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The Story That Moved Me to Write
I didn’t think I wanted to be a weekly columnist until I read a column by comedian Mark Schiff. I’ve never told him this, but I’ll tell him now.
In August 2006, I had just moved with my kids to the Pico-Robertson neighborhood when, on a whim, I decided to write a column about our new life in this very Jewish ’hood. It was a one-off, just something to get out of my system, but the Journal asked whether I could do it weekly. I agreed to try, but I wasn’t sure my heart would be in it, week after week.
Then I read this poignant column by Mark Schiff. It was about his father who had died of cancer years earlier. Let me share some highlights.
When Mark found out his father was ill, he spent a lot of time in New York, where his parents lived.
“One of the good things about being a road comic is you can live anywhere and book yourself out of wherever you are,” he wrote. “Road comics have no office. So New York became my base.”
His father loved watching him perform.
“He thought I was the funniest person in the world,” Mark wrote. “I guess you are the funniest person in the world if someone thinks you are. My dad and mom came to see me at least a hundred times before he died in 1988. He would come and see me wherever I was doing a show. And he always got dressed up for the show.”
The column had this matter-of-fact tone. No melodrama. Just a heartfelt reflection of how a comedy career helped Mark forge a special bond with his father.
“The column had this matter-of-fact tone. No melodrama. Just a heartfelt reflection of how a comedy career helped Mark forge a special bond with his father.”
But there was a singular moment later in the column that especially moved me. Before we get to it, here is how the story unfolded:
“I remember when my dad had just gotten out of a hospice, and they sent him back home to die. The night he came home, I had a show to do. I said, ‘Dad, maybe I should stay home instead.’ He wouldn’t hear of it. ‘You go and be funny.’ I did.
“About three days later, I had this gig about two hours away in upstate New York. That afternoon, we were all sitting at the dining room table when my dad said in the weakest of voices, ‘Can I come with you tonight? I’d really like to see your show.’
“I knew what he was saying. He was saying: ‘I really want to see you one more time before I die.’ ”
This was the moment when I lost control of those little drops that sometimes come out of our eyes:
“So off we headed to my gig. It was a cold winter night, and a light snow fell for most of the drive. We didn’t talk much on the way up. As I remember, my dad slept most of the way, anyway. I kept looking at him as he slept in the car. I cried most of the way up, but that was OK; I was with my dad.”
For a while, I couldn’t get that image out of my mind. A father and a son on a long, quiet winter drive at night, the father all dressed up to see his son perform one last time.
The father seemed to know he had just enough strength to see one more show, so he slept during the drive to conserve his energy. For the comedian-son, the only way to honor the moment was to cry.
It was a final show of fatherly love; a last effort to get joy and laughter from a son. And the son was preparing to deliver.
A few weeks after reading the column, I bumped into Mark at the local Coffee Bean. I didn’t know him well. Our kids went to the same school and I would run into him here and there.
“I wanted him to know that his story made me choke up, that I couldn’t stop thinking about that long, quiet drive with his father.”
It didn’t matter. I spoke to him like a best friend. I wanted him to know that his story made me choke up, that I couldn’t stop thinking about that long, quiet drive with his father. I was in full Sephardic, over-the-top mode.
Mark, in his signature dry tone, just replied, “Hey, thank you.”
What I didn’t tell him that day in the fall of 2006 was that his story touched me deeply as a son and as a father, and that it moved me to come up with stories and ideas of my own that would also touch others.
So, from that day on, I never stopped writing.
Happy Father’s Day.
Great Catch, Champ
For the past few months, I’ve had the pleasure of watching my neighbor Aaron teach his kids how to catch a ball. When a father is playing catch with his son or daughter, there are few things in life that bring more happiness. It’s total enjoyment to the max. It’s amazing to see the smile on a child’s face when he or she looks into his or her baseball glove and unexpectedly sees the ball there. Then when they grab it and hold it up in triumph, it’s unbelievable. What’s better than that?
After a child learns how to ride a bike or catch a ball, life moves quickly from there. In a brief span of time, there’s a good chance my neighbor’s kids will be as good as, if not better than, he is at games they play. That’s the way it is and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Soon after teaching my kids pingpong, they were all beating me at the game. I rarely win when we play Rummikub, a tile-based game. I hate losing to them and they hate losing to me, so at least we are even.
When my kids were little, on Saturday mornings, we would walk 15 or 20 minutes to shul, depending on how much fighting, crying and stalling took place. Fifteen to 20 minutes alone with my children — priceless. When your kids are older, how much private time do you get with them? Generally, not a lot.
I know it’s a cliché to say childhood goes by fast, but it’s true. They are children for around 6,000 days (unless they go to college and graduate school, then maybe 15,000 days). In the blink of an eye, they’re all grown up.
I have only sons and it’s hard to think of a better feeling than for a father to watch his sons grow up, become menschen and be able to take care of themselves. It’s beyond comforting and beyond belief. It’s one of those “maybe I did something right” moments. When they get married and you see them not only taking care of themselves but also helping care for another person, it is mind-boggling.
One of my rabbis who has nine kids once said to me, “There has to be a God. We could not have done all this on our own.” He meant that to raise a bunch of kids and shepherd all of them out into the world as good and decent people is a miracle and demands assistance from above. I believe that.
I think the greatest thing I got from my father is that I knew, with every fiber of my being, that my father loved me. If you’re a young father and you transmit that to your kids, you’ve done a lot. Knowing a parent loves you can take you very far in this world.
My father didn’t spend much time with me. He was busy working. But during the time we spent together, he was present. When I was growing up, there weren’t a lot of distractions. In the car, we had no cellphones, no iPads, no nothing. Our entertainment was looking through the windshield. When we got into the car, we had a subpar AM radio that broadcast something called “talking.” That’s how two people find out things about each other. Today, people do that on YouTube.
Hey, young dads, I have an idea for you. Have what I call a 1960s day. Have a day when you leave all the electronics at home. Take the children out for a ride or to a ball game or a movie and lunch. Then maybe one day, your kids will look back and say to their kids, “One of my favorite things to do was when me and my dad left our cellphones at home and went out for the afternoon.” Then one day, they can get into their driverless cars, look through the windshield and see things they’ve never seen before.
What’s All the Complaining About?
A waiter comes over to a table where old Jewish women are seated and says, “Excuse me, ladies. Is anything all right?”
Jews have a history of complaining. They complained to Moses about not having bread, meat or water.
But complaining isn’t always a bad thing. If we complain to our politicians, that’s sometimes a good thing. Complaining to your neighbors about late-night noise or a dog barking nonstop is also OK. If you knock on your neighbor’s door ready to kill them because they don’t mow their lawn, that’s not OK. If you’re calm and explain the situation, then most people will understand.
These days, people complain about things that aren’t important. The chimney sweep scene in “Mary Poppins” is racist. Plastic straws are an environmental hazard. And, of course, airplanes are ruining the world. As my mother used to say: “People have too much time on their hands” or “They have nothing better to do than complain.”
Because the United States is a great country and basics such as food, water and shelter are taken care of, we tend to look for things to complain about. You’ll never hear someone in the Sudan grumble about something green growing out of an onion. I come from a long line of complainers. There was constant complaining about family members, food and, of course, the weather. One of my uncles said about the day someone died: “He picked the worst day to drop dead. He couldn’t wait till Tuesday?”
There’s an old saying, “Be careful what you pray for because you might get it.” Jews pray for rain, but then when it rains they complain. “Every time I go on vacation, it never fails to rain.” “Of course it’s raining, I just washed the car.”
People worry and get others worried. “Driving home from work, I couldn’t see a thing. It’s amazing I wasn’t killed” or “I’m not going to venture out in this.” They even try to persuade others not to go out. “Stay home today. What’s so important that you have to go out in this kind of weather?”
“I had an aunt who spent most of her life trying to figure out where the draft was coming from.”
People tell you the obvious: “If you go out, I guarantee you’ll get soaked.” They bring illness into it: “Are you looking to get pneumonia?” When it rains hard, they make it sound as if they were an assassin’s target: “Oh my gosh, I didn’t think I’d make it from the car to the house.” And, of course, they drag God into it: “A few more days of this and we’ll have to build an ark.”
Then, of course, when it doesn’t rain they get upset: “I wish it would rain so I could shut off the sprinklers.” Then, after only one day of rain: “Enough already. When’s it going to stop?” Heat also drives Jews crazy: “It better cool off soon. My AC bill is a fortune.” And then they talk as if they’ve spent time in hell: “Have you been outside? It’s hotter than hell out there.” They throw in cooking references: “You could fry an egg on the sidewalk.” They bring nonkosher animals into it: “I was sweating like a pig.”
Wind also makes Jews crazy: “I’m afraid a tree is going to come down on the house” or “If we lose power, everything in the refrigerator is going to spoil.” Even going to the beach becomes nonstop terror for Jewish people: “Put on a lot of sunscreen, otherwise, 50 years from now, you’ll regret it.” And let’s not forget sand: “This time, try not bringing half the beach home with you” or “Thanks to you kicking the sand around, I have an extra crunchy tuna sandwich.”
You get the point. It’s endless what a person can complain and worry about. I had an aunt who spent most of her life trying to figure out where the draft was coming from. She’d walk around with her hands up, testing the air.
Complaining, worrying and living in fear may not ruin your life but it certainly will make your life less pleasant. I work very hard at trying not to complain about people, places and things. It’s not easy but I am improving — except, of course, when it comes to complaining about my wife.
After all, I must have some fun.
Here Comes the Judge
Everyone hates to be judged, yet most of us do it.
Hillel wrote in “Ethics of Our Fathers”: “Do not judge your fellow, until you have reached his or her place.”
My cousin Sarah recently died five days short of her 34th birthday. She left behind a 12-year-old son, the father of the boy, and her divorced mother and father. She had a brother who killed himself a few years earlier, another brother with heart issues and a close family member who is a pill addict. Sarah’s life was not an easy one.
When Sarah (technically, my first cousin once removed) was around 9 years old, my wife and I offered to have her mother — my first cousin — and Sarah fly out from Long Island all expenses paid to sunny California and stay with us for a week. Just come and have a good time. The plan was Sarah would go to Disneyland and see a taping of a TV show. The works. When Sarah and her mom exited the plane, I noticed that Sarah was holding a small bag over her face — an airsick bag. Her mother said Sarah had been sick during the entire flight.
Heading to our house, she just sat with the bag over her face in the back of the car. When we got home, I showed Sarah to a guest room, where she immediately went to sleep. A few hours later, we woke her for dinner. Still carrying her airsick bag and a little doll, Sarah said she wanted to go home. The rest of the night she sat watching TV and holding the bag and the doll.
The next morning, Sarah’s mom told me Sarah didn’t want to do anything except go back to the airport and go home. After trying to talk Sarah into staying, we all agreed it would be best if they headed home. A part of me was glad to be rid of them. And as soon as Sarah heard I booked them a return flight for that evening, she perked up and had her first meal. She seemed like a completely different person. That’s when my judgments of Sarah really began.
After sending them home, all I could think was how ungrateful she was. And what a little brat she was. I made those judgments without knowing anything about what her life was like. I was convinced she was just a spoiled, ungrateful kid.
Over the next few years, except for sending her a birthday card with $15 in it, I don’t remember much communication. When Sarah got older and Facebook became ubiquitous, I read some of her very dark and depressing posts. She seemed like a very sad person. Once again, I judged and I decided to stop following her on Facebook.
A few years later, her brother came out to Los Angeles and stayed with us for a few days. I helped get him into rehab at the Salvation Army. A few months later, he blew his brains out with a shotgun in a motel room. I phoned Sarah to express my condolences and didn’t talk with her much after that.
Then I found out that she, my Jewish cousin, had found Jesus and was attending church regularly. Her Facebook posts were filled with crosses and Jesus quotes. More judgments on my part. I thought this girl must be so lost even though, admittedly, I knew very little about her. I thought if only she had stayed Jewish blah blah blah blah blah. More judgments.
Then about two years ago, I heard Sarah had cancer. At this point, I had almost zero communication with her, but I did have a trunkful of judgments and stories I had conjured up about her and her life. I thought I knew everything.
I happened to be heading to New York, so I thought, “Why not call Sarah and ask to visit?” Isn’t it a mitzvah to visit sick people? So I phoned and told her that I wanted to visit. She was thrilled. She said, “I’d love to see you.” It had been at least 20 years since I’d last seen Sarah. And so, I rented a car and drove out to Long Island.
“About two years ago, I heard Sarah had cancer. At this point, I had almost zero communication with her, but I did have a trunkful of judgments and stories I had conjured up about her and her life.”
Sarah was living in a tough neighborhood known for its MS-13 gang members. After my first visit, something happened to me. Most of my judgments seem to fall away completely. After visiting with her, I realized how sweet and wonderful this young woman was. She was a beautiful young person with a great smile and a heart of gold. Her friends loved her. Her religion was giving her strength. She had a huge poetic heart. She even had a motto, “Save the world.”
I realized how wrong I had been about her. How so much of what I thought about her was based on misinformation. I made it all up. We visited with each other many more times and spoke on the phone and exchanged email and Facebook messages. She was always so kind and so loving and so fragile. Never ever did she guilt me with, “Where have you been for the past 20 years?” or “Sure, now that I’m sick, you drop by.” Zero. She was just happy to see her cousin, and I felt the same.
As her cancer progressed, she never complained. It just made her sad that she would soon have to leave her son, her friends and family. She said she knew she was in God’s arms and would be protected. Although she told me she didn’t exactly know what that meant, it still gave her great comfort.
Little by little, as her pain increased, communication became less frequent. When she could talk, she apologized for not calling back sooner. I can honestly say that I felt nothing but love for Sarah since reconnecting with her. Without knowing it, she taught me that I needed to be much less judgmental, and that what you think you know about someone is not the whole picture. Sarah was deep.
Then one day I got a call from Sarah’s mom. She told me that according to Sarah’s doctor, Sarah had six weeks to live. I immediately made a plane reservation to go to New York the following week. I figured I’d see Sarah one more time. I figured wrong. Sarah died a few days later.
After her death, I asked one of my cousins about the funeral. He said there would be a wake and then a funeral the next day. I asked if she would be buried. Then I decided to shut my mouth before I started judging all over again because her burial wasn’t what I would choose or how Jews would do it.
Sarah was buried on her 34th birthday. I love you, Sarah. Please forgive me for judging you.
The Nearness of You
A few weeks ago I was at the funeral of a good friend. His wife and three children got up and spoke about their husband and father. It was a truly beautiful and moving event. They spoke of how much he meant to them and how he was a friend to all who met him. They spoke of his unwavering support for them and their dreams in life. They spoke of how they would not be who they are today without him. They spoke about how much they loved him and how much they missed him just one day after he was gone. They already missed not being near him. Almost everyone was crying.
My father died when I was 36 years old. He died before he met my future wife. He died before I got married. He died before he got to see his grandchildren. He died before he got to really see the type of husband and father I was to become. He died not really knowing who I was or what I was capable of.
Did I really get to know him? No. I had only a few facts about his childhood and adolescence. My father was a quiet man with a quiet soul. He didn’t say much and he didn’t get involved in any big events. He worked, came home, ate dinner, watched a little TV and then went to sleep. He did that five days a week, 50 weeks a year until he died.
“The main reason I go to the cemetery to visit my parents is to try one more time to be near them. Try all you want, it’s not the same. Do it now while you can.”
When I was a kid, I saw him only for about 1 1/2 hours a day. Sometimes we’d both sit in bed in our boxers and polish off a pint of ice cream while watching some TV. I felt so protected. Any time spent with him was very valuable to me. We really didn’t need to talk. He was Dad and I was Mark. That’s it. We just needed to be together. We needed to be near each other. My leg over his leg watching the tube.
And that’s what my friend’s wife and kids were saying at the funeral. That’s what I’m saying. The bottom line is sometimes you just need to be near the people you love. When one of my kids calls and asks me to go for a ride with him to get a haircut, I go. When the other kid asks me to go to a ballgame, I go. When my wife asks if I want to go to Ralphs with her, I go. Not because I think any huge event is going to happen or I’m going to get an answer to one of life’s problems that’s been plaguing me for years. Not because I need to find out anything new or different about them. I go for one reason and one reason only: I go just so I can be near them. I go so I can be the first to see the new haircut. I go to share a bag of peanuts at the ballgame. I go so I can hear a question like, “Do we need pickles?” I go because one day I won’t be able to go anymore. I know it and they know it. We don’t talk about it, but we know it.
The main reason I go to the cemetery to visit my parents is to try one more time to be near them. Try all you want, it’s not the same. Do it now while you can.
Oy Vey Iz Mir I’m Getting Old
I have a friend who told me he takes three pills a day to help him increase his saliva. His doctor said that as you get older, sometimes your saliva dries up. Nice; something new to worry about as I age — a saliva shortage.
My next birthday is big one. I pray I still have enough saliva to masticate my lunch that day. Now when I must add my age to an online form, it takes me 45 minutes to scroll down and find my year of birth.
When it comes to aging, people have a lot to say about it. For instance: “You’re as old as you feel.” “Age is in the mind.” “What’s the alternative?” And the funny ones: “Don’t let aging get you down. It’s too hard to get back up.” “Respect old people. They graduated from school without Google or Wikipedia.”
Recently, I noticed that my skin is slowly drying up, so I glob on Regenerist anti-aging cream every night. All I get out of it are pools of expensive cream stuck in the cracks of my wrinkles. And I’m still aging.
I found exercise and diet help keep my body looking young, but only if you don’t see me naked in the steam room. I meditate twice a day, but I once had to call 911 to unfold me out of the Lotus position. My kids constantly tease me about taking away my driver’s license. I tease them about taking them out of the will.
“My kids constantly tease me about taking away my driver’s license. I tease them about taking them out of the will.”
What really got me was my wife and I recently bought two plots in Simi Valley. Any further out of town and we might as well get buried in Norway. The lady who sold us our spots said we had one of the better views. I’m looking forward. You ever notice that the word fun is in funeral? Maybe a jazz funeral down in New Orleans is fun, but not the ones I go to. I’m at an age where every year a few people I know are permanently removed. Some older, some younger. As soon as you’re born, you’re in the lottery. The writing is on the wall.
So, what do I do now that I can see the big knockout punch coming? What I do is live my life as if all is going to be well. I just bought a new mattress and soon I’ll probably buy a new car (if my kids let me). I just bought my first-ever handmade suit. I’m going on trips with my wife before we can’t go on them anymore. I’m eating healthier than ever before and exercising more now than when I was 25. I’m trying to stay excited about life. Yes, I’m doing it for me, but I’m also doing it for my family. I believe that it would be better for them to have me around. How selfish of me to think that. But what happens if I get very sick and need to be taken care of? You know, when I’m almost out of saliva. Then what?
In the Mishnah, one rabbi says, “This world is like a lobby before the olam ha-ba. Prepare yourself in the lobby so that you may enter the banquet hall.” I hope if I get to olam ha-ba, it has vegan options at the banquet.
In her wonderful autobiography, “The Wheel of Life,” Elisabeth Kübler-Ross told her dying husband that it was his turn to let people help him. She told him that his lesson at the end of his life was to stop doing for others and let others do for him. Aging seems to bring many options. If you let yourself be open, the possibilities for growth are still plentiful.
About a minute ago, I stopped writing this column to phone a woman who booked me to perform at her Yiddish club. No, I don’t speak Yiddish. I called her this morning and did not hear back. I figured maybe she was out of saliva. So I called her again. When she got on the phone, she apologized for not calling me back sooner. She said her husband had died that morning. As my mother used to say, “Oy vey iz mir.”
Proof That There’s a God? I’m Still Married
“Before a man gets married, he is incomplete. After he’s married, he’s completely finished.” — Borscht Belt comedian
The fact that I got married and have stayed married is proof there is a God. When I asked my rabbi what God was doing these days, he said, “arranging marriages.” He also said that arranging marriages is harder than splitting the Red Sea.
To have continued marital bliss, all I have to do is forget most of what I saw and heard while growing up. My parents, aunts and uncles, though nice enough people, were not the best examples of happy and healthy marriages. I remember being at my aunt and uncle’s 55th wedding anniversary. I said, “Uncle Louie, congratulations.” He said, “I haven’t killed her yet.” She fired back, “Go ahead and try.”
I think I’m a very different person today than I was when I got married. Hopefully, a better one. I credit my wife and many other people with helping me make a lot of the necessary changes. For me to have stayed married for close to 30 years, I had to grow up. My mother warned me that I had a lot of work to do if I ever wanted to live with another person. She would say:
• You’d better grow up and grow up quick;
• You’ll shape up or you’ll ship out;
• One day you’re going to get married, and I’m telling you now, she won’t put up with your nonsense;
• You’d better marry a maid;
• Keep acting like you are now and you’ll be alone a very long time;
• (And my favorite) I’ve never seen anything like you.
After careful deliberation, here are some of the areas I believe I was deficient in before I got married: Taking care of my health, dress, neatness, attitude, cleanliness, clipping my toenails, paying attention, smiling, manners, washing and drying dishes, brushing all my teeth instead of just the bottom ones, barging into rooms unannounced, saying thank you, eating all the food in the refrigerator and not telling anyone when we were out of things, blasting my music, yelling across the room for things instead of getting up and getting them, controlling the remote control, grabbing food off of people’s plates without asking, releasing gas in bed and lying about it, putting my underwear on inside out and not fixing it, taking phone messages and not passing them on, taking the garbage only as far as the back door, finishing my dinner before the other people have even started, walking a block ahead of everyone, leaving the toilet seat up, not replacing toilet paper rolls, using the same face towel until it is as stiff as a board, constantly asking questions to things I know the answers to, etc.
You get the point. The good news is that God created women so that when they look at a man, they see an unfinished project that needs shaping. And women feel it’s their job to try to save this poor soul from wrack and ruin. It’s Torah: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
There are two types of married men: One who always wants to be right. God bless him for trying. He ends up divorced or murdered. Or one who realizes that the other person has your best interests at heart. That person surrenders and stays married.
My wife and I sent three boys into the world. They are in much better shape than I was when I was released. But to be quite honest, like all men, they still need a good overhauling.
Consult a Doctor Before Buying Another Gadget
Don’t get me wrong. I really like my iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, Dell laptop, smart TV and Alexa. I’m connected, baby! I recently took an EKG from my Apple Watch, downloaded it to my iPhone, and then emailed it to my cardiologist. After viewing it and consulting with him, he took a photo of my bill, downloaded it and emailed that to me. I almost had a heart attack.
It’s not unusual to see people davening with their iPhone and trolling eBay at the same time. Guilty.
Recently, while my wife and I were watching Netflix at the airport waiting to board our flight, I got updates on my watch that our flight was on time and our bags were loaded. Thirty seconds later, United Airlines let me know that it had a hummus plate on board for me. We were in Group 4 and, when we inadvertently tried to board with Group 3, the scanner that reads the bar code started to ding and we were busted. We were sneered at as we crawled to the back of the line, covering our faces like mobsters coming out of a courthouse.
When my son was in Cuba a few weeks ago, we chatted on FaceTime. When I was a kid, you had to stand next to a person for FaceTime.
While I was growing up, if a person needed to send a short message in a
hurry, there was Western Union. Now, using texting, I’ve probably sent half a million short messages. When I was a kid, people had limited access to world events. Now, I can find out about an earthquake in Bangladesh while standing at a urinal.
“I now know a lot more about the world and the people in it, and less about my family and myself.”
But am I better off with this global connection or was I better off before? Maybe both? My mother used to say, “What you don’t know won’t hurt you.” There’s wisdom in that. Is it good for my health that I find out first thing in the morning that 400 people died in a ferry accident in Tianjin, China, or 200 young children were kidnaped and tortured by Boko Haram while I was fast asleep on my new MyPillow?
I now know a lot more about the world and the people in it, and less about my family and myself. I used to spend more time with other people. Now I’m spending more time with devices. These devices don’t give a hoot about human beings. Devices don’t care about bettering the world, nor are they supposed to. But the amount of time spent with these devices is insane.
Good friends or family will tell you things because they care about you. When’s the last time your iPhone said, “You look tired” or “Go to sleep; I don’t want you to get sick” or “You should call your mother and apologize for yelling at her” or “Dinner’s on me tonight.” People tell you things because they sincerely care about you. Machines tell you what they are programmed to tell you.
Go to any restaurant and you’ll see people staring at their phones instead of their spouses, kids or friends. Even sitting alone for a few minutes doing nothing has become a thing of the past.
The other night I was out to dinner with my wife and, when she left the table, I thought, “I’m not pulling out my phone. I’m just going to sit and think and look around like I used to.” About thirty seconds later, I thought, “This is hard.” Then I thought this would be a great idea for a column. I would write about how hard it is nowadays to just sit and
So, I went to my Apple Watch and left myself a message. I then checked my email, went to Yahoo and saw that Trump again was going to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and that a whale had washed up dead on shore up north.
When my wife returned to the table, she asked me a question people never used to ask when they returned from a trip to the bathroom. “What have you been doing?” I told her something my watch or phone would never tell her. I told her, “I missed you.” And I meant it.
Jerry Seinfeld Intends to Die Standing Up
***This is the New York Times profile piece in which I am quoted. Well worth reading if you want to learn about standup.***
Jerry Seinfeld began his commute after dinner, in no particular hurry. Around quarter to 8 on a drizzly Tuesday, he left his Manhattan home — a palatial duplex apartment with picture windows and a broad terrace overlooking Central Park — and made for a nearby garage. Due to tell jokes at a comedy club downtown, he decided to drive what he calls his “city car”: a 1998 Porsche 911 Carrera 4S. Stepping into the garage, he tugged a thick fabric cover from the car. The interior was a pristine matte black, and the paint job was a startlingly luminous azure. “It’s called Mexico blue — a very traditional Porsche color,” Seinfeld said. “In the ’70s it looked normal, but now it looks insane.”
His hair, flecked with gray, was buzzed almost to the scalp, and he was dressed in light- blue Levi’s, a navy knit polo and a dark wool blazer. Seinfeld, who once said he wore sneakers long into adulthood “because it reminds me I don’t have a job,” has lately grown partial to Nike Shox, which he likes for their extravagant cushioning, but tonight he opted for tan suede desert boots. When he’s in the workplace — on a stage, micro- phone in hand, trying to make a crowd erupt — the feel of a harder sole helps him get into the right mind-set.
“I just tried a little Twitter experiment,” Seinfeld said. His appearance, at Gotham Com- edy Club, had so far been kept secret, but just before leaving home, he’d announced the gig online on a whim. “They’ve only got a half-hour to get there, so I’m not expecting a flash mob,” he said. Gotham was an opportunity for Seinfeld to audition brand-new ma- terial and fine-tune older bits in a relatively low-stakes context. In two days, he would perform for nearly 3,000 people at Manhattan’s Beacon Theater, and that show loomed large. It would be Seinfeld’s first performance in New York City since 1998, not count- ing impromptu club appearances and the odd private event, and it would kick off a city- wide tour, with performances in each of the other boroughs. Born in Brooklyn, educated in Queens and famous for a fictional Manhattan apartment, Seinfeld called the tour “a valentine,” but he was, on one level, ambivalent about it. “ ‘The Hometown Hero Re- turns’ is not my narrative of being a stand-up,” he said. “For me, it’s the hotel. It’s ‘I Don’t Belong Here.’ It’s ‘The Stranger Rides Into Town.’ That’s the proper form of this craft.”
Seinfeld wondered if hordes would see his tweet and hustle over to Gotham, but sparse attendance would be fine, too. Several weeks earlier he materialized, unannounced, at the Creek and the Cave, a club in Long Island City, and performed for “14 people.” Most comedians dislike telling jokes to empty seats, but at this point Seinfeld enjoys a room that offers some resistance. “I miss opening for Frankie Valli and Ben Vereen, walking out as an unknown and there’s no applause: let’s get it on,” he said. “I once opened for Vic Damone at a nooner on a basketball court in Brooklyn. They’re going, Who is this kid? Oh, god! They’re sure you’re not worth the trouble. But I’d win over some of those rooms.” After you’ve helped create and starred in one of television’s best- rated, best-loved sitcoms — a show that, thanks to rampant syndication, is still bursting Kramer-style into people’s living rooms 14 years after its finale — tough crowds are tougher to come by. “I would love it if there were only two people there tonight,” he said.
To get the Porsche out of the garage, Seinfeld had to execute something like a 12-point turn, somehow managing, as he nudged the car back and forth, not to leave chips of Mexico blue all over an unnervingly close concrete column. Seinfeld is 58, and his face is rounder and more deeply lined than it once was, but it has retained the bright-eyed boy- ishness of his sitcom days. He smiles readily, either at something someone else has said or — since he is frequently the funniest person within earshot — at something he came up with. His default display of amusement is to squint hard and scrunch up his nose till his front teeth protrude from a rictus grin: a groundhog tickled by the sight of his own
Tonight he was feeling out of sorts. “My head’s spinning a little bit from the travel,” he said. He had returned only yesterday from France, where he spent a three-day vacation sightseeing with his family, attending a birthday party and examining a vintage Meyers Manx dune buggy he was thinking about buying. Ever since he began working comedy clubs, in 1975, Seinfeld has considered himself a stand-up above all else, and the other roles he has taken on — sitcom icon, husband, father of three — can come into conflict with the calling. “We did a lot of moving, and we had a lot of fun,” he explained, “but I get thrown off easily. If I have one weekend off from stand-up, and I do something weird, I completely forget who I am and what I do for a living.”
Because Seinfeld’s big post-“Seinfeld” projects have been few and far between — the stand-up documentary “Comedian” (2002), the animated children’s film “Bee Movie” (2007), the reality-show misfire “The Marriage Ref” (2010), which he produced and ap- peared on as a judge — you might assume that he whiled away the last decade on a pri- vate island somewhere, racing Spyders and fanning himself with royalty checks. In- stead, since 2000, Seinfeld has spent a portion of nearly every week doing stand-up. He is on track to do 89 shows this year, plus private appearances, which shakes out to about two performances a week. He’s living the life of a road comic, albeit one who sells out 20,000-seat London arenas and schleps to gigs via chartered planes rather than rented subcompacts.
Earlier this year, Seinfeld started a 10-episode online series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” in which he wheels around in gorgeous old Triumphs and Karmann Ghias and cracks wise over mugs of coffee with friends like Larry David, Alec Baldwin and Carl Reiner. The show’s intended audience, Seinfeld says, is “this bubble world of people who love funny and want to get into it a little closer.” But while he acknowledges the Internet’s usefulness in keeping comedy relevant — podcasts, video channels and Web sites devoted to comedy are booming — he sees stand-up as, at bottom, an antidote to technological alienation. “We’re craving the nondigital even more these days, the au- thentically human interaction,” he says. “We need to see some schmuck sweat.”
For Seinfeld, whose worth Forbes estimated in 2010 to be $800 million, his touring regi- men is a function not of financial necessity but rather of borderline monomania — a cre- ative itch he can’t scratch. “I like money,” he says, “but it’s never been about the money.” Seinfeld will nurse a single joke for years, amending, abridging and reworking
it incrementally, to get the thing just so. “It’s similar to calligraphy or samurai,” he says. “I want to make cricket cages. You know those Japanese cricket cages? Tiny, with the doors? That’s it for me: solitude and precision, refining a tiny thing for the sake of it.”
When he can’t tinker, he grows anxious. “If I don’t do a set in two weeks, I feel it,” he said. “I read an article a few years ago that said when you practice a sport a lot, you lit- erally become a broadband: the nerve pathway in your brain contains a lot more infor- mation. As soon as you stop practicing, the pathway begins shrinking back down. Read- ing that changed my life. I used to wonder, Why am I doing these sets, getting on a stage? Don’t I know how to do this already? The answer is no. You must keep doing it. The broadband starts to narrow the moment you stop.”
Gotham Comedy Club was a 15-minute drive downtown. Passing the Museum of Nat- ural History, Seinfeld tuned the car radio to WFAN, where a baseball game was under way. “Do you know this player Adam Greenberg?” he asked. “Seven years ago, he was a rookie, and in his very first at-bat he got hit in the head with the ball — knocked out, concussed, out of the league.” Seinfeld raised an index finger from the wheel: “One pitch.” The Marlins had agreed to sign Greenberg for a single day after fans petitioned on his behalf. “It might seem a bit Jewy if I get too excited about it — I wish he wasn’t Jewish,” Seinfeld said. “But it’s a fascinating story. One at-bat after seven years. Think of the pressure on this guy!”
Seinfeld likes pressure. He describes doing live comedy as “standing against a wall blindfolded, with a cigarette in your mouth, and they’re about to fire.” His objective at Gotham was piecework. “A lot of what I’ll be doing tonight are tiny things in my bits where I’m looking for a little fix, where something isn’t quite smooth,” he said. “A lot of stuff I do out of pure obsessiveness.” One bit began with the observation that “tuxedos are the universal symbol for pulling a fast one.” “That line works,” he said. “But I want to get from there to a point about how the places where you see tuxedos are not honest places — casinos, award shows, beauty pageants, the maitre d’ — all these things feel shady.” He added: “But I’ve been having trouble getting the audience to that. I’m trying to bring that to a punchline.”
Seinfeld likens his fine-bore interest in jokes to his longstanding infatuation with Porsches, of which he owns “a few dozen.” “People ask me, Why Porsches? A lot of it is the size, same as with bits. The smaller something is, the harder it is to make, because there’s less room for error.” In high school he took shop classes, even after a counselor told him that collegebound kids didn’t need to, because he wanted to know how ma- chines fit together. “I have this old ’57 Porsche Speedster, and the way the door closes, I’ll just sit there and listen to the sound of the latch going, cluh-CLICK-click,” Seinfeld said. “That door! I live for that door. Whatever the opposite of planned obsolescence is, that’s what I’m into.” Mark Schiff, a veteran club comic and one of Seinfeld’s oldest friends, told me: “He’s a scientist. When you watch him, he’s in the lab, concocting. I feel that way, too, to a degree, but with him every little nuance is so valuable.” Sarah Sil- verman, who has shared bills with Seinfeld and long admired him, agrees: “Whereas most comedians are lazy bastards, he’s the ultimate craftsman.”
In front of Gotham, six orange traffic cones marked “Con Edison” were arranged in the street. Spotting us, a bouncer built like a bank safe emerged to remove them: when Sein- feld appears here, he calls the owner, who reserves a space. Seinfeld got out, eliciting happy stares and excited murmurs from passers-by. His posture was excellent; his gait leisurely. In Gotham’s packed main room, the comic Jim Gaffigan was onstage. Seinfeld remained in the hallway, studying a sheet of yellow paper scribbled with lines he want- ed to improve. In the car, he’d warned me, “When I get to the club I’m not going to want to chat until after; I’m in my own world.” He made some small talk with the bouncer and the owner about baseball, but he was plainly preoccupied. The bouncer said, apropos of Greenberg’s head injury, “My daughter got a concussion, and she still gets headaches.” Seinfeld was staring at his notes. “Huh,” he replied, no longer listen- ing.
After a few minutes, Gotham’s host asked the 300-strong crowd to welcome “a special guest — Jerry Seinfeld!” and if they’d been tipped off on Twitter, it didn’t diminish their enthusiasm. “Yes! Yes!” a burly guy shrieked, grasping frantically for his phone to take a picture. Seinfeld’s set lasted 20 minutes and he seemed at ease. The tuxedo bit got medium-size laughs; one of the biggest explosions came when Seinfeld, mulling the top- ic of goofy outfits that dads wear on weekends, concluded, “All fathers essentially dress in the clothing style of the last good year of their lives” — a joke about aging-male de- spair couched in a joke about fashion. When Seinfeld recited it, a man in khakis did an actual spit take into his beer bottle. At one point, Seinfeld lost his thread and sighed as he checked his notes; even the sigh got a laugh. He closed to a standing ovation.
Seinfeld retired to a dressing room, plopping down beside a bucket of bottled water. I congratulated him on the performance. “I’d say two-thirds of that set was garbage,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Whether it was lines coming out wrong or the rhythm being off.”
He said he’d counted “probably eight” jokes that failed to get the kinds of laughs he de- sired. “There’s different kinds of laughs,” he explained. “It’s like a baseball lineup: this guy’s your power hitter, this guy gets on base, this guy works out walks. If everybody does their job, we’re gonna win.” I told him about the khaki guy’s spit take, and Sein- feld cracked up, calling this “a rare butterfly.” Nevertheless, “there wasn’t one moment where I was where I wanted to be. That was just a workout. I had to get it going again.”
Over nine seasons, “Seinfeld” enjoyed an omnipresent, epochal success: you can draw a line from “Seinfeld” to Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” to Ricky Gervais’s “Of- fice,” “Arrested Development,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” the American “Of- fice” and out from there to maybe half the sitcoms currently on the air. In stand-up cir- cles, Seinfeld is a towering figure, revered for the sharpness of his eye as he scrutinizes subjects large (marriage, death) and small (answering-machine protocol, 5-Hour Energy drink). In 2001, George Carlin spoke admiringly of “the little world, the kind of world Jerry Seinfeld investigated to a great, high level.” When “Seinfeld” went off the air and Seinfeld began rededicating himself to stand-up, he told Time that he didn’t consider himself great. When I asked him how he evaluates his talent today, Seinfeld demurred before allowing, “I think it’s there now.” He says he plans to do stand-up “into my 80s, and beyond.”
One afternoon not long after the Gotham gig, Seinfeld invited me to his Upper West Side work space, where he spends most days, writing jokes. Clean, modern and cozy, it resembled some hip therapist’s office: a high-ceilinged, poured-concrete box with a long plushy couch, a little balcony and a kitchenette. Framed pictures covered a wall: a pro- duction still from the George Reeves “Superman” serial; an original cartoon of Seinfeld and Alfred E. Neuman that ran on the cover of Mad Magazine in 1997; a photo of Steve McQueen with a Porsche 917 that the actor owned in the ’70s and that today belongs to Seinfeld. A sleek Pinarello racing bicycle, which Seinfeld rides around town, stood against a wall. “It’s very addictive, that feeling of gliding through the city,” he said. Some Emmys huddled in a corner beside a ventriloquist’s dummy, which Seinfeld cher- ishes more than the awards: “I did a comedy show with that in third grade.”
Seinfeld sat in an armchair in a sweater and jeans, resting gray Shox on a footstool. On a typical weekday, after getting the kids (his daughter Sascha, 12, son Julian, 9, son Shep- herd, 7) to school and exercising in his building’s gym, Seinfeld walks here, grabs a legal pad and a Bic pen and sits at his desk. No street noise penetrates. The pages of the pad are destined for either a wastebasket or a master file containing Seinfeld’s entire act,
handwritten. The other day, perusing this file, he found a joke in which, discussing touch-screen phones, he likens the act of scrolling through a contact list and deleting names to the effete, disdainful gesture of a “gay French king” deciding whom to be- head. Seinfeld wrote the joke a year ago and forgot it; having rediscovered it, he’d be telling it onstage that weekend.
Seinfeld’s shows last a little over an hour, but he has about two hours of material in ac- tive rotation, so he’s able to swap in different bits on different nights. There is a contem- porary vogue for turning over an entire act rapidly: tossing out jokes wholesale, starting again from zero to avoid creative stasis. Louis C.K. has made this practice nearly syn- onymous with black-belt stand-up. Seinfeld wants no part of it. “This ‘new hour’ non- sense — I can’t do it,” he said. “I wanna see your best work. I’m not interested in your new work.” C.K., who used to open for Seinfeld, has called him “a virtuoso — he plays it like a violin,” and the two are friendly. I asked Seinfeld if he thought C.K.’s stand-up hours, widely praised, would improve if he spent more than a year honing each one. “It’s not really fair for me to judge the way somebody else approaches it,” Seinfeld replied. “I care about a certain level of detail, but it’s personal. He would get bored of it. It’s not his way. It’s a different sensibility.” There was another big difference between the two, Seinfeld noted: “Working clean.” Almost from the beginning, Seinfeld has for- sworn graphic language in his bits, dismissing it as a crutch. “Guys that can use any word they want — if I had that weapon, I’ll give you a new hour in a week,” he said.
Developing jokes as glacially as he does, Seinfeld says, allows for breakthroughs he wouldn’t reach otherwise. He gave me an example. “I had a joke: ‘Marriage is a bit of a chess game, except the board is made of flowing water and the pieces are made of smoke,’ ” he said. “This is a good joke, I love it, I’ve spent years on it. There’s a little hitch: ‘The board is made of flowing water.’ I’d always lose the audience there. Flowing water? What does he mean? And repeating ‘made of’ was hurting things. So how can I say ‘the board is made of flowing water’ without saying ‘made of’? A very small prob- lem, but I could hear the confusion. A laugh to me is not a laugh. I see it, like at Caltech when they look at the tectonic plates. If I’m in the dark up there and I can just listen, I know exactly what’s going on. I know exactly when their attention has moved off me a little.
“So,” he continued, “I was obsessed with figuring that out. The way I figure it out is I try different things, night after night, and I’ll stumble into it at some point, or not. If I love the joke, I’ll wait. If it takes me three years, I’ll wait.” Finally, in late August, during
a performance, the cricket cage snapped into place. “The breakthrough was doing this”— Seinfeld traced a square in the air with his fingers, drawing the board. “Now I can just say, ‘The board is flowing water,’ and do this, and they get it. A board that was made of flowing water was too much data. Here, I’m doing some of the work for you. So now I’m starting to get applause on it, after years of work. They don’t think about it. They just laugh.”
Seinfeld believes funniness is genetic. When his father, Kalman, was stationed in the Pacific during World War II, he’d transcribe jokes he heard and store them in a box for safekeeping. “In the army, that’s kind of how you got through it,” Seinfeld says. “People would tell jokes by the score, because what else are you going to do to maintain sanity? The recognizing of jokes as precious material: that’s where it starts. If you’ve got the gene, a joke is an amazing thing. It’s something you save in a box in a war.”
Born in 1954 and raised on Long Island, in Massapequa, Seinfeld dreamed of growing up to be an advertising man, and he still appreciates commercials for their narrative economy. The Seinfelds were “pretty Jewish,” Seinfeld recalls: “Went to temple, kept kosher, two sets of dishes.” The younger of two siblings (his sister helps handle his busi- ness), he earned his first spit take, as a little kid, while snacking with a pal; Seinfeld told a joke, and the friend burst out laughing, spraying Seinfeld’s face with sodden crumbs. His love of comedy matured when he heard Jean Shepherd’s epic, askew radio mono- logues, and when he bought Bill Cosby’s 1965 album, “Why Is There Air?” Seinfeld adored Shepherd’s knack for “taking something small and making it big,” and he mar- veled at Cosby’s “vocal instrument: he can do this person, the sound of chewing gum, the corduroys rubbing together, the other kids — he was all over the keyboard.” But the comedian who made Seinfeld think he could actually become one was Robert Klein. “He was a New York, middle-class kid,” Seinfeld says, “and through that I could see a path for myself.”
Seinfeld’s work habits were stringent from the start. Studying communications and the- ater at Queens College, he arranged an independent study in stand-up, trying club sets, analyzing others’ sets and writing a 40-page paper. When he scored his first appearance on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” in 1981, he practiced his five-minute set “200 times” beforehand, jogging around Manhattan and listening to the “Superman” theme on a Walkman to amp up.
We’re accustomed to the cliché of the stand-up as sad clown: a racked soul on a dim
stage, salving psychic wounds, craving approval. When audiences yell, “I love you,” at Seinfeld, he likes to reply, “I love you, too, and this is my favorite type of intimate rela- tionship.” He told me: “That’s the wiring of a stand-up. This is my best way of function- ing.” But he sees himself more as exacting athlete than tortured artist. He compares him- self to baseball players — putting spin on the ball as it leaves his fingers, trying to keep his batting average high — and to surfers: “What are they doing that for? It’s just pure. You’re alone. That wave is so much bigger and stronger than you. You’re always out- numbered. They always can crush you. And yet you’re going to accept that and turn it into a little, brief, meaningless art form.” He said: “I’m not filling a deep emotional hole here. I’m playing a very difficult game, and if you’d like to see someone who’s very good at a difficult game, that’s what I do.”
For audiences, Seinfeld’s approach has its escapist comforts. In his jokes he often arranges life’s messy confusions, shrewdly and immaculately, into a bouquet of trivial irritants. Seinfeld’s comedic persona is unflappable — annoyed plenty, but unmarked by extremes of emotion, much less tragedy. “He’s the least neurotic Jew on earth,” Sarah Silverman says. In a joke Seinfeld told for decades, he called an overflowing toilet “the most frightening moment in the life of a human being,” and there’s a sense in which his clean, precise bits are marvels of plumbing, keeping abjection at bay. On “The Arsenio Hall Show,” in 1991, Hall told Seinfeld, “We got so much going on in the world; we got this war, the economy, crime.” Seinfeld replied, “It’s all going on, but it’s not happening right here, right now; it’s all going on out there.”
This sensibility reached brilliant heights on the sitcom, which featured four gleefully mercenary protagonists for whom New York was a playground of silly social hurdles, warm diner booths and the odd totalitarian soup joint — Seinfeld calls the show “utopi- an.” “Seinfeld” feels so emblematically ’90s largely because of its extreme moral disen- gagement, which rankled some viewers. In a column for The Times, Maureen Dowd quoted Leon Wieseltier, the New Republic’s literary editor, as saying that “Seinfeld” was “the worst, last gasp of Reaganite, grasping, materialistic, narcissistic, banal self-ab- sorption.” She went on to say that the show was a product of “the what’s-in-it-for-me times that allowed Dick Morris and Bill Clinton to triumph.” (Fittingly, the series ended with the gang imprisoned on good Samaritan laws.)
Seinfeld disagrees that his show was, as the saying goes, about nothing. “I don’t think these things are trivial,” he says, pointing to how political commentators compared President Obama’s renewed bravado the day after his lackluster Colorado debate per-
formance to the “Seinfeld” episode where George, insulted at work, devises a comeback too late. And Seinfeld says that as his act has grown to address marriage and father- hood, the laughs have deepened. “It hits them in a totally different way,” he said. “Once you step into that area, you’re in their kitchen, in their bedroom, deep in their life. It’s a very intimate and potent comedic thing.”
His best jokes, concerned as they are with the ultra-quotidian, have an understated time- lessness. Several younger comedians I spoke with described Seinfeld as an ongoing in- fluence. Judd Apatow, who as a kid in the late ’70s became obsessed with Seinfeld’s stand-up, told me, “From the get-go he was the greatest observational comedian who ever lived — nobody was, or is, as funny as him.” In high school, Apatow persuaded Se- infeld to sit for a long interview during which he dissected his bits, methodically laying bare their musculature. Apatow says it was “a lesson in how to write jokes” that he has never forgotten. Kevin Hart, an arena-packing comic, told me that Seinfeld was gener- ous with advice when Hart was starting out, adding that his analytical gift remains un- equaled: “He can describe a bouncing ball in a way that changes the way you look at bouncing balls forever.”
Seinfeld doesn’t chase trends: he is fully content to woodshed up on Mount Olympus. He has only passing interest in topical humor and no time for winking meta-jokes or ab- surdist non sequiturs. He believes in showmanship, laying out his bits in heavily theatri- calized tones and cadences rather than feigning extemporaneousness or a cool deadpan, and when he plays theaters, he wears Armani suits in blacks and grays. “I have old- school values,” he says.
This has obvious dangers. The defining comic of a bygone era, as Seinfeld is to the ’90s, risks becoming that era’s prisoner: out of touch, or worse, obsolete. Seinfeld’s style was so distinctly realized so early on that it quickly lent itself to an immortal caricature: “What’s the deal with? . . .” Seinfeld himself poked fun at his association with this con- struction all the way back in a 1992 “Saturday Night Live” sketch, playing a quiz-show host who began nearly every question with those four words.
But, in almost counterintuitive ways, Seinfeld has dodged self-parody in his act. Avoid- ing excessive topicality has allowed his jokes to feel evergreen; keeping them a bit square has forced him to keep them sharp; and skipping grand pronouncements for small, finely rendered epiphanies allows the material to seem universal. Aziz Ansari, another young comedian who admires Seinfeld, told me, “You could stick him on some
alien planet and he’d have the same brilliant, precise observations about how silly everything they do is.”
Since Richard Pryor, at least, confession has been prized in stand-up, and this is as true today as ever. The biggest stand-up story of 2012 came this summer, when the comedi- an Tig Notaro took a Los Angeles stage and wrung laughs from a saga of personal mis- ery that included the sudden death of her 65-year-old mother followed by a breast-can- cer diagnosis. At Seinfeld’s office, I asked him what he’d do, onstage, if he had a month like that, and I appended a “God forbid” to the question. “Thank you for ‘God forbid,’ ” he said. “I love it. Hilarious. You have to say that.” He clapped his hands with delight. “If I had a month like that, I’d do a whole bit about ‘God forbid.’ ”
Seinfeld’s father died in 1985, while battling numerous cancers, “probably ultimately of heart failure,” Seinfeld says. (His mother, 98, lives in Florida.) He never told jokes about it, he said, because “it doesn’t make me funny. If it makes you funny, that’s what you talk about. That bit for Tig Notaro, it decided it wanted to be a bit. The bit is using her to get to the audience, and she’s lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. She’s the second baseman in the double play: You’ve just got to be there to catch it and throw it on. She’s a genius for recognizing it and making the move.” But he insisted that bloodletting was not requisite for greatness. “What does Don Rickles tell us about him- self in his show? Probably not much. He’s not pouring his guts out to you, but his craft is so amazing, his skill is so amazing, there’s depth in that.”
Beneath the surface, Seinfeld says, much of his act concerns “the pointlessness of life it- self. I’ve got jokes where I’m saying your life sucks, your possessions are garbage, you’re not important.” Larry David, to whom Seinfeld remains close, told me, “Jerry doesn’t get enough credit for his misanthropy — it’s why we get along so well.” In a new bit, Seinfeld likens a man to a balloon. At the outset of a romantic relationship, the balloon is buoyant and beautiful and “the woman holds on tight” for fear he’ll fly away. Flash forward, and the balloon’s doddering around, off in a corner somewhere, low to the floor, pathetically unable to “even lift up its own string.” It’s as elegantly crushing a joke about human decay and dashed hopes as has been told.
In conversation, Seinfeld describes an offstage “tendency toward depression,” accompa- nied by a lifelong spiritual yearning. “There’s always something missing,” he said. He has dabbled in Zen Buddhism (“I love the word games, the koans”), Scientology (“I took a couple classes in 1976”) and transcendental meditation. He still identifies as Jewish. “I
was very flattered recently to hear about a Nazi rally in Florida where they took DVDs of the show, sprayed swastikas on them and threw them through the windows of a syn- agogue,” he said. “That was nice.”
He alluded to romantic dissatisfaction as something that used to depress him. On the sitcom, Seinfeld’s life was a carousel of beautiful women. “Was that my actual life at the time?” he asks. “Probably.” He remained single until he was 45, and in his act today he notes that he clearly had “some issues.” After having kids, he told me, he realized “there was this whole other quadrant of my brain lying there dormant. Kids give you something. If it wasn’t for my kids, I’m pretty much done with living. I could kill my- self. Now there’s something else to live for.”
One Friday in early October, Seinfeld took a private plane from New York to Kansas City, Mo., told jokes onstage for 75 minutes, then flew to Milwaukee, where he was booked at the Riverside Theater the next night. On Saturday morning he wanted to see “Argo,” so he rented an entire theater at the local movie palace, the Oriental, and watched it with his opening act, Mark Schiff, and his tour producer. “I liked it,” Seinfeld said later on, over coffee at his hotel, “but the ending was a little Hollywood.”
He had done two of his five planned performances in New York, one in Manhattan and one in the Bronx. Seinfeld thought they’d gone well, but he confided that the dates might double as a farewell tour of the city. “When Clark Kent turns into Superman, he needs a moment — a phone booth, a storage room!” Seinfeld said, describing the breath- ing room he relies on to get into show mode. “If I’m at home, I don’t have the physical or mental space to don my costume. It’s horrible. There’s no closing of doors: I have lit- tle kids. As soon as you close the door someone’s banging on it. And when I’m home, I love that. I don’t want any personal space, I want them crawling all over me. But when I do this other thing? I can’t tell you I enjoyed it that much.”
When Seinfeld isn’t on the road, he stays in. He likes “Mad Men”; his wife, Jessica, a cookbook author, likes “Homeland”; the whole family enjoys “The Voice.” Seinfeld does not watch any sitcom regularly, giving up on most after a few minutes. If he happens to catch a “Seinfeld” rerun, he’ll watch until he sees himself, then change the channel. He regards his own ubiquity with nonchalance. After his performance at Brooklyn College, in November, when a fan asked him what programs he enjoys, Seinfeld replied: “I don’t watch that much television. I was television.”
Over coffee at his hotel in Milwaukee, Seinfeld talked about his home life, characteriz-
ing his children as the opposite of rich brats. His daughter grew upset, he said, upon re- ceiving an iPhone 5 from Jessica, calling it a “mean-girl phone” and requesting some- thing cheaper; his son Julian tells Jerry he’s “spoiled” and implores him to sell his cars. The kids have inherited the comedy gene. “I’ll say, ‘O.K., it’s time for dinner,’ ” Seinfeld said, “and they go, ‘Oh, like I didn’t already know that.’ I say, ‘That’s me, you can’t do me!’ ”
“Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” is an experiment in “isolating the gene,” Seinfeld says. “I went out the other night with three comics and a noncomedian, and it was amazing: these are all Jack Russells, and this is a Collie.” He’s proud of the Web show’s finale, in which he and Michael Richards discussed the onstage tirade that Richards de- livered in 2006, derailing his career. Confronting black hecklers, Richards bellowed the word “nigger” seven times, an outpouring caught on camera. In the controversy that followed, it was hard not to see the rant as a moment of unfiltered ugliness, but Seinfeld says this interpretation reflects a category error. Speech on a stage, delivered in a perfor- mative context, is unique, he argues, and bits — even those that come off the cuff — are different from straight confessions. “It was a colossal comedic error,” Seinfeld said. “He was angry, and it was the wrong choice, but it was a comedic attempt that failed. In our culture, we don’t allow that, especially in the racial realm. But as a comedian, I know what happened, he knows what happened and every other comedian knows what hap- pened. And all the black comics know it, and a lot of them felt bad about it, because they know it’s rough to be judged that way in that context. You’re leaping off a cliff and trying to land on the other side. It was just another missed leap.”
When we’d drained our cups, Seinfeld stood and, stopping for some photos in the lob- by, went to his room for a nap. I met him later in his dressing room at the Riverside, where he was about to take the stage for a 10 p.m. performance. His jacket hung from a rack in the corner, and he was on a couch in shirt sleeves, dipping pretzels into a Skippy jar, watching the Yankees game, feeling good. Schiff, his opener, was there, too. A car commercial featuring Shaquille O’Neal came on. “Look at this horrible sweater they put him in,” Seinfeld said. “You can see how his knees are hurting him when he comes down those stairs.” O’Neal called the car stylish. “ ‘Stylish?’ ” Seinfeld repeated. “With your sweater vest on?” The game resumed, and Ichiro Suzuki, the lean Yankees out- fielder, approached the plate. “This is the guy I relate to more than any athlete,” Sein- feld said. “His precision, incredible precision. Look at his body type — he’s made the most of what he has. He’s the hardest guy to get out. He’s fast. And he’s old.”
The camera panned across the dugout. “These are young guys, Mark,” Seinfeld said. “How could they have these nerves of steel?”
“They do 180 games,” Schiff said. “If you did 180 shows in a row, you’d have it.”
“But this is the postseason, this one counts,” Seinfeld said. “If a crowd doesn’t laugh, O.K. But this guy gives up the homer, and 60,000 people are weeping!”
Schiff soon disappeared to warm up the audience. Seinfeld fell silent, chewing pretzels and watching the game. In 20 minutes, he was up. He stood, brushed the crumbs from his pants, slid into his jacket and made for the stage, ready to play some ball.