Seinfeld on his Craft, Or: Comedy as a Path to Metaphysical Grace

by Bill Benzon

Music as a prelude to Jerry Seinfeld

I started trumpet lessons when I was ten years old or so. After about two years or so my lessons were drawn from Jean-Baptiste Arban’s Complete Conservatory Method for Trumpet, which dates from the middle of the 19th century and is the central method book in ‘legit’ trumpet pedagogy. Near the end, before a series of virtuoso solos, I read words which, in retrospect, are at the center of my interest in Jerry Seinfeld’s observations on his craft. Arban observed:

There are things which appear clear enough when uttered viva voce but which cannot be committed to paper without engendering confusion and obscurity, or without appearing puerile.

There are other things of so elevated and subtle a nature that neither speech nor writing can clearly explain them. They are felt, they are conceived, but they are not to be explained; and yet these things constitute the elevated style, the grande ecole, which it is my ambition to institute for the cornet, even as they already exist for singing and the various kinds of instruments.

What, you may ask, does this grande ecole have to do with standup comedy? Everything and nothing.

Cool your jets.

Just think of those words, imagine their effect on an earnest twelve-year old struggling with the trumpet while at the same time thrilled by the music of such geniuses at Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davies, and Rafael Mendez, often billed as “The Heifetz of the Trumpet.” Did they know these things of an elevated and subtle nature? Did their playing represent this grande ecole, whatever that is? Can I get there from here? How?

More than anything else, I suppose, it was the abstract and mysterious, if not downright exotic penumbra of those words that pulled me. Later, when I was in college, I found a similar exotic penumbra radiating from words like “samadhi,” “enlightenment,” and “peak experience.” Did Seinfeld too encounter those words in his youth? He must have, for in the interview I’ve inserted at the head of this essay he mentions that he was a seeker in his youth and read about yoga, Zen, Buddhism, and other things. I read those things as well, which is where I found those words, but I also read interviews with jazz musicians who would talk about how it was best when you didn’t play the music. Rather, the music played you?


So: Music, comedy, spiritual experience, all enveloped in the same exotic mystery. Note, however, that Seinfeld also says he was seeking to create an “operating system”, a term from computing, that is “very pragmatic [and] not faith-based in any way.”

When the music’s working

About midway through the interview Seinfeld tells us (c. 42:44):

There’s no greater reward than that state of mind you’re in when that set is working. If you can extricate yourself from your Self, which is the goal in all sports and performance arts, if you get out of your mind, and are able to just function … there is no greater reward. But, you know, if you want to have an ice cream Sunday, go ahead. It’s going to pale in comparison.

Read it again. No greater reward – think about it – no greater reward. “Extricate yourself from your Self” – that’s the sort of thing you find in Zen, yoga, and Buddhism. But what does it mean? It’s not like taking off your socks. “The goal in all sports” – what happened to winning? – “and performance arts” – that covers a LOT of territory, no? Yes. “Better than an ice cream Sunday.” See what he did there?

A bit later Seinfeld elaborates (c. 44:42):

I sometimes will describe it as math and music, which is kind of the same thing. Music is so mathematical, as is standup; it’s extremely mathematical. So, you know, I certainly don’t have to tell you that you’re just looking, for a state of mind. You’re trying to maneuver yourself into a state of mind that you know is your highest function level. But there are many levels below that that are good enough to get the job done so that you can call yourself a professional.

So that’s all there is, you know. It’s musical, it’s very rhythmic and musical. It is for me.

Notice that phrase: “maneuver yourself into a state of mind.” It’s the maneuvering part to note. It’s not something you can turn on and off with a switch. Rather you get there by indirection. But isn’t sleep a bit like that? It’s not something we can turn off and on at will. Rather, we place ourselves in a certain situation, a certain posture, and sleep happens. But sometimes it doesn’t; then we may have to resort to pills, or therapy.

What of “your highest function level?” Highest in what sense, not that I doubt him, but still. It feels good, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it? You don’t play the music; the music plays you, and the crowd, together. And yet there are “many levels below that.” How many levels? In some sense the question is impertinent. But, still, it is real. I’ve got many decades of performance experience as a musician, and while I may not be a Seinfeld’s level, I know the difference between a performance what clicks with the audience and one that doesn’t. There ARE levels and degrees of confluence.

Let’s return to Seinfeld. Pay attention to his language:

I’m looking for the, to get myself in a rhythm and then to get the audience in a rhythm very much like a conductor I think would feel. You know a conductor has a piece of music, I have a piece of music in front of me, and now I have to get the symphony to be doing it the way we know it can be and then the audience comes along and supports that and it’s this absurd struggle and I really think being a conductor or a surfer is the best analogy because the forces that you’re attempting to corral are so much greater than you. The wave has so much more strength than you have; all you can hope to do is navigate within it.

That’s the goal. To just get to that very brief, very transitory perception of mastery. It seems in this moment that I am completely mastering this audience. But it’s only a moment. It’s only a moment. I couldn’t stay up there very long.

You know what I think about when I read that? Mickey Mouse commanding the forces of nature in the dream sequence in the middle of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”

What’s important is that it’s not just Seinfeld, it’s Seinfeld-in/and-with-the audience. The whole shebang. At the highest level (whatever that is) the performer sidesteps the Self and surfs the energy field with the audience. How? We don’t know.

But Jerry Seinfeld is an experienced energy surfer and has thought long and hard about what it’s taken him to get there. Let’s hear what he has to say.

How to get there from here

Where “here” is being a kid with a creative gift – (what’s that?) – who wants to do something with that gift. He’s talking about his daughter (c. 33:57): “When you have a creative gift, it’s like someone just gave you a horse. Now you have to learn how to ride it…You either learn to ride this thing, or it’s going to kill you.” It’s an excellent metaphor, a horse, and one with an ancient pedigree; Plato used it in Phaedrus, though not quite in this way. But who cares, Plato, Seinfeld, same difference.

Seinfeld goes on to talk about writing. Yes, writing. The comedian speaks before an audience, and it may appear that s/he’s making it up on the fly – though Groucho Marx may have been doing just that on “You Bet Your Life” – but, no, that’s not how it is. It’s been prepared and worked out in advance, and writing is crucial (c. 33:41):

If you’re going to writing, make yourself a writing session What’s the writing session? I’m going to work on this problem. Well, how long are you going to work on it? Don’t just sit down with an open-ended “I’m gonna work on this problem.” That’s a ridiculous torture to put on a human being’s head… You’ve got to control what your brain can take… You have to have an end time to your writing session. If you’re gonna sit down at a desk with a problem and do nothin’ else, you gotta’ get a reward for that. And the reward is the alarm goes off and you’re done. You get up and walk away a go have some cookies and milk…That’s the beginning of a system.

He goes on and gets around to exercise, mentioning a book, Body for Life, by Bill Phillips, which he praises for the way it systematizes exercise. Now we come to another animal metaphor, the dog, (c. 38:10): “You gotta’ treat your brain like a dog you just got. You got it; it’s so stupid. The mind is infinite in wisdom. The brain is a stupid little dog that is easily trained….Do not confuse the mind with the brain.”

While it is obvious enough, notice Seinfield’s distinction between mind and brain. Though he no doubt knows that the mind is somehow in the brain, he doesn’t talk about it. He talks about the brain. And he talks about training it as though one trains one’s body or as one trains a stallion or a “stupid little dog.” This training is being executed by an operating system. His instructions about writing remind me of the routine of Anthony Trollop, the Victorian novelist, who set himself to writing 250 words every 15 minutes for three hours a day between 5:30 and 8:30 each morning. Following this routine he wrote more than a novel a year for 30 years.

Earlier Seinfeld has said that there are two phases (c. 15:00 or so): 1) free-form creative, 2) polish and construction. Writing is 95% rewriting. Once he’s polished a bit to the point where it sounds pleasing to his (inner) ear, he takes it on stage. He registers audience response and uses it to guide more rewriting (c. 17:42):

Creating, fixing, jettisoning, it’s extremely occupying, it’s never boring, it’s, the frustration I’m so used to it at this point I don’t even notice it, And, it’s just work time…. I like the way athletes talk about “I gotta’ get my work in.”

A bit later he uses the phrase, “the systemization of the brain and creative endeavor.” That’s clearly something Seinfield has thought about a lot, and over his whole career. And then 18:34: “So basically it’s on stage and off stage, the desk and then the stage, and then back to the desk, and then back to the stage, and that’s endless.” So we’ve got two desk phases, creative and rewriting, and then back and forth between desk and stage. Seinfield then does on to talk about being cranky and irritable. That’s the source of those little insights around which he builds his bits.

And then there is performing. When you been back and forth though the two writing stages you take you (more or less) perfected material on stage: Does it work with an audience? If it does, skip the ice cream and surf the wave. If it doesn’t, be kind to yourself, have a scoop, and then it’s back to the writing desk for more work.

Behavioral mode

It seems to me that Seinfeld is talking about behavioral modes, in the sense that I’ve written about them in many posts at my blog, New Savanna. The idea of behavior mode comes from Warren McCulloch and it refers to distinct pattern of global brain activity that supports a particular kind of behavior. McCulloch is was interested in such things as hunting, sleeping, exploration, courtship and so forth.

Seinfeld talks of: 1) creativity (generating ideas, 2) critiquing, editing, and rewriting, and 3) performing. His operating system moves the brain (a stupid little dog, or a stallion) from one mode to another. Notice his emphasis on boundaries. The writing session has a definite beginning and a definite ending. So does a performance. The trick is to learn how to maneuver the brain from one mode to another.

Finally, I note that being able to talk and write about the mind-brain in these terms, for a general audience and without mystification, counts a human progress as surely as, for example, DeepMind’s recent breakthrough in protein folding. Why? Because, ultimately, a human behavior and hence all progress depends on the mind. Learning to harness the mind’s activities is the deepest and most difficult task before us. Without that, little else can happen.