4 ‘No Joke’ Career Observations about Jerry Seinfeld’s Career
Business Insider explained that Seinfeld was to bring his, “popular web series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” to Netflix. The new deal will also include two original stand-up specials for the streaming giant.”
The agreement is the latest in a series of financial windfalls for the well-known comedian. In fact, Forbes ranked him as the World’s Highest Paid Comedian in 2015 and 2017 with earnings coming from stand-up performances, syndication of the Seinfeld television show, and deals with Crackle and now Netflix. Forbes 2015 rankings put Seinfeld’s net worth at $670 million. He is no doubt approaching $1 billion at this point.
Seinfeld’s first Netflix stand-up special “Jerry Before Seinfeld” aired last month. I watched the show as well as listened to a few recent interviews to better understand the humorist’s approach to his craft.
Seinfeld delivers a few no joke lessons worth considering. To that end, I offer 4 lessons to consider.
1 – Pay attention
Seinfeld’s humor is grounded in his observations. Where others fail to notice something, he pays attention, picks up on the nuances, connects the dots, and turns the observation into his currency – laughs.
Three quick examples…
“You can measure distance by time. ‘How far away is it?’ ‘Oh about 20 minutes.’ But it doesn’t work the other way. ‘When do you get off work?’ ‘Around 3 miles.'”
“I will never understand why they cook on TV. I can’t smell it. Can’t eat it. Can’t taste it. The end of the show they hold it up to the camera, ‘Well, here it is. You can’t have any. Thanks for watching. Goodbye.'”
“Why do they call it a ‘building?’ It looks like they’re finished. Why isn’t it a ‘built?'”
A few months ago, I wrote an article about the 8 Behaviors of Highly Success Creatives. The first behavior is Conscious Observation. This involves purposely taking in the world around you in a quest to find new ideas, concepts, or ways of doing things.
- When a new style of car drives by, do you notice it? (Heck, was the last street light you drove through green or red?)
- What was the wall color at the last restaurant you visited?
- What type of shoes is the closest person next to you wearing?
I invite you to take a moment to consider how well you and your team members pay attention to trends, customer needs, emerging technologies, etc. More importantly, reflect on how well you use these insights to improve performance and feed innovation.
2 – Work the Process
While some entertainers write jokes at a computer or capture a few bullets on the back of a notecard, Seinfeld uses a rather painstaking approach to crafting his humor. He writes each idea out on paper, massages it, and aims to perfect every word.
He mulls over scripts and jokes for days, months, even years. While others might look to cut corners, Jerry remains disciplined and continues to double-down on his process. For him, and for others who remain disciplined, they learn that true freedom is in the discipline.
In 2013, The Laugh Button shared Seinfeld’s process based on an interview:
- If you think something is funny, write it down then go from there
- Jerry likes to have the first line be funny right away.
- Jerry always writes on pads of yellow paper because he feels the electronic cursor is always taunting him on the screen. It is a fun side note that he and Larry David both used Bic Barrel (blue) pens and yellow pads of paper to write every TV episode of Seinfeld. Long hand.
- Break down the jokes into words.
- Building anticipation for a story can prompt the audience to laugh.
- Look for connective tissue to make a tight, smooth, jig saw puzzle like link from one topic to another.
- If topics are not tight enough, delete the words. Even count the syllables and remove some accordingly.
- Comedy writing is like song writing.
- The end has to deliver the biggest laugh. Not in the beginning. Not in the middle. At the end.
- Jerry believes the longer you work at a joke the “right-er” it feels.
Consider how you and your team go about your work. Have you:
- Invested the time in finding a process that works?
- Remained disciplined to follow through on the process?
- Looked for ways to improve on results, refine the process, and reach new heights?
Getting the process right and sticking to it is no laughing matter.
3 – Follow Your Instincts
Seinfeld has an opinion about things. He feels strongly about how jokes are worded, what makes an audience laugh versus groan.
In 2016, Seinfeld revealed to CNN a snapshot of his instincts.”I thought that there was another kind of conversation that was missing from what we think of as a talk show,” he said. “I thought, there’s another vibe that people have, another energy that they have. I thought maybe I could find it if I just put them in a car and we just go for coffee and we get rid of the lights and [had a] camera that you wouldn’t even notice. It’s been a lot of fun, it’s just a fun, different thing to do.”
Not only did he make the show, but he followed his instincts and partnered with little known Crackle to air it.
Nine seasons and 59 episodes later, Netflix came calling.
Who’s laughing now?
4 – Treat it like a business
I recently heard Seinfeld interviewed. At one point in the discussion, he said, “They do call it show business.”
Yes, he’s entertaining people. They are laughing, but he is working. It’s a business and he treats that way. He knows who his customers are and what they want. He puts in the effort to meet (often exceed) their needs. He expects to be well compensated for his work.
The moment you lose sight of your customers and the value you bring, things will start to unravel.
That’s no laughing matter.
Patrick Leddin, PhD is a speaker, global leadership consultant, and The Wall Street Journal bestselling author of The Five-Week Leadership Challenge. Patrick is an Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University with a thriving leadership blog and podcast, and 25-years of leadership experience. He offers an unparalleled mix of academic rigor and real-world experience.