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Is This Anything?

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Jerry Seinfeld revisits his best work across five decades of comedy in new book

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“Is this anything?” is what every comedian says to every other comedian about any new bit. Ideas that come from nowhere and mean nothing. But in the world of stand-up comedy, literal bars of gold. You see that same comedian later and you will be asked, “Did it get anything?” All comedians are slightly amazed when anything works.

Jerry Seinfeld

Jerry Seinfeld. Photo by Mark Seliger

Is This Anything? (Simon & Schuster) is a wonderful window into the brilliant mind of one of the most successful comedians of the last thirty years. Jerry Seinfeld started out as a stand-up comic, playing clubs on both coasts, before launching to stardom in his eponymous sitcom, Seinfeld, which ran for nine seasons (1989 to 1998). The 180 episodes have been a syndication mainstay, and it is a rare day when you can’t settle down to an episode or three. It was awarded Emmy’s, Golden Globes, and Screen Actors Guild Awards; in 2002, TV Guide named it the greatest television show of all time.

The driving force behind the show was the wit and insight of its star, Jerry Seinfeld. The plot was simple: It followed the mostly minor trials and tribulations of a New York stand-up comic named Jerry and his oddball friends. It became known as the “show about nothing.” But it really was a mirror of Seinfeld’s take on the world; a point of view he had been developing since he entered the comedy scene in the 1970’s.

Seinfeld’s new book is an assemblage of all his material created over the years, broken down by decades. Each section is preceded by a short introduction, and, while they are amusing, they are also introspective. Here, he will use a joke to illustrate a point but mostly he’s giving an intimate access to his process as well as reflecting on that period of his life.

At the outset, he shares his earliest influences: Phil Berger’s book The Last Laugh, about the world of stand-up comedy, and Dustin Hoffman in Lenny, the film based on the stage play about the life of Lenny Bruce. Even at a young age, he marveled: “Comedians seem to hurtle through space and time untethered to anything but the sound of a laugh.”

Even in exploring his own work,Seinfeld  remains unsure. “I still don’t know exactly for sure where jokes come from. I think it’s from some emotional cocktail of boredom, aggression, intense visual acuity and a kind of Silly Putty of the mind that enables you to re-form what you see into what you want it to be.” He also zeroes in on the main challenge. “The real problem of stand-up, of course, is that you must constantly justify why you are the only one talking while a room full of people sit quietly.”

The book records the dozens of jokes that have been part of a four-decade career. It is like visiting old friends, full of ah-hah moments of remembering a particular line or seeing the source for an episode of Seinfeld. (A perfect example is “Dry Cleaning” where he imagines bumping into his dry cleaner wearing his clothes.) It is fortunate that he has kept all his material from the beginning of his career, every idea, every scrap of paper. Even some of his earliest jokes remained in his repertoire twenty and thirty years later. It is a pleasure to read the book and, of course, hear his flawless timing in your mind’s ear.

Seinfeld is unique in his domination of the world of observational humor. (Perhaps the only challenger would be the late George Carlin.) All of the wonderful pieces are here:  dogs and pockets, ruining an appetite, musings on laundry, etc. Some topics are just in passing and others get the epic treatment: milk, coffee, cereal, cars, driving. There are moments of tirade — friends we could do without, other people’s children, the post office. These are contrasted with more existential thoughts, such as in “Northeast Guy.” “TV Flip,” with its refrains, sings almost as a tone poem.  Seinfeld’s ability to anthropomorphize reaches true heights with “Cookies”: “You can almost feel their little chocolate chip eyes on you.”

In “Halloween/Candy,” he traces a child’s whole history of Halloween from costume to trick-or-treating to aging out of it. He also shows that everything with children is “up” — wait up, hold up, shut up, clean up, stay up — while everything with parents is the opposite — calm down, slow down, come down here, sit down, put that down, you are GROUNDED. They’re wry observations but underneath is something much more profound.

It’s not just that his observations are funny; they are also reflections of the truth. His perception of relationships is dead-on. He bridges his dating years into his marriage at 45 and subsequent fatherhood. As he grew, so did the depth of his understanding.

The stories in the sections titled “2000’s” and “The Teens” focus a great deal on marriage and weddings. Seinfeld skillfully compares marriage to “a bit of a chess game … except the board is flowing water, and all the chess pieces are made of … smoke.” He easily shifts to a comparison of marriage as a game show and “you’re always in the lightning round.”

Throughout, the book briefly touches on the milestones: his debut on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, his television show, and his HBO special, I’m Telling You for the Last Time, in which he retired his material to date. When he decided to return to the stand-up world two years later, it meant that he had to embark on a whole new leg of his career, starting in small clubs, night after night, month after month, to develop new material.

Is This Anything? could simply be looked at as a compendium of Seinfeld’s jokes. But it is more than that. It’s a peek into a brilliant and insightful performer’s inner thoughts, someone who is able to dissect and articulate a unique view of the world. We both get inside his mind as he gets inside ours. The simplicity of a statement like “it’s not hard to not go to the gym” speaks volumes to the listener. He manages to be every man and yet no one is quite like him.

In the end, Seinfeld says he has returned to where he began — like a horse in a race who ends up back at the start. But, unlike the horse, he is where he wants to be.

Is This Anything? offers select but deeper insight into one of the great comedic minds of our time. It presents his fears and his doubts. It shows that success is a combination of perseverance, hard work, and more than a touch of genius. But, ultimately, the book is just very funny. Really, really funny.

Is This Anything? is available in hardcover, ebook, and audio formats at Book Revue in Huntington, Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.