed.

Jerry: Most people would say that. People always say that it makes them feel insignificant, but I don’t find being insignificant depressing. I find it uplifting.

Judd: Insignificance is a hump I have trouble getting over, but maybe that’s because my parents were crazier than yours.

Jerry: Maybe. Or maybe you think this is your only life, and this is the only stuff you’re ever going to do Which, you know, I don’t subscribe to that.

Judd: What do you subscribe to?

Jerry: That this is just one chapter of thousands of chapters.

Judd: My parents never mentioned spirituality or God or anything. The only thing they would say is “Nobody said life was fair.” That was my entire religious upbringing.

Jerry: Nobody said life wasn’t fair, either. Nobody is in charge of saying what life is and that’s what it is.

Judd: But generally, your parents were cool, right? You had a good relationship witth them?

Jerry: I wouldn’t use the word cool. I would say they were…highly independent. My father’s mother died giving birth to him, and my mother grew up in an orphanage. My father was out of school probably by sixth grade, on the street. And they didn’t marry until they were in their forties so they were very, very independent people, and I just folded right into that place where you won’t need anybody.

Judd: That didn’t make you needy?

Jerry: It made me feel free. You don’t need people. They’re unreliable.

Judd: It’s such a different type of comedy upbringing. I feel like most comedians have broken parents who don’t know how to mirror you; they want you to care of them. So you spend your life trying to please other people and thinking that you are significant because you can change the world or change things, but you find out that you really can’t, and then you’re miserable.

Jerry: Pleasing people is fun. It’s never been an emotional nutrient for me. It does make me happy when people like something I made and it makes me unhappy if they don’t like it, but that’s not my nutrition.

Judd: You’re a lucky man in that respect.

Jerry: It’s allowed me to play the game for what it is. I look at everything as a game.

Judd: I recently watched that speech you gave about advertising, at the Clio Awards, or whatever. I really enjoyed that.

Jerry: Oh, thank you. Boy, you see everything. You know I wrote that because I was so regretting that I agreed to accept this stupid award, I thought, Let me at least give myself something to do there so it’s not just torture. The premise of that speech was that it doesn’t matter if the product is good because I so enjoy that moment before I found out. I enjoy getting sold, and I enjoy thinking that I’m going to get this great thing. That’s all I need.

Judd: That’s maybe the greatest lesson you can teach a child.

Jerry: I’ve always loved getting sold. That’s true of all good salesmen. All good salsemen love to get taken in by a pitch.

Judd: Are you just loving doing your show Comedians in Cars?

Jerry: Yeah. I love it because it’s a completely free canvas, like stand-up. Nobody cares what I make. As long as the audience likes it and I like doing it, that’s the end of it.

Judd: Looking back at teh shows you’ve done so far, what were teh ones that had the biggest impact on you, or that surprised you the most? Because you have people on that show that we don’t see in that format, ever. You don’t see Howard Stern talking as he does in life, ever. You don’t see Letterman do that.

Jerry: I think people enjoy that. I never know what the show iss going to be. Somehow I get in there and I can make it into whatever I want. It’s a can of Play-Doh. You just make stuff. I don’t deal with any executives, on any level. It’s just me. It’s just like stand-up. I go, “Here’s something I made for you.” And that’s it. I wanted peopel to see what the life of a comedian is like: Ten percent of it is being onstage, and ninety percent is just like hanging out with these great people. And that’s really made my life.

Judd: Just the joy of that.

Jerry: I wanted to show that. I though people would get a kick out of seeing what it’s really like. That is the fun part.