Friday night, I watched Jerry Seinfeld do stand-up comedy. My parents took my wife and I, and we watched as Jerry entertained us for an hour and a half, in the truest sense of the word. At times, we all had tears gathering in our eyes; we all spoke about how our stomachs and cheeks ached afterwards. Seinfeld touched on a variety of topics — from drug commercials to parenting — and astonished us.
I’ve seen, on DVD, Seinfeld do stand-up comedy before. Many of us have seen it in the opening sequences of the hit show that bears his name. Yet, the experience of interacting with a comic in his element and watching it on television is akin to reading about Africa or actually going there. Live shows — comic, theater, or otherwise — bring a relationship that doesn’t exist on the television. For one, we were a part of what Jerry did: our laughs fed his energy, and his energy fed our laughs. Or again: the experience of seeing someone live engaged me in a way that television could not. In a darkened theater, there are no other distractions. In a darkened house, there are countless distractions.
Even more, I believe there is something in us that craves human-to-human interaction. Live performances give us this human-to-human interaction. Movies do not. Sitcoms do not. DVDs do not. For myriad reasons, we humans like to hear what other humans have to say, and we like it even more when the other humans are actually present.
But even more than the experience of the night, I could not stop thinking about the performance of the night. Jerry’s jokes were polished. He knew where to pause, and where to rush. He knew when to speak high, and when to speak low. In this way, there is almost a music to good stand-up comedy. Timing. Rhythm. Cadence. Timbre. Pitch.
Comedy is an art.
Seinfeld, as he describes his art, says that it takes at least half a year to hone a routine into a finished product. Think of this, the next time you come up with a funny joke. Hold onto for half a year, trying it out with different rhythms and varying pitch in your voice. Re-think it. Polish it. Then, you may be ready, if you’re also blessed with great talent, to try it out on someone else.
Seinfeld also asserts that “laughs contain thought.” Though he doesn’t care much for what motivates great comics, he does define comedy as “an exploration into the self” that requires hyper-detailed awareness. Comedy, for Seinfeld, is a serious enterprise. It requires thought and work and discipline. It requires a certain sell of the setup, as the audience needs to believe the beginning of the joke, without ever glimpsing the end.
I’m grateful for last Friday. I’m grateful for laughing harder than I have in a long, long time. I’m grateful for the experience. And, I’m grateful for the chance to see such hard work and polish, and to enjoy it so deeply.