Steve Martin and Jerry Seinfeld on Why Irritability Makes a Good Comedian
The legendary standups talk about what’s needed for success in comedy.
Released on 10/8/2020
Steve as we know in the '70s made comedy
into the new rock and roll selling out arenas
where bands like Led Zepplin would play.
And Jerry, you've been doing stand-up steadily
with huge success for 45 years.
Both of you feel very strongly
about the technique and the craft of writing jokes.
And I'd love to hear you describe, each of you,
the process, your process for coming up with a bit,
shaping it, refining it.
How does it start?
The thing I like about writing comedy,
or any kind of writing is there's no rhyme or reason to it.
Nobody knows how to do it.
Nobody has figured out anything.
Everyone's free to do it.
And I kinda like that complete chaos.
An interview earlier today
and the guy said, Quick question?
And I just said, What is a quick question?
Is it gonna be less words?
Does it mean my answer is short?
It's just one of these annoying little things
that people say.
So I will write something like that down
and see if it annoys other people the way it annoys me.
I'll just play with it.
Performing live it's just an ongoing exercise with a line.
You trim it, you make it longer.
You do a different setup.
You knock out part of it.
You keep trying it night after night.
I think Jerry writes more perfectly than I could.
Like honestly, I feel about Jerry's lines,
that's so beautifully cadenced.
So it sounds like what begins as a kind of
something loose and lumpy on a yellow legal pad,
then just gets honed and honed and honed
by performing it live.
And when I first picked up your book, Jerry,
I was startled because just even the way it's laid out,
typography, it almost looks like a book of poetry.
You know, joke is obviously a precision instrument.
Every word is a beat.
You used the word cadence before.
And Steve, in your long stand-up career
I imagine the same thing that you really honed those things.
It's absolutely true.
I did stand-up for 18 years, honed it and worked it.
Really honed everything down so much,
I no longer had any material.
I took four hours and whittled it down to an hour
and then I just quit.
So the title of the book, Jerry, is Is This Anything?
And it's about the way comedians routinely,
in this honing process that we've talked about,
they tryout bits on each other and say, is this funny,
is this funny?
I mean, who was the first,
first time that you met another funny kid?
Interesting that you would even ask that.
Because I know for me, that was a gigantic, gigantic
moment in my life when I met another funny kid,
which was in third grade.
I was so excited, because you start laughing together
in a way that you don't before that.
I mean, I learned a lot from a comedian
named Gary Mule Deer.
Do you know him?
Of course, I remember Gary very well, very funny guy.
Well, I knew him when I was 18 or 19.
I would notice that he would be funny,
just kinda lookin' around.
He would see something and pick it up
and say something about it.
He could just look around and come up with stuff.
And, it's kind of what Robin Williams used to do very well.
But I learned like, oh you just keep your eyes open,
and your ears open.
When we were young and you tried to write jokes,
it was just like pushing a wheelbarrow through wet sand.
And now, there's an ease to it and a pleasure in it
that I did not have then.
But what you mentioned is the pleasure.
I get so much more pleasure out of it now
because it feels just fun.
Your future is not in the balance.
But I thought, gee, I feel so much more at ease
writing comedy now, than I ever have in my life.
It just seems to come easier.
I can quickly write a punchline to something.
But also you've just done it for so many years.
And maybe you do get better at it.
Sounds like you have more comfort and confidence doing it
kind of as a solitary pursuit.
Earlier, I sort of get the picture of you younger.
Sort of gaggles of other comics
spouting off around each other.
I mean, in the book Jerry, you say that even today,
when you're in the company of other stand-up comedians,
you feel like you're rolling around in a litter of puppies.
Do you still feel that way?
There is an energy around comedy people
that is unlike any other social energy.
I like to be with comedians because I feel an empathy.
I feel we've both done the same thing.
We understand something that other people
can't possibly understand.
When you have a comedic perspective
you kind of think that the entire human experience
is just kind of this silly charade
and it's all funny to you.
Everything is funny,
Yeah, they call you,
what do they call it observational comedy-
Yeah I've always hated that term actually.
Everything everybody talks about
is based on something they've observed.
Are there comedians that do things,
they talk about things that they have not observed?
I don't describe Jerry as observational.
I mean, when I see Jerry's show I feel like later,
I kind of described it as sitting back in an easy chair
with this sort of great pilot
and it's a very gentle comedian
and it's just this beautiful rhythm,
flows and flows and flows, and does all of the things
that other comedians have to pace the stage and yell,
and say the, and everything.
It accomplishes all those things.
That is so nice Steve to hear you say that.
That is a unbelievable, nice compliment, thank you.
Kind of a funny tour guide to the whole world.
But Steve, that reminds me, think about your beginnings.
Before you became a stand-up,
you were a comedy writer for the Smothers Brothers
who's show canceled because of its anti-Vietnam stance.
And during a time when a lot of the comedy was angry
and political, George Carlin, Richard Pryor,
you were the cheerful, clean-cut guy.
It was absurd and funny in a serious time.
Every comedian did politics, politics, politics.
1971, I thought things are gonna change.
I cut my hair.
I shaved my beard, and I put on a suit
rather than my hippy clothes.
I took out every, not every, but every sort of curse word.
And I became like an accountant.
That suit, that the suit would work the way it did,
just everything, it was like a pure invention of yourself.
I dunno, I think the nation was waiting,
was just kinda ready for something a little goofy.
An unbelievable piece of self-design.
There were so many of these really out there,
high-concept ideas, like stand-up comedy for dogs,
or taking the audience out of the club,
and taking them all to McDonald's.
They were intellectually so brilliant,
but at the same time, just so goofy.
And Steve's act could be funny
with the sound turned off, because it actually
just was so funny to look at.
But your kind of visual acuity is more descriptive.
Stand-up comedy is a completely visual exercise.
You're just describing what you see.
And if you describe it well,
and if it's a funny thing that you're seeing,
they will laugh.
But it's basically, you're describing
a picture in your mind.
That's what a joke is to me.
One of the things that Lorne Michaels
likes to say about comedy is that it's polite hostility,
which maybe that's a Canadian take.
But kind of a corollary to that, there's an old line
that the average comedian is three parts funny,
one part Ethel Merman.
Neither of you seems to have that needy, angry, hostile.
How are you so well adjusted
and so successful at the same time?
The aggression and the hostility,
or maybe a better word might be irritability
is an essential ingredient.
If you're not easily irritated,
I think it's hard to be funny.
There is a certain anger in it that makes us laugh,
'cause we all have it,
but the comedian gives it a candy shell.
And it's so much fun.
It's so much fun.
And the audiences- So much fun.
Really, they feel that kind of release.
You're kind of releasing that pressure for them.
Well Jerry, you had kind of taken a break
from the constant stand-up when you were filming Seinfeld.
In the book, you write about how a couple of years
after Seinfeld ended, you went to see Chris Rock
and another comic, and just thought,
Oh my God, look at those guys.
I miss that, I used to know how to do that.
And you decided to go back.
When you did come back, did you find that the rules
about what you could joke about had changed?
I thought I would, after the TV series,
that I would have a completely
different level of confidence,
and now I can say whatever I want.
And I found that that was not the case.
That I didn't have any more confidence than I had before.
And it took just as much work
and the rules are constantly changing.
You know culture is not a solid it's a liquid.
That's the excitement of comedy.
It's like just jumping into the ocean surf
and trying to swim, and you have to adjust
to these forces that are greater than you.
That's the art and skill of comedy.
Think about it all the time.
Can we say this?
'Cause what you don't want,
in the middle of your comedy show, is to be booed.
Suddenly everybody's laughing and somebody's being booed.
That's a comedy killer.
What about the pandemic?
I mean, here we are talking about comedy
in these little boxes on screens.
What do you two make of what we're all
going through right now, and what effect it's gonna have
on this business?
When we can come back we'll come back
and people will make jokes about it,
and that'll probably be a huge catharsis, I think,
for people to be able to laugh
at something being in the past.
I was doing this thing the other day
about when this began, it's like they said,
Okay, we're gonna have to completely stop everything
that's going on in the world.
We don't want you to touch your face.
Which is the one thing,
you just wanna go, what are you talking about?
You're stopping the whole world,
and don't touch my face?
How can I not touch my face.
[Steve and Susan laugh]
Now, Del Close, the improv guru from Second City,
apparently said on his death bed,
he was tired of being the funniest guy in the room.
Is it a burden, being these professionally very funny guys?
Yeah, Steve is really funny all the time.
He is like you would dream
that he would be at a dinner party.
I have to really psych myself up
to be a little entertaining.
I find it difficult when I'm in normal situations
to be funny.
So I first started doing big act,
because it was so extreme and people would think I was that.
And I couldn't be that anywhere but on stage.
So people were always disappointed.
What a crazy thing for people to expect
you to act like in normal life.
I had a hair cutter, a young woman,
she was like 25 and she would cut my hair.
And she told me once, people would say,
You cut Steve Martin's hair.
And she goes, Yeah.
Is it so funny?
She goes, No.
Jerry, there was a part, a page in your book
where you described going to
birthday parties with your kids.
And there'd be a clown entertaining.
And the clown would sometimes take you aside
and ask for pointers.
Yeah, he would say, Can you help me
with my comedy career?
I said, Well, what do you wanna do?
He said, I wanna get on television.
I said, Well, I just went from television
to these parties myself.
I don't know how to do it in reverse.