About half-way through watching Jerry Before Seinfeld, the comedian’s new special on Netflix, I had a revelation. There was no need to wait until my children went to bed to turn this on. I’m not the first person to note that Seinfeld is a family-friendly comedian. As Mark Oppenheimer wrote in Tablet last week, “When she’s done watching the whole run of Friends, I’m going to let my 10-year-old daughter watch the whole run of Seinfeld—and that’s pretty much what you need to know about the comedian’s work.”
The new Netflix show consists mostly of Seinfeld reminiscing about his childhood and how he got started in comedy. He was inspired by Mad magazine and late night comedians on television, but as far as personal experience, there was not a lot to draw on. By his account, he grew up in a pretty happy and perhaps boring household. “Would I have been funnier if I grew up in Peoria in a whorehouse, raised by prostitutes? Absolutely. But this is what I had to work with.”
But Seinfeld may be selling himself a little short. After all, the fact that he was not raised by prostitutes in Peoria means that he has had to work a little harder to earn his laughs. It is not easy to be both this clean and this funny. (Bill Cosby did it, but I can’t watch one of his specials with my kids anymore, given the revelations about his serial acts of sexual assault.)
In a recent New York Times review of the new CBS comedy, Young Sheldon, critic Margaret Lyons writes that the show is not particularly funny. “Its punch lines—or whatever is sitting where punch lines are supposed to be—only come from Sheldon’s inappropriate responses. He asks his mother, loudly, in church, when he should be ‘expecting [his] testicles.’ … Is a child saying the word ‘brassiere’ the same thing as a joke? No. Literalness and a lack of interest in social norms are not enough to sustain a series.”
For some people, though, comedy has become merely opposition to social norms. Audiences laugh because you swear a lot or say things that are just shocking. In her own Netflix special, Baby Cobra, comedian Ali Wong has plenty of funny lines, but sometimes you see the camera panning around the audience when she is talking about the details of childbirth or the joys of anal sex and you see the faces of people who are laughing but possibly more out of a sense of embarrassment than anything else.
If Seinfeld is going to get you to double over laughing about sugary cereals, it’s because every word is chosen carefully and the timing of his delivery is absolutely perfect. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Seinfeld talks about the thousands and thousands of pages of notes he has taken on his jokes. “I don’t want people to know how much work I put into it. I just think it’s more fun when it seems off the cuff.”
He explains each word and why it’s placed where it is; the Journal notes:
“You want things that are just fun to say. It’s fun to say Cocoa Crisp and Fruity Pebbles. It’s not fun to say Oat Bran.” He hits a sort of high note on the last word, which comes out as a strangled shriek. “Pops has a consonant strength that Froot Loops does not have. Frosted Flakes? Soft. Sugar Pops is on the end and not by coincidence. I plan that out.”
The editing process he goes through is more painstaking than the one most editors of non-fiction essays embrace. “You’re always trying to trim everything down to absolute rock, solid rock. I will sit there for 15 minutes to make it one syllable shorter.” It is easier, of course, to get people to giggle about sex or laugh at someone spewing four-letter words. But if you want to turn on Netflix with your ten-year-old tonight, you can thank Jerry Seinfeld for putting in the extra effort.
Image: Embassy Row