Exclusive: Jerry Seinfeld on coming to India, not using bad words and the thrills of stand-up comedy

Deepanjana Pal

March 11, 2015 07:56:14 IST

He's scrupulously polite. He meditates every day (and has been doing so for more than 40 years). He doesn't swear and as you listen to him talk, there's only one word that describes him perfectly: normal.

Except Jerry Seinfeld is not normal. Seinfeld is a legend. On the eve of his first trip to India though, he's hoping the spotlight on him won't be quite as bright as it is back home in America.

"I just really want to walk around the street in India and be surrounded by Indians and Indian things," he said during our phone interview. "That feeling is going to be so fresh and new to me."


Seinfeld wants to be unrecognised in India: Reuters

Admittedly, he may not get mobbed the way a Bollywood hero does in India, but if he's hoping to get by entirely unrecognised, Seinfeld is in for disappointment.

Even if you've been living under a rock, you probably know Seinfeld. As a stand-up comic, he's been making audiences laugh since the 1970s. Cracking jokes for a living might sound monotonous to some, but for Seinfeld, stand-up comedy still warms the cockles of his heart.

"I'm enjoying it as much now as I did when I was 21 years old," said the 60-year-old. When asked how it feels to be a senior citizen in this industry, Seinfeld said, "It's definitely more fun. My sense of what I want to do is refined."

And what he's wanted to do, right from the very beginning, is tell good jokes.

If you haven't seen clips of Seinfeld's performances online, you've probably caught re-runs of the television show named after him, which he starred in and wrote with Larry David. The curious and wonderful thing about Seinfeld, the TV show, is that its humour connects with people who have nothing in common with Jerry, George, Elaine or Kramer. Seinfeld famously described it as "a show about nothing" and yet, it's been a substantial part of a staggering number of TV-watchers' lives, all over the world.

There may not be a "soup nazi" in your city, but there'll be a moment when something will happen to make the phrase "No soup for you!" echo in your head. Or you'll find yourself labelling someone a "re-gifter". Or yelling "These pretzels are making me thirsty!" to the world at large.

"What makes for a good joke is something that's familiar and something that's surprising at the same time," said Seinfeld, outlining the fundamental that has informed his brand of comedy ever since his first appearance at an open-mic night back in 1976. "You may be familiar with the subject, but you've never seen it in a certain way," he said.

Or as American comedian Kevin Hart once said about Seinfeld's comedic talent, "He can describe a bouncing ball in a way that changes the way you look at bouncing balls forever."

Because his routines are so conversational, you'd be forgiven for thinking Seinfeld just goes up to a mic and starts talking about whatever's on his mind. Considering the following he has amassed thanks to the popularity of Seinfeld the TV show, he probably could do just that. However, there's a lot of hard work that goes into Seinfeld's live act. Each routine is worked upon diligently, each line is polished until there isn't an extra word and the punchline is perfect.

When he goes on stage, Seinfeld isn't a legend with a net worth of more than $800 million, but a performer who desperately wants to make his audience laugh. If a joke falls flat, Seinfeld is still as "crushed", as he was when he started out.

"I still feel terrible when I want something to work and it didn't," he said.

For Seinfeld, a stand-up show is a like a conversation with the audience. That's why, he argues, comedy doesn't need censors or rules to regulate it. If something doesn't work or is out of line, Seinfeld believes the audience "removes it for you".

"Comedy is the most self-regulated field," Seinfeld insisted. "It has to be funny or the audience immediately extinguishes it, just completely stamps it out." According to Seinfeld, the comedian is never smarter than their audience, which is why he ruthlessly scraps jokes that don't get laughs. "I might [try] for a short period of time and see if I can win the argument," he said, talking of jokes that fall flat. Ultimately, however, "the audience does all the editing."

When telling his jokes, Seinfeld is closely watching and listening for reactions. He maintains that once he's on stage, his reputation doesn't really make people laugh. "I know exactly what the reaction is relative to what I'm saying," said Seinfeld, who says each laugh is loaded with information that signals to him what has worked and what hasn't. "They can't fool me," he says of audiences. "I know when I have something good and when I don't."

Seinfeld can talk about audiences and the efficacy of jokes with such confidence because of the routines he's followed for years. The comedian likens himself to an athlete because of the rigour that he puts into stand up comedy. He still writes almost every day and for each day of writing, there's a cross on his calendar. What he writes remains easily relatable, which is quite an achievement considering how different Seinfeld's life is from that of his audiences. The man reportedly has a collection of vintage Porsches, a private jet and may well be the richest actor alive (even though he's barely done any acting since Seinfeld). It's as far from a regular, middle-class life as you can get, and yet, the comedian manages to make you forget his extraordinary lifestyle and instead focus on the little everyday absurdities that we all recognise.

Unlike a lot of American stand-up comedy, there's no swearing or sex in Seinfeld's routines. The only complaint anyone's managed against Seinfeld's stand-up is that it's "too white". In the statement Seinfeld issued when this tour was announced, he said of India, "It is a great honour for me to be invited to come there and make fun of it in person." If you're among those hoping for a controversy, don't hold your breath. Observational and polite, Seinfeld's jokes are squeaky clean — even the Indian censors find nothing objectionable in Seinfeld re-runs — and the comedian has no interest in being provocative. But this also imposes a challenge on Seinfeld as a writer.

"It forces me to use the maximum amount of skill to get better and better," said Seinfeld, talking about his PG-13 sense of humour. "Your ability doesn't grow when something's made easier for you. When it's harder, you get better." There's also a pragmatic side to Seinfeld's decision to keep sexual references and abusive language out of his jokes. "When I started in the '70s and '80s," he pointed out, "you couldn't say things like that on television. Also I think if some people want to bring their children or if they want to bring older relatives, they won't feel uncomfortable."

When Seinfeld has new material that he thinks is ready for an audience, the comedian shows up unannounced at one of New York's comedy clubs and tries it on an unsuspecting audience. So if you're very lucky and have paid a few dollars to listen to nondescript comedians on a slow night at a club, at some godforsaken hour of the night, Jerry Seinfeld might just run on stage and tell a few jokes. "Some of the ideas that I do, I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing when I first start them," said Seinfeld. "I don't like to waste the time of 3,000 people who have paid a lot of money to see a show for me to do my experiments. I like to do my experiments in small laboratories."

The real thrill of stand-up comedy, for Seinfeld, is in the big arenas that he regales. It's the adrenalin rush that comes from performing to that massive crowd that attracts Seinfeld to stand-up — the potency of being the solitary figure who can, for the duration of a show, transport the gathered audience out of their lived reality into another one that's filled with laughter.  "It's kind of like that pure energy, like a wave that a surfer would feel," said Seinfeld, trying to describe the feeling that he gets when he's on stage. "What you feel on stage and when the moment is really good? You feel like you've caught a wave of natural, authentic energy. You never get tired of that energy."

Jerry Seinfeld will be performing in Mumbai on March 14 and 15. Check www.insider.in for details.

Updated Date: Mar 11, 2015 07:56 AM