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

Transcript

00:00
[playful music]
00:08
Steve as we know in the '70s made comedy
00:11
into the new rock and roll selling out arenas
00:15
where bands like Led Zepplin would play.
00:17
And Jerry, you've been doing stand-up steadily
00:21
with huge success for 45 years.
00:23
Both of you feel very strongly
00:24
about the technique and the craft of writing jokes.
00:28
And I'd love to hear you describe, each of you,
00:31
the process, your process for coming up with a bit,
00:34
shaping it, refining it.
00:36
How does it start?
00:38
The thing I like about writing comedy,
00:39
or any kind of writing is there's no rhyme or reason to it.
00:43
Nobody knows how to do it.
00:46
Nobody has figured out anything.
00:49
Everyone's free to do it.
00:51
And I kinda like that complete chaos.
00:55
An interview earlier today
00:56
and the guy said, Quick question?
00:58
And I just said, What is a quick question?
01:01
Is it gonna be less words?
01:02
Does it mean my answer is short?
01:04
It's just one of these annoying little things
01:06
that people say.
01:07
So I will write something like that down
01:10
and see if it annoys other people the way it annoys me.
01:13
I'll just play with it.
01:15
Performing live it's just an ongoing exercise with a line.
01:20
You trim it, you make it longer.
01:23
You do a different setup.
01:24
You knock out part of it.
01:25
You keep trying it night after night.
01:28
I think Jerry writes more perfectly than I could.
01:33
Like honestly, I feel about Jerry's lines,
01:35
that's so beautifully cadenced.
01:39
So it sounds like what begins as a kind of
01:42
something loose and lumpy on a yellow legal pad,
01:45
then just gets honed and honed and honed
01:47
by performing it live.
01:49
And when I first picked up your book, Jerry,
01:51
I was startled because just even the way it's laid out,
01:56
typography, it almost looks like a book of poetry.
02:00
You know, joke is obviously a precision instrument.
02:02
Every word is a beat.
02:03
You used the word cadence before.
02:06
And Steve, in your long stand-up career
02:08
I imagine the same thing that you really honed those things.
02:11
It's absolutely true.
02:12
I did stand-up for 18 years, honed it and worked it.
02:16
Really honed everything down so much,
02:20
I no longer had any material.
02:22
[Jerry laughs]
02:23
I took four hours and whittled it down to an hour
02:26
and then I just quit.
02:27
[Susan laughs]
02:28
So the title of the book, Jerry, is Is This Anything?
02:31
And it's about the way comedians routinely,
02:36
in this honing process that we've talked about,
02:38
they tryout bits on each other and say, is this funny,
02:41
is this funny?
02:42
I mean, who was the first,
02:43
first time that you met another funny kid?
02:46
Interesting that you would even ask that.
02:49
Because I know for me, that was a gigantic, gigantic
02:53
moment in my life when I met another funny kid,
02:55
which was in third grade.
02:57
I was so excited, because you start laughing together
03:02
in a way that you don't before that.
03:05
I mean, I learned a lot from a comedian
03:07
named Gary Mule Deer.
03:08
Do you know him?
03:10
Of course, I remember Gary very well, very funny guy.
03:12
Well, I knew him when I was 18 or 19.
03:15
I would notice that he would be funny,
03:19
just kinda lookin' around.
03:20
He would see something and pick it up
03:22
and say something about it.
03:23
He could just look around and come up with stuff.
03:27
And, it's kind of what Robin Williams used to do very well.
03:31
But I learned like, oh you just keep your eyes open,
03:34
and your ears open.
03:35
When we were young and you tried to write jokes,
03:39
it was just like pushing a wheelbarrow through wet sand.
03:44
And now, there's an ease to it and a pleasure in it
03:48
that I did not have then.
03:49
But what you mentioned is the pleasure.
03:52
I get so much more pleasure out of it now
03:56
because it feels just fun.
03:58
Your future is not in the balance.
04:02
But I thought, gee, I feel so much more at ease
04:05
writing comedy now, than I ever have in my life.
04:09
It just seems to come easier.
04:12
I can quickly write a punchline to something.
04:16
But also you've just done it for so many years.
04:20
And maybe you do get better at it.
04:22
Sounds like you have more comfort and confidence doing it
04:27
kind of as a solitary pursuit.
04:29
Earlier, I sort of get the picture of you younger.
04:32
Sort of gaggles of other comics
04:34
spouting off around each other.
04:36
I mean, in the book Jerry, you say that even today,
04:38
when you're in the company of other stand-up comedians,
04:40
you feel like you're rolling around in a litter of puppies.
04:45
Do you still feel that way?
04:47
There is an energy around comedy people
04:50
that is unlike any other social energy.
04:54
I like to be with comedians because I feel an empathy.
04:58
I feel we've both done the same thing.
05:02
We understand something that other people
05:06
can't possibly understand.
05:07
When you have a comedic perspective
05:11
you kind of think that the entire human experience
05:15
is just kind of this silly charade
05:17
and it's all funny to you.
05:19
Everything is funny,
05:21
Yeah, they call you,
05:21
what do they call it observational comedy-
05:24
Yeah I've always hated that term actually.
05:27
Everything everybody talks about
05:29
is based on something they've observed.
05:31
Are there comedians that do things,
05:34
they talk about things that they have not observed?
05:36
I don't describe Jerry as observational.
05:38
I mean, when I see Jerry's show I feel like later,
05:43
I kind of described it as sitting back in an easy chair
05:48
with this sort of great pilot
05:50
and it's a very gentle comedian
05:55
and it's just this beautiful rhythm,
05:58
flows and flows and flows, and does all of the things
06:01
that other comedians have to pace the stage and yell,
06:05
and say the, and everything.
06:08
It accomplishes all those things.
06:09
That is so nice Steve to hear you say that.
06:12
That is a unbelievable, nice compliment, thank you.
06:16
Kind of a funny tour guide to the whole world.
06:19
But Steve, that reminds me, think about your beginnings.
06:23
Before you became a stand-up,
06:25
you were a comedy writer for the Smothers Brothers
06:28
who's show canceled because of its anti-Vietnam stance.
06:32
And during a time when a lot of the comedy was angry
06:35
and political, George Carlin, Richard Pryor,
06:39
you were the cheerful, clean-cut guy.
06:43
It was absurd and funny in a serious time.
06:47
Every comedian did politics, politics, politics.
06:51
1971, I thought things are gonna change.
06:55
I cut my hair.
06:56
I shaved my beard, and I put on a suit
06:58
rather than my hippy clothes.
07:00
I took out every, not every, but every sort of curse word.
07:06
And I became like an accountant.
07:08
That suit, that the suit would work the way it did,
07:11
just everything, it was like a pure invention of yourself.
07:16
I dunno, I think the nation was waiting,
07:18
was just kinda ready for something a little goofy.
07:22
An unbelievable piece of self-design.
07:25
There were so many of these really out there,
07:28
high-concept ideas, like stand-up comedy for dogs,
07:32
or taking the audience out of the club,
07:35
and taking them all to McDonald's.
07:37
They were intellectually so brilliant,
07:38
but at the same time, just so goofy.
07:40
And Steve's act could be funny
07:41
with the sound turned off, because it actually
07:43
just was so funny to look at.
07:44
But your kind of visual acuity is more descriptive.
07:50
Stand-up comedy is a completely visual exercise.
07:53
You're just describing what you see.
07:56
And if you describe it well,
07:58
and if it's a funny thing that you're seeing,
08:00
they will laugh.
08:01
But it's basically, you're describing
08:03
a picture in your mind.
08:05
That's what a joke is to me.
08:07
One of the things that Lorne Michaels
08:08
likes to say about comedy is that it's polite hostility,
08:12
which maybe that's a Canadian take.
08:14
But kind of a corollary to that, there's an old line
08:17
that the average comedian is three parts funny,
08:21
one part Ethel Merman.
08:22
Neither of you seems to have that needy, angry, hostile.
08:27
How are you so well adjusted
08:29
and so successful at the same time?
08:32
The aggression and the hostility,
08:35
or maybe a better word might be irritability
08:40
is an essential ingredient.
08:41
If you're not easily irritated,
08:44
I think it's hard to be funny.
08:46
There is a certain anger in it that makes us laugh,
08:51
'cause we all have it,
08:52
but the comedian gives it a candy shell.
08:56
And it's so much fun.
08:58
It's so much fun.
08:59
And the audiences- So much fun.
09:01
Really, they feel that kind of release.
09:05
You're kind of releasing that pressure for them.
09:08
Well Jerry, you had kind of taken a break
09:11
from the constant stand-up when you were filming Seinfeld.
09:15
In the book, you write about how a couple of years
09:17
after Seinfeld ended, you went to see Chris Rock
09:20
and another comic, and just thought,
09:22
Oh my God, look at those guys.
09:24
I miss that, I used to know how to do that.
09:26
And you decided to go back.
09:29
When you did come back, did you find that the rules
09:33
about what you could joke about had changed?
09:35
I thought I would, after the TV series,
09:38
that I would have a completely
09:39
different level of confidence,
09:41
and now I can say whatever I want.
09:44
And I found that that was not the case.
09:46
That I didn't have any more confidence than I had before.
09:49
And it took just as much work
09:51
and the rules are constantly changing.
09:54
You know culture is not a solid it's a liquid.
09:57
That's the excitement of comedy.
09:59
It's like just jumping into the ocean surf
10:02
and trying to swim, and you have to adjust
10:05
to these forces that are greater than you.
10:07
That's the art and skill of comedy.
10:11
Think about it all the time.
10:13
Can we say this?
10:14
'Cause what you don't want,
10:16
in the middle of your comedy show, is to be booed.
10:20
Suddenly everybody's laughing and somebody's being booed.
10:25
That's a comedy killer.
10:27
[Jerry laughs]
10:30
What about the pandemic?
10:31
I mean, here we are talking about comedy
10:34
in these little boxes on screens.
10:36
What do you two make of what we're all
10:38
going through right now, and what effect it's gonna have
10:41
on this business?
10:43
When we can come back we'll come back
10:45
and people will make jokes about it,
10:48
and that'll probably be a huge catharsis, I think,
10:54
for people to be able to laugh
10:56
at something being in the past.
10:57
I was doing this thing the other day
11:00
about when this began, it's like they said,
11:03
Okay, we're gonna have to completely stop everything
11:07
that's going on in the world.
11:08
We don't want you to touch your face.
11:09
Which is the one thing,
11:10
you just wanna go, what are you talking about?
11:13
You're stopping the whole world,
11:15
and don't touch my face?
11:17
How can I not touch my face.
11:19
[Steve and Susan laugh]
11:21
Now, Del Close, the improv guru from Second City,
11:25
apparently said on his death bed,
11:28
he was tired of being the funniest guy in the room.
11:31
Is it a burden, being these professionally very funny guys?
11:37
Yeah, Steve is really funny all the time.
11:41
He is like you would dream
11:43
that he would be at a dinner party.
11:46
I have to really psych myself up
11:49
to be a little entertaining.
11:52
I find it difficult when I'm in normal situations
11:55
to be funny.
11:56
So I first started doing big act,
11:59
because it was so extreme and people would think I was that.
12:04
And I couldn't be that anywhere but on stage.
12:08
So people were always disappointed.
12:11
[Steve chuckles]
12:13
[Jerry laughs]
12:14
What a crazy thing for people to expect
12:17
you to act like in normal life.
12:20
I had a hair cutter, a young woman,
12:23
she was like 25 and she would cut my hair.
12:26
And she told me once, people would say,
12:28
You cut Steve Martin's hair.
12:30
And she goes, Yeah.
12:31
Is it so funny?
12:32
She goes, No.
12:37
Jerry, there was a part, a page in your book
12:40
where you described going to
12:42
birthday parties with your kids.
12:44
And there'd be a clown entertaining.
12:46
And the clown would sometimes take you aside
12:49
and ask for pointers.
12:51
Yeah, he would say, Can you help me
12:55
with my comedy career?
12:58
I said, Well, what do you wanna do?
12:59
He said, I wanna get on television.
13:00
I said, Well, I just went from television
13:03
to these parties myself.
13:05
I don't know how to do it in reverse.
13:07
[Steve chuckles]
13:09
[playful music]