The legendary comic performed three shows at the Sony Centre this past weekend. Why his reputation for hackneyed "What's the deal with..." jokes is undeserved.
In the half hour before Jerry Seinfeld took to the stage at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, where he performed three shows this past weekend, Sinatra hits flowed from the in-theatre speakers, practically daring us to make the clumsy comparisons. (Living legend. Classy. Economical in gesture and phrasing.) Whereas the truth is that if Jerry Seinfeld did choose his opening music for the show, it was for the same simple reason he chose the jokes he told: he knows what works and what’s good.
Part of that is giving people jokes they can relate to, and jokes that reflect what people see going on around them. That’s Seinfeld’s specialty, as has been parodied in thousands of distillations of him as the “What’s the deal with…” guy.
The first five minutes of his set on Friday evening were dedicated to your average audience member’s experience that day up until show time, including their regret over buying tickets and their difficulty getting to the venue, meeting up, and, finally, getting to their seats. It’s safe to say that if Seinfeld wants you to relate to what he’s talking about, he’s not going to risk missing—he starts with the big, obvious targets.
But not everything about a Jerry Seinfeld show is cold and calculating. Not even close. These five minutes came after his entrance to the stage, which he made at a full, all-out run. A grown man in a suit looking like he’s about to skid along in his socks for fun is a perfect example of Seinfeld’s first secret weapon: despite his reputation as a staid, obvious comic, his act is silly. His behaviour is silly. Even his television show was outrageously silly.
This means that for all the laughs he gets with the ideas contained in his jokes, he gets just as many with his delivery and mock-breathless outrage—the famed “comical pitch” of his voice that happened when he tried to sound angry on Seinfeld. In fact, it works even when there’s no joke. At one point he mentioned being in a coffee shop in New York a week ago, where he was recognized by some fans. After this, Wayne Knight, Seinfeld’s Newman, unexpectedly walked into the same coffee shop. “Everybody was like, ‘Oh my…oh my goddddd! What’s going ON!? IS THIS THE SHOW!?!?” He managed to make even this small anecdote into a hit with the audience.
Another reason Seinfeld’s material goes over so well is a simple one: he’s just funny. Casually funny, conversationally funny—he says funny things in a funny way. The man is not an automaton. How many of the best moments on Seinfeld had him bursting into obvious laughter throughout the entire scene? In fact, it almost seems unfair, the way he gets to play both sides: on the one hand, he can get away with obvious “stand-up” moments, like railing against the cup sizes at Starbucks, because the audience is aware that he kind of, you know, helped invent that sort of thing. But on the other hand, he also makes you laugh in a completely non–stand-up comedian way, just the way your friends would if you were all sitting around laughing.
Deriding Seinfeld as being nothing more than the “What’s the deal with…” guy is nonsensical—that’s just how good comedy works. That first bit, his observation, is like Johnny Carson describing the true news story that he’s about to tell a joke about. It’s what the comic has to say about those things that’s important. It’s not Seinfeld asking why we’re still telling people to wait for the beep and to leave their name and number on the answering machine that’s funny—if you assume that bit sounds hackneyed, it’s only because you’re imagining the joke that some lesser comic might make. It’s when he then leaves a series of messages as someone who doesn’t understand that you need this sort of information on a message (“Hello. This is a woman. Goodbye.” “Hi? The hospital. I have to go now.”) that the joke becomes very, very funny. There are a wealth of lines like this in the current show.
One of the biggest laughs of the night came with what might have been Seinfeld’s most casual, conversational bit. He was speaking about the standard movie-theatre request to check around your seat and pick up any garbage in the area. “Yeah, okay. No,” he said. Again, with his delivery at the top of its game, this seeming non-joke was already funny, but he went on for quite a while:
“Do you… I… I’m not pickin’ nothin’ up! This is the agreement we have: I pay $13 for a ticket, $10 for popcorn. In exchange, if I at any time have anything I don’t want, I just open my hand… I know it’s down there! I put it there! Why would I…”
There is a temptation to relay all of Seinfeld’s various new bits, to try to explain them to everyone—but, in the end, it’s all about the delivery. So if you can get your hands on tickets, check this guy out next time he’s in town, or at least rest assured that he’s still got it. Feel free to be angry about him using up his time with trifles like Bee Movie and The Marriage Ref instead of making a new television show, but remember he’s also still spending a lot of time doing what he loves and what he’s great at. With the all new jokes, and with a new set of circumstances (including marriage and fatherhood) to spend the second half of the show getting into, Jerry Seinfeld still has plenty to offer.