Comedy and Nothing

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It all happens in the space of a tenth of a second: your zygomatic major muscle engages and exposes your teeth, fifteen muscles in your face contract, your epiglottis begins to obscure your larynx and disrupts your breathing, and you start to vocalize involuntarily— a laugh.

Laughter is a marvel. It erupts as powerfully and unexpectedly as a volcano. The smallest glance or the tiniest irony can set it off and send us doubling over. We laugh until we cry, and sometimes we laugh when we should be crying. We can’t control it. It makes us spew drinks on friends and excuse ourselves from plays and concerts. Try as we might to seal our clenched lips with our hands, it breaks through in muffled puffs and gasps. No physical force can keep it in. And then it subsides as quickly as it came.

Yet there are a few intrepid souls—we call them standup comedians—who stake their livelihoods and reputations on their ability to walk alone onto a stage and produce laughter. “The equivalent for most people,” Jerry Seinfeld once said, “would be going to work in your underwear.” Or as Chris Rock tells Jerry in a recent episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, “It is more freakish than being able to run fast, or dunk a basketball, or any of those things. It is freakish—do you think Superman could talk to a thousand people at one time?” To stand up is to stand alone before a jury of strangers several times a week with the goal of making everyone laugh every few seconds for over an hour.

Jerry Seinfeld’s Brilliance Of Nothing

Yet, the great comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, those who keep standing up for decades, maintain a sense of humor about what they do. As early as the sixth episode of Seinfeld, Jerry was poking fun at his own routine investigations of the minutiae of everyday life: when his girlfriend Marlene breaks up with him after seeing his set, complaining, “it was just so much fluff,” and by its third season the show shifted into full self-parody with George and Jerry’s attempt to write their own “show about nothing.”

Still, fifteen years after its last episode, Seinfeld fills the airwaves each weeknight, raising the question as to why its “nothing” ends up seeming so relatable. But as a physicist might say, nothing is a condition of all existence: we are all atoms that were something else and will be something else held in an agonizingly brief dance. All that we know as real exists without the ability to create or sustain itself. As the philosopher Blaise Pascal once wrote, to be human is to be suspended between the two impenetrable abysses that surround us after and before us. “Nothing” is quicksand constantly beneath our feet. It threatens to consume us in every moment. But we can dance across it— if we can learn to take ourselves lightly.

The idea of “nothing” in Jerry’s comedy outlived Seinfeld. In his first appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman after the end of the sitcom, he opened with the following bit:

[su_quote]Everybody says to me, “You don’t do the show anymore, what do you do?” I’ll tell you what I do: nothing. And I know what you’re thinking, “That sounds pretty good.” You’re thinking, “I might like to do nothing myself.” Well let me tell you, doing nothing is not as easy as it looks. You have to be careful because the idea of doing anything, which could easily lead to doing something that would cut into your nothing—that would force me to have to drop everything.[/su_quote]

But in a sense “nothing” couldn’t have been further from the truth: after writing and starring in one of the most successful sitcoms in the history of American television, Jerry decided to retire all of the material he had ever written and subject himself to the grueling process of developing completely new material. Testing it out night after night in clubs across the country he sometimes lost focus, forgot lines, and even encountered hecklers in spite of his stardom. He was finally ready to make his appearance on the Late Show after six months of perseverance.

By deprecating what he does as “nothing” Jerry protects and sustains his work, allowing it to speak for itself year after year, decade after decade.  He has avoided the greatest danger that any comedian faces: believing his own hype; when a comedian’s stardom takes center stage the jokes stop sounding like jokes and start sounding like appeals for more popularity. In an effort to gain or sustain notoriety, many young comedians resort to using shock value to force laughs, and ultimately leave their audiences feeling empty.

Jerry, on the other hand, is content to let trends and hype pass and write material that sticks. “Whatever is the opposite of planned obsolescence, that’s why I’m into,” he recently told a New York Times journalist. His new show, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is a 360-degree study in staying power, with each episode featuring a different classic car chosen to reflect the episode’s guest. In recent episodes legends such as David Letterman, Mel Brooks, and Carl Reiner offer glimpses into the indefatigable passion and drive required to be a lifelong creative performer. Riding through the streets of Los Angeles in a majestic 1957 Cadillac, 86-year-old Don Rickles exclaims between ribbing and doing impressions, “I keep working! I’ve got to keep working!”

What is Comedy?

In Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, the quotidian act of conversation demonstrates the truth about comedy: “I’ve figured out that the non-event is the best part of life,” Jerry tells Sarah Silverman on their way to pick up a doughnut. Comedy is the magic in the mundane. It helps us snatch a little something out of the nothing. It causes us to smile and laugh as we savor the serendipities that could just as easily have passed into oblivion, unnoticed like gossamer on the wind.

Perhaps, then, comedy isn’t about anything—  in the sense that it is not about something outside itself. Jerry often uses sports analogies to show that comedy has its own rules and its own measure of excellence. In a recent interview he compared it to surfing:

[su_quote]It’s just pure. You’re alone. That wave is so much bigger and stronger than you. You’re always outnumbered. They always can crush you. And yet you’re going to accept that and turn it into a little, brief, meaningless art form…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.[/su_quote]

Jerry’s commitment to his work as an end in itself also shows in his writing process. He spoke of perfecting a Pop-Tart joke over the course of two years.

After demonstrating the organization, wording, and pacing changes he considered for the joke, he explains, “to spend so much time on something this stupid— that felt good to me.”  If what one means by pointless is that it serves no end outside itself, then Jerry is right. But Jerry’s work pursues excellence on its own terms.

Our Work Should Be… Pointless?

Dorothy Sayers once suggested that all work should be just as gloriously pointless:

[su_quote]If your mind is set upon serving the work, then you know you have nothing to look for; the only reward the work can give you is the satisfaction of beholding its perfection. The work takes all and gives nothing but itself; and to serve the work is a labor of pure love.[/su_quote]

Jerry’s comedy, for this reason, always feels like a gift: it is perfectly and simply true to craft and asks for nothing in return. “The rose is without why, it blooms because it blooms,” Angelus Silesius wrote. If we can resist the lie that whatever doesn’t return fame or fortune is not worth doing, our work can emerge in the same way. We build our lives amidst the clamor of a million phony somethings. When we block out the clamor— sometimes by doing what looks like nothing— we’re free to focus on work that is its own reward, work that feels right no matter how pointless it might appear.

Near the end of his 2003 documentary Comedian, Jerry attends a performance by Bill Cosby, whom Jerry has admired since he was a kid. After the show, Jerry asks him about his choice to continue performing two two-hour shows each day at the age of 63, to which he simply replies, “I love it, I just love it.” He explains:

[su_quote]Isn’t it fun that you took what is comedy and what is you and you have a body of work now? You can play at any bar even if you’re 70 years old, and you can stand beside Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Willie Mays, and Joe Louis when these guys say, “you know, I played the shit out of my game.” It is one of the great moments of being a performer when you can say, “I took what I had and I knocked it out of the park”—that’s what you’ve done.[/su_quote]

Jerry beams at his hero’s expansion of his own favorite analogy. Cosby, a fellow master performer, acknowledges that greatness isn’t wealth, fame, or recognition; if it were, he would have been finished long ago. Rather, as Dorothy Sayers said, “satisfaction comes, in the godlike manner, from looking upon what [one] has made and finding it very good.”

It is a truth we all grasp at one point or another, however briefly, usually in the midst of a hobby or leisure activity. We might even sense it momentarily in laughter, that gloriously pointless vocalization that so mysteriously punctuates life here between the abysses.


A new season of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee premieres on June 19.

Brett Beasley is a writer, editor, and teacher. He lives in Chicago with his wife, Anne, and their pitbull, Bea.

1 Comment

  • Reply June 13, 2014

    Dustin Risner

    Brett – Great article. I loved it. Have you seen ‘Talking Funny’? The HBO comedy roundtable with Seinfeld, Gervais, Chris Rock and Louie CK. Its a must see. It’s on Youtube. An hour long.

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