Thursday, 26 February 2009

One thing Jerry Seinfeld has taught me

I have a theory that Jerry Seinfeld did particularly well because of his personality, his character. I have an appreciation for the man, as well as his comedy material. Seinfeld trained himself from early on to be focused, keep at it, have few insecurities, and to have a balanced, broad view of his life (rookie-level Scientology helped him along, he revealed recently). Sure, he struck it lucky with the extraordinary success of his sitcom, but insiders always remind you he was already an A-list stand-up by then, and I believe he handled his success well.

I watched the documentary "Comedian" for the first time in August 2008. The film, released in 2002, was the first thing Jerry Seinfeld did after the sitcom series had ended. I was struck by the similarity of the stand-up comedian's experience and most people's lives.

"Comedian" is a documentary; it records his return to the stand-up circuit, around 2002, after he'd retired all his previous stand-up material and taken a long break "doing nothing" (he got married and had a child or four). We see him struggling to put together a new one-hour act.

"Comedian" involves the young, thrusting Orny Adams. The contrast between Adams and Seinfeld is clear: the latter is a big celebrity, audiences give him standing ovations, they cheer him even when he is floundering (Seinfeld was developing material, and comedians are not funny when they are developing material).

Adams, on the other hand, was yet another comedian on the New York circuit. He was established, but not quite "big" (he still isn't). As the documentary progressed, Adams made his first Montreal festival appearance, and got signed up by George Shapiro - although this seems a bit of intrigue by Shapiro (who is also Seinfeld's manager), to give his biggest client's documentary some 'story'.

Seinfeld is not pushy (his billion dollars are in the bank), he laughs at anything his stand-up colleagues say, and responds well to encouragement. Adams, on the other hand, is outspoken, jerky, and tense. To top it off, his material is just okay.

The most important scene for me was when the impatient Orny is having a chat with Jerry on how to speed up his career. This is the exchange:

Orny: How much longer do I have to wait?
Jerry: Is time running out? Are you out of time?
Orny: I'm gettin' older.
Jerry: Please.
Orny: I'm 29. I feel I have sacrificed so much of my life.
Jerry: Is there something else you would rather have been doing?
Orny: Um, not necessarily.
Jerry: Other appointments? Other places you gotta be?
Orny: No, not necessarily.
Jerry: "No, not necessarily."
Orny: I see my friends making a lot of money.
My friends are moving up. And I'm worried.
Jerry: Movin' up!
Orny: I'm worried.
Jerry: Are you out of your mind?
Orny: No, I'm not out of my mind.
Jerry: This has nothing to do with your friends! [laughing]
Orny: I've upset you.
Jerry: No, no, this is a special thing. This has nothing to do with ...
Orny: But Jerry did you ever stop to think 'I am 29.
My friends are all married. They have kids. They have houses.'
Jerry: Ugh!
Orny: What do you tell your parents?
Jerry: Your parents! [laughing] This is your ... [laughing]
Orny: Yes, your parents!
Jerry: Let me tell you a story ...
The story that Seinfeld tells Adams is (in brief): Two entertainers are in a strange town for a gig. They get lost. It is very cold, snow everywhere. They find a house with a chimney. They look through the windows: they see a fire on, a healthy father, a beautiful mother, and two lovely kids. The family is watching a scene from a classic movie. One entertainer turns to the other and says: "how do people live like this?"

At the beginning of this post, I drew a parallel between the stand-up comedian's experience and our own lives. It is this: there's a struggle, you must master some skills, you have to acquire some experience through repetition, and you must be able to manage yourself.

Self-management: this art of putting yourself through the paces of life, patiently navigating the ups and downs. The hardest part of any dream or ambition, is that self-management part. Because to master it, you have to have conviction. You have to brainwash yourself into believing that what you are doing is worthier and better than whatever else you could be doing. There is nothing else, no other place, you'd rather be. You tell yourself that what you do is a mission, it is a way of life, it's what you want, and it's worth it.

Part of interview with Enough Rope on Australian TV last year. Gets better towards the end.

Want to read my future posts? Don't forget to subscribe

No comments: