Se­in­feld's hand­writ­ten jokes chart growth over decades as a standup and TV comic

Ottawa Citizen - - Observer | In Memoriams - DON­ALD LIEBENSON

Is This Any­thing? Jerry Se­in­feld Si­mon & Schus­ter

Se­in­feld proudly pro­claimed to be a TV show about noth­ing. Is This Any­thing?, Jerry Se­in­feld's first book in al­most three decades, is about ev­ery­thing.

It's about child­hood, teen­hood, adult­hood and par­ent­hood.

It's about bumper cars and dry clean­ing, ma­gi­cians and su­per­mar­ket check­out rub­ber di­viders, mar­riage and the zip line.

It is a decade-by-decade col­lec­tion of ideas Se­in­feld ini­tially wrote out long­hand on yel­low le­gal pads, any­things he metic­u­lously and doggedly crafted, worked and honed in front of au­di­ences un­til they be­came some­things, and those some­things be­came his act.

“These pages,” he writes, “are the map of the 45-year-long road I've been on to be­come this odd, un­usual thing that is the only thing I ever re­ally wanted to be.” He be­came one of those peo­ple “who killed them­selves to keep com­ing up with great new ma­te­rial who were able to keep ris­ing through the many lev­els.”

But in the be­gin­ning is the idea. This book takes its ti­tle from the ques­tion, he says, that ev­ery co­me­dian asks other co­me­di­ans about the comic vi­a­bil­ity of a new bit. He notes that he has saved all his ma­te­rial and stored it in ac­cor­dion files. One of Ge­orge Car­lin's clas­sic bits con­cerned find­ing a place for one's stuff. This is Jerry's stuff, and the place he found was this book.

His sig­na­ture bits are here, in­clud­ing his mus­ings on the life of a sock (“Laun­dry day is their only chance to es­cape”), plane travel (“They show you how to use a seat belt in case you haven't been in a car since 1965”) and a com­mer­cial for im­proved Tide

(“I think if you have a T-shirt with blood­stains all over it, maybe laun­dry isn't your big­gest prob­lem right now”).

Is This Any­thing? is not a mem­oir along the lines of Steve Martin's Born Stand­ing Up, but it does serve as Se­in­feld's This is Your Life, only with jokes in­stead of trot­ting out dis­tant rel­a­tives and for­mer teach­ers.

Bit by bit, we chart his growth as a mas­ter joke crafts­man. Decade by decade, we fol­low his life jour­ney, view­ing the world through his per­spec­tive of what he found to be funny. In the 1970s, he jokes about child­hood, par­ents, his first wal­let and Cub Scouts. In the '80s, there are bits about air­planes and ho­tels, re­flect­ing his ris­ing star sta­tus af­ter his break­through on Johnny Carson's The Tonight

Show. (“Co­me­di­ans talked about get­ting on Johnny Carson like Dorothy talked about go­ing home,” he writes.)

In the last decade, he re­flects: “You were a sin­gle, bach­e­lor guy for 45 years. Then you turned on a dime. Mar­riage-wife-kids-fam­ily.”

The bits are pre­sented in their pol­ished form. It might have been in­struc­tive for as­pir­ing co­me­di­ans had Se­in­feld il­lus­trated how he took an idea and worked it un­til it was where he wanted it to be. But they will learn some lessons through the way Se­in­feld finds fresh takes on well-trod top­ics.

For ex­am­ple, air­line food has prob­a­bly been fod­der for co­me­di­ans since the Wright broth­ers took off from Kitty Hawk. But Se­in­feld fo­cuses on less-con­sid­ered flight ex­pe­ri­ences, even putting a pos­i­tive spin on the air­plane bath­room:

“I just like that lit­tle room. It's like your own lit­tle apart­ment on the plane, isn't it? You go in, close the door, the light comes on af­ter a sec­ond. It's like a lit­tle sur­prise party.”

Se­in­feld's keen-eyed en­cap­su­la­tions of the minu­tiae of daily life are tes­ta­ment to the old saw about how in the spe­cific there is the univer­sal. We've all been to the phar­ma­cist but per­haps never thought, “Why does the phar­ma­cist al­ways have to be two and a half feet higher than every­body else?” That is Se­in­feld's job.

Read­ers of a cer­tain age will get a nos­tal­gic kick out of ref­er­ences to The Ed Sul­li­van Show and the chil­dren's pup­pet show of the 1940s and '50s, Kukla, Fran and Ol­lie. With the ex­cep­tion of jokes about now-out­moded tech­nol­ogy (the Black­Berry), this ma­te­rial doesn't feel dated.

Se­in­feld fa­mously works clean; You will find no F-bombs here. Al­though some jokes date back decades, there is scant ma­te­rial that is cringe­wor­thy in terms of ho­mo­sex­ual, eth­nic or gen­der stereo­types. And nowhere in the book will you read the phrase so of­ten as­so­ci­ated with Se­in­feld: “What's the deal with ... ?”

Is It Any­thing? cap­tures the out­put of one of our great comic minds, still in thrall to the process of work­ing “tiny clubs with flimsy stuff, night af­ter night, month af­ter month. And it takes how­ever long it takes.”

And that's a big deal.


Jerry Se­in­feld has honed his ob­ser­va­tional com­edy over the years — and he has many, many notes to prove it.

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