Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with entertainment icon Jerry Seinfeld (@jerryseinfeld). Jerry’s comedy career took off after his first appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1981. Eight years later, he teamed up with fellow comedian Larry David to create what was to become the most successful comedy series in the history of television: Seinfeld. The show ran on NBC for nine seasons, winning numerous Emmy, Golden Globe, and People’s Choice awards, and was named the greatest television show of all time in 2009 by TV Guide and in 2012 was identified as the best sitcom ever in a 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll.
Seinfeld made his Netflix debut with the original stand-up special Jerry Before Seinfeld along with his Emmy-nominated and critically acclaimed web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, which has garnered over 100 million views and which The New York Times describes as “impressively complex and artful” and Variety calls “a game-changer.” His latest stand-up special, 23 Hours To Kill, was released by Netflix earlier this year.
He is also the author of Is This Anything?, which features his best work across five decades in comedy.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
DUE TO SOME HEADACHES IN THE PAST, PLEASE NOTE LEGAL CONDITIONS:
Tim Ferriss owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of The Tim Ferriss Show podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as his right of publicity.
WHAT YOU’RE WELCOME TO DO: You are welcome to share the below transcript (up to 500 words but not more) in media articles (e.g., The New York Times, LA Times, The Guardian), on your personal website, in a non-commercial article or blog post (e.g., Medium), and/or on a personal social media account for non-commercial purposes, provided that you include attribution to “The Tim Ferriss Show” and link back to the tim.blog/podcast URL. For the sake of clarity, media outlets with advertising models are permitted to use excerpts from the transcript per the above.
WHAT IS NOT ALLOWED: No one is authorized to copy any portion of the podcast content or use Tim Ferriss’ name, image or likeness for any commercial purpose or use, including without limitation inclusion in any books, e-books, book summaries or synopses, or on a commercial website or social media site (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) that offers or promotes your or another’s products or services. For the sake of clarity, media outlets are permitted to use photos of Tim Ferriss from the media room on tim.blog or (obviously) license photos of Tim Ferriss from Getty Images, etc.
Tim Ferriss: Jerry, welcome to the show.
Jerry Seinfeld: Thanks, Tim. Great to be here.
Tim Ferriss: I really appreciate you making the time. I thought we would start with the beginning of Is This Anything? And in the, I suppose you could call it the introduction or the preface, another book pops up, which is The Last Laugh by Phil Berger, and I would love to just know how that book entered your life?
Jerry Seinfeld: How did I find that? I really don’t know. But I still have it. I have the copy that I bought wherever I found it. I mean, I was in high school and I did the absolute minimum you could do to survive in high school. I never read anything outside of high school except magazines, car magazines, comic books, and Esquire because I don’t know, in those years, early ’70s, Esquire was really full of character, and about encouraging male boldness and inventiveness in lifestyle and just life in general. They were very sophisticated and it was everything I wanted to be.
I wanted to be urban and I wanted to be smart, and smarter than I was. I wanted to have this cool, adventurous life. And they were very encouraging to that. I don’t think there’s anything like that around today, but that was essential. The same with that book, The Last Laugh, it was just like, whatever made men in centuries past become explorers. I don’t know how they became that. I guess I remember reading about explorers clubs, in 17th, 18th century London. I have two sons and a daughter and that’s the thing I really wanted. If I could pass along — the two things I would want to pass along would be ethics and boldness in life. But that doesn’t answer your question of where I got the book. I don’t know where I got it.
Tim Ferriss: It’s okay, though. The genesis story is secondary. It’s really the context that you’re providing. And just as a quick side-note, a friend of mine, Cal Fussman, used to write the What I’ve Learned interview series in Esquire —
Jerry Seinfeld: Yeah, I remember that. I remember that.
Tim Ferriss: — back when it had that, and maybe still does on some level, that character that you’re describing, that boldness. What was it inside The Last Laugh that grabbed you so much?
Jerry Seinfeld: So if I look back at my whole life starting about second or third grade, it was all this inexorable march towards this pursuit of the comedy arts. There was nothing else about comedy. Albert Brooks did an album or did an article in Esquire called School For Comedians, and it was a parody — and I had no idea it was a parody. He grew up in L.A. and he was making fun of what comedians might need to learn to be comedians. And it was an early ’70s Esquire article. I had no idea it was a parody. I mean, I was just, “Oh, there’s a school?” I just wanted to learn about this world. The Last Laugh really took you deeply into the world. It is a completely hermetically sealed world that is frankly, unrelated to the rest of the entertainment industry. It’s really unrelated to almost all other creative arts. It is a very sealed ecosystem, the world of comedy, particularly stand-up comedy. I was desperately thirsty for any scrap of data about it.
Tim Ferriss: Now you have, much like an Olympic athlete of sorts, with training logs and workouts and so on, you have 45 years of “hacking away,” as it’s put in the book’s description, on yellow notepads. So you’ve preserved all of this. I’d love to speak or to hear you speak, more accurately, a bit about your writing process? And in the preparation that I did for this, I read in The New York Times, and I’m just going to read this short bit.
You can fact correct this, if need be, but here’s how it reads. “I still have a writing session every day. It’s another thing that organizes your mind. The coffee goes here. The pad goes here. The notes go here. My writing technique is just: You can’t do anything else. You don’t have to write, but you can’t do anything else.” I would love to hear you elaborate on that, because it actually sounds very similar to what the fiction writer Neil Gaiman has as his first rule of writing as well.
Jerry Seinfeld: Oh, really?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. But what does that look like for you? What do your writing sessions tend to look like if we look back over the last, I don’t know, 10 years, because I’m sure it’s changed over time?
Jerry Seinfeld: No, it hasn’t changed.
Tim Ferriss: It hasn’t?
Jerry Seinfeld: The only thing that’s changed is the coffee, which I didn’t know about coffee in my younger years. I think I discovered coffee after I had kids, and I didn’t have time to have long meals with my friends anymore. But we could meet for coffee. Then I realized, “Boy, this coffee really gets you talking.” And I thought, “Maybe I’ll do a show where you just talk with coffee.” And that’s where that came from, the Comedians in Cars show.
But my writing sessions used to be very arduous, very painful, like pushing against the wind in soft, muddy ground with a wheelbarrow full of bricks. And I did it. I had to do it because there’s just, as I mentioned in the book, you either learn to do that or you will die in the ecosystem. I learned that really fast and really young, and that saved my life and made my career, that I grasped the essential principle of survival in comedy really young. That principle is: you learn to be a writer. It’s really the profession of writing, that’s what standup comedy is. However you do it, anybody, you can do it any way you want, but if you don’t learn to do it in some form, you will not survive.
Tim Ferriss: When you sit down, is it an empty page? Is it bits and pieces that you’ve noted through the week as observations that you then flesh out? What is actually in front of you when you start?
Jerry Seinfeld: What’s in front of me is I’m usually about 15 or 20 pages of stuff that’s in various states of development. And then there’s a smaller book of just really, really random things. Like, when you’re on a cell phone call and the call drops, and then you reconnect with the person, they’ll go, “I don’t know what happened there.” As if anyone is expecting them to know anything about the incredibly complex technology of the cell phone, they offer this little, I don’t know if it’s an excuse or an apology. They go, “I don’t know what happened there.” So anyway, so I don’t know. So that’s an example of something in that, my little tiny notebook, that I don’t know what to do with that. But it’s just so stupid to me and funny.
So that to me is like an archery target, 50 yards away. Then I take out my bow and my arrow and I go, “Let me see if I can hit that. Let me see if I can create something that I could say to a room full of humans in a nightclub, that will make them see what I see in that.” There’s something stupid and funny about that to me. That’s the very, very beginning. So then I’ll write something about it. It’ll be, if I’m lucky, it’ll be a half a page or a page on a yellow legal pad and I’ll write that. Then in the session the next day, if I get around to it, I will see it again and I will see what I have and what I like and I don’t like. And as any writer can tell you, it’s 95 percent rewrite.
So I have two phases. There is the free-play creative phase. Then there is the polish and construction phase of, and I love to spend inordinate really, I mean, it’s not wasteful to me, because that’s just what I like to do, amounts of time refining and perfecting every single word of it until it has this pleasing flow to my ear. Then it becomes something that I can’t wait to say. And then we go from there to the stage with it. From the stage, the audience will then — I imagine, it’s a very scientific thing to me. It’s like, “Okay, here’s my experiment,” and you run the experiment. Then the audience just dumps a bunch of data on you, of, “This is good, this is okay, this is very good, this is terrible.” That goes into my brain from performing it on stage. Then it’s back through the rewrite process and then new ideas will come.
It’s just millions of different kinds of development. It’s just that. So you’re just trying to get — you’re just going to that place of creating, fixing, jettisoning. It’s extremely occupying. It’s never boring. The frustration I’m so used to at this point, I don’t even notice it. And it’s just work time. It’s just work time. Which, and I like the way athletes talk about, “I got to get my work in. Did you get your work in?” I like that phrase. One of the reasons I was looking forward to doing the show with you, is I know that it’s something you are very interested in.
Tim Ferriss: The craft?
Jerry Seinfeld: Yeah, the systematization of the brain and creative endeavor, or — I really think when I’m working, it’s very much like when you’re watching a pitcher working. On stage, in that we’re going, so that’s the difference. So basically it’s onstage and offstage, it’s the desk and then the stage. And then back to the desk and then back to the stage and that’s endless.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, the process and the repeatable process, the experimentation like you phrased it, is extremely interesting to me. And if we took or take that cell phone example, the dropping of reception, that’s an observation. It seems to me that you are a real connoisseur of questions. Whether those questions are being used as part of a bit or possibly as prompts. You mentioned the coffee in part leading to Comedians In Cars, in a Harvard Business Review interview, you also mentioned that it’s important to know what you don’t like. A big part of innovation is saying, “You know what I’m really sick of?” For you, that was talk shows where the music plays, somebody walks out to a desk, shakes hands with the host, sits down. And, “What am I really sick of?” being a departure point for innovation. I would love to hear about any questions, if there are questions, that you use as prompts to help elicit observation or materials for yourself.
Jerry Seinfeld: No, that part is somewhat having a very cranky nature and being a sensitive kind of — I don’t know if it’s perception, but you’re just provoked by a lot of things. If you’re lucky enough to have that, the next thing you must do is nurture and protect it and never lose it. The enemy of it is success. Success is the enemy of irritability and crankiness, because now you have money and you can remove the difficulties from your life, and that’s not good.
Tim Ferriss: How do you contend with that? Because you’ve had, certainly you’ve, I would imagine, you’ve had to do things to offset in that case, the creature comforts and so on that come along with the amount of success that you’ve had?
Jerry Seinfeld: Yes.The thing I did that really solved almost all of that issue, is I got married.
Tim Ferriss: Okay, please elaborate.
Jerry Seinfeld: That one, you’ll never run out, if you get married and if you have kids, then you’ve got a goldmine.
Tim Ferriss: So you mentioned just a few minutes ago about wordsmithing until you get everything pleasing to the ear and really obsessing over the prose. I’ve read that one of your explanations for the success of all of your television, was that, “The show was successful because I micromanaged it—every word, every line, every take, every edit, every casting.” And then later on, “If you’re efficient, you’re doing it the wrong way.” There are a lot of questions I could ask about this, but I suppose one is, I understand the logic of it, but for such a long period of time, obsessing over the details like that, did you not find yourself at risk of burnout or just hitting a point of overwhelm or did that not happen to you?
Jerry Seinfeld: Are talking about the series now, or just —
Tim Ferriss: We’re talking about the series.
Jerry Seinfeld: Oh, the series is a — if you want to look at the comedy arts is the only thing that interests me, creatively, I think, or the only thing I’m any good at. But if I look at the different comedy arts, if I was to break it down, let’s just say into the basics of a standup comedy, a television series, or a movie, I would analogize those to different vessels on the water.
So a TV series is like a pretty big boat that you can run with a couple of people. A movie is a yacht. There’s so many people, it’s a beautiful thing, there’s a lot of money involved. Everybody wants it. Everybody thinks it’s the ultimate way to go across the water. Standup for me is a surfboard. It’s just you, you paddle out and you try and catch the energy and you’re all on your own. You can do it and go home and nobody but you really even knows what happened.
I think the more people you add to the vessel, the faster you’re going to struggle to maintain its progress through the water. For sure, the TV series got to a point, we did it nine years and the way I was doing it, that was as far as it could go, before it was really going to stop cutting through the water in that beautiful way that it was doing. That’s why I pulled out of it before I had to, before anyone wanted me to, because I didn’t want to be on a boat that was starting to struggle. I didn’t want to have that experience. Even more than that, I didn’t want the audience to have that experience. I wanted to complete this gift to them in a way that they would always go, “Oh, I was given a lovely thing one time in the ’90s, and it was just lovely.”
I wanted them to have it like that. No excuses, no “if onlys”, no, “It did go on a bit, maybe longer than it should have.” I didn’t want to, I just wanted them to have this lovely gift. That’s why I stopped the TV series. I could also describe the TV series to you as a weather event that has an energy that gathers and becomes cyclonic. But every storm blows itself out and that storm was about to run out of energy. So was I. It’s the same thing, because I was at the center of the storm and I could feel the slowing of the cyclonic curve, the funnel.
Tim Ferriss: Is that something that you had a role model for? Is that something you’ve simply perceived? Because it’s very rare for someone to step out like Rocky Marciano. Usually they go a bit too far, they get slapped around a bit or they end up signing baseball mitts at Caesar’s Palace or whatever it is. Did you have any model for that? Was that something you decided entirely on your own?
Jerry Seinfeld: The closest I had, and I would never compare myself in any way, shape or form, was The Beatles. The timeframe of The Beatles was nine years. They broke up for different reasons. We had no discord on my show, like they struggled with, but the portion size of The Beatles just felt so right to me, I thought, and they were together about nine years, and we were together about nine years. There was something about adding that other digit to go to 10. If people said to me, “How long did you do that series for?” And if I said, “10 years.” I could just hear people go, “Wow, 10 years.” Just the portion size just felt too big to me.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned, I guess, irritation as a wellspring of comedic material. Is it irritation, or is it sensitivity in the connotation of a very sensitive scale, where you’re just perceiving more? Is it a dissatisfaction, or a irritability, or is there —
Jerry Seinfeld: I think your five senses have been made a little too good, and that’s not quite comfortable. I have a friend, actually, two friends, it was really weird, and they’re married, this is a really weird story. And they both suffered from this breakdown in their hearing. There’s a bone in the hearing canal that, I guess, it’s like a — I think it looks like a little wishbone or something. There’s all these little fine bones in there.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, the stirrup, all these tiny bones.
Jerry Seinfeld: Yeah. So both of them, the husband and the wife. First the wife, and then the husband, six months later. It’s a very rare condition. So anyway, they both had to get this very delicate surgery on their inner ear, and they replaced that bone with a piece of titanium that’s made to do the same thing. And it’s actually this fantastic cure for this problem. And so they both have these titanium ears now. And when they first got it, their hearing was too good, and it was a little uncomfortable for them, and I think now they’ve adjusted to it fine. But it reminded me of how I feel like my senses are, my eyes and my ears and my skin, and I just feel everything just a little more than I would even like to.
Yeah. I think that’s just a kind of a genetic thing, but I don’t know another comedian that isn’t the same and just has this hair-trigger reaction to anything that irritates them. And a lot of it is visual, I think. And I think I mentioned that in my introduction, that I think jokes come from a kind of intense visual acuity.
Tim Ferriss: You did. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jerry Seinfeld: Yeah. So I think that’s part where it comes from.
Tim Ferriss: If we imagine — well, we, meaning the lay audience, imagines comics in our minds’ eyes. You have these sort of hypersensitive catlike creatures, who might be very difficult to put into any type of group. But yet, you mentioned a lack of discord on the show, which I’m not a Hollywood wonk, but I have a little bit of mileage, and that seems to be not altogether common.
To what would you attribute that lack of discord?
Jerry Seinfeld: I don’t like discord. I don’t like it, and I am fearless in rooting it out and solving it. And if anyone’s having a problem, I’m going to walk right up to them and go, “Is there a problem? Let’s talk about this.” Because I cannot stand that kind of turmoil.
Tim Ferriss: That approach to conflict resolution is very proactive. It’s not like you’re being passive aggressive. It’s not like you’re conflict avoidant. Is that something you got from your parents? Is that something that you just came out of the womb having, that direct addressing of discord or problems?
Jerry Seinfeld: I don’t know where I got that. I feel like if you break the human struggle down to one word, it’s confront. And so, I kind of approach everything that way. Just the act of the confront is like — what do people always say? Admitting you have a problem, all that nonsense. I did read some pop psychology books.
I was very much a searcher in my younger years, yoga and Zen and a little Scientology, Transcendental Meditation, Buddhism. I read a lot of stuff, looking — I don’t know what I was looking for. I think I was looking for a working philosophy, I think, is what I was looking for, in life, to apply. And I kind of formed my own little — I don’t know if “religion” is the right word, but I definitely created my own belief or operating system.
Tim Ferriss: Operating system.
Jerry Seinfeld: I think operating system would be the best term for what I’ve created, because it’s very pragmatic. It’s not faith-based in any way. But that’s one of my biggest principles is confront.
Tim Ferriss: Are there any other examples that you could give from your operating system, any other guiding rules or principles, or anything that stuck from that seeking period?
Jerry Seinfeld: Well, my guiding rule is systemize. What’s the problem? The problem is — like my daughter. My daughter is very creative. She’s extremely bright. She’s got an incredible head on her shoulders, and I’ve seen myself in her at that age. She’s way further advanced than I was at that age, but she doesn’t know —
She has a creative gift. Okay? So I say to her, “When you have a creative gift, it’s like someone just gave you a horse.” Now, you have to learn how to ride it. You got to learn how to ride this horse. I’ve seen people that are born by the dozens and dozens, I’ve seen people that were given black stallions, and it usually — if you have a black stallion, like from that movie, and you’re born, and they just put you on it — and that’s what happens. They just put you on it. And you either learn to ride this thing, or it’s going to kill you.
And we have many, many examples of that. So she’s trying to write this thing. She’s struggling, “I can’t write. I keep putting it off.” So I explain to her my basic system, which you already talked about at the top of the show, which is, if you’re going to write, make yourself a writing session. What’s the writing session? I’m going to work on this problem. Well, how long are you going to work on it? Don’t just sit down with an open-ended, “I’m going to work on this problem.” That’s a ridiculous torture to put on a human being’s head.
It’s like you’re going to hire a trainer to get in shape, and he comes over, and you go, “How long is the session?” And he goes, “It’s open-ended.” Forget it. I’m not doing it. It’s over right there. You’ve got to control what your brain can take. Okay? So if you’re going to exercise, God bless you, and that’s the best thing in the world you can do, but you got to know when is it going to end. “When is the workout over?” “It’s going to be an hour.” “Okay.” Or “You can’t take that? Let’s do 30 minutes.” “Okay, great.” Now we’re getting somewhere. “I can do 30.”
I’m trying to teach my son, who knows how to do Transcendental Meditation, how to do it. You know? I assume you know about that.
Tim Ferriss: I do. Yeah, I practiced this morning.
Jerry Seinfeld: Okay, so — “I can’t do it 15 minutes.” “Okay, let’s do 10. Let’s do 10. Let’s come up with something you can do. That’s where you start everything. That’s how you start to build a system.” So my daughter — so I said to her, “You have to have an end-time to your writing session. If you’re going to sit down at a desk with a problem and do nothing else, you’ve got to get a reward for that. And the reward is, the alarm goes off, and you’re done. You get up and walk away and go have some cookies and milk. You’re done.”
If you have the guts and the balls to sit down and write, you need a reward at the other end of that session, which is “Stop now. Pencils down.” So that’s the beginning of a system that to me will help almost anybody learn to write, which is something I’ve kind of wanted to teach in a way, because I think it’s so simple.
I think exercise is pretty simple too, but people don’t — they don’t come up with good, simple little systems. They just try and do it, and to me, that’s — you’re going to fail.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. The simple doesn’t mean easy, and the point you made —
Jerry Seinfeld: No, no, no. Not easy —
Tim Ferriss: — is to —
Jerry Seinfeld: — but simple.
Tim Ferriss: — so important. The incentives. Right? Having a reward. Having a defined format. How long did your daughter end up choosing for her writing duration, or how long —
Jerry Seinfeld: I told her —
Tim Ferriss: — have you chosen?
Jerry Seinfeld: I told her, “Just do an hour.” That’s a lot. She says, “I’m going to write all day.” “No, you’re not. Nobody writes all day. Shakespeare can’t write all day. It’s torture.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. If you taught a class on writing, what other lessons might you have, or resources, or anything, exercises? Because I’m imagining that your daughter could sit down, she says, “All right, I have an hour.” And then you ask her how her writing session went, and she said, “Well, I didn’t have any idea what to write.” So you’d have — I don’t know what age the students would be in your course, but what else would be a component of your class on writing?
Jerry Seinfeld: Well, I would teach them to learn to accept your mediocrity. No one’s really that great. You know who’s great? The people that just put tremendous amount of hours into it. It’s a game of tonnage. You know?
Tim Ferriss: Totally.
Jerry Seinfeld: How many hours are you going to work per week, per month, per year? You might even want to chart that. Or with your exercise, if you want to get in shape. I couldn’t get in shape. I started out as a jogger in the ’70s, and I would run three miles a day. And then I got older, and I got married late, and I had young kids. And I really had to get in shape, and I picked up this book by Bill Phillips called Body for Life.
Tim Ferriss: Body for Life, yeah.
Jerry Seinfeld: And it’s really, really — it’s such a system for a primitive brain, and I do it to this day. I think it’s a work of genius, this book. And it really got me in shape, because he broke it down to, “Here’s what we’re going to do. In minute one, here’s what you’re going to do, to minute five, minute 12. And this is going to end in 45 minutes.” Or whatever it is. And every minute, I know exactly what I’m doing, and that turned the key for me. And all of a sudden, I was getting in shape, because I never had to ask, “What am I doing now?” Or, “What are we doing next?”
It’s like you’ve got to treat your brain like a dog you just got. The mind is infinite in wisdom. The brain is a stupid, little dog that is easily trained. Do not confuse the mind with the brain. The brain is so easy to master. You just have to confine it. You confine it. And it’s done through repetition and systematization.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s talk about feedback in the experimental loop that you mentioned earlier, which was desk, stage; desk, stage; desk, stage.
One form of feedback would be audience feedback, and I’m curious what other forms of feedback you have.
Jerry Seinfeld: There is no other feedback, if that means anything.
Tim Ferriss: Okay, got it.
Jerry Seinfeld: Well, okay. Here’s a little — a fine point of writing technique that I’ll pass along to you writers out there. Never talk to anyone about what you wrote that day, that day. You have to wait 24 hours to ever say anything to anyone about what you did, because you never want to take away that wonderful, happy feeling that you did that very difficult thing that you tried to do, that you accomplished it, you wrote. You sat down and down and wrote.
So if you say anything — it’s like the same reason — have you ever heard the thing like, you never tell people the name that you’re going to give the baby —
Tim Ferriss: Sure.
Jerry Seinfeld: — until it’s born? Because they’re going to react, and the reaction is going to have a color. And if you’ve decided that that’s going to be the baby’s name, you don’t want to know what anybody else thinks. I will always wait 24 hours before I say anything to anyone about what I wrote, so you want to preserve that good feeling. Because let’s say you write something and you love it. And then later on that day, you’re talking to someone, and you go, “Hey, what do you think of this idea?” Blah, blah, blah. And they don’t love it? Now that day feels like, “I guess that, that was a wasted effort.”
You always want to reward yourself. The key to writing, to being a good writer, is to treat yourself like a baby, very extremely nurturing and loving, and then switch over to Lou Gossett in Officer and a Gentleman and just be a harsh prick, a ball-busting son of a bitch, about, “That is just not good enough. That’s got to come out,” or “It’s got to be redone or thrown away.”
So flipping back and forth between those two brain quadrants is the key to writing. When you’re writing, you want to treat your brain like a toddler. It’s just all nurturing and loving and supportiveness. And then when you look at it the next day, you want to be just a hard-ass. And you switch back and forth.
Tim Ferriss: When you had come offstage and feel like you had really nailed a set, you just killed, would you ask for feedback from other comics who you might respect, who are there? Would you do something to celebrate instead and not —
Jerry Seinfeld: Well, you just got feedback. You don’t need to —
Tim Ferriss: You don’t need to ask the professionals?
Jerry Seinfeld: That’s the paradise of stand-up comedy. You don’t have to ask anyone anything. Stand-up comics receive a score on what they’re doing more often and more critically than any other human on Earth. Even a pitcher, he’s not on the mound for an hour-and-20-minutes straight, having his pitches judged by the umpire.
And, by the way, some of those calls are opinions of the umpire that may or may not be true. Every opinion the audience gives you is 100 percent accurate.
Tim Ferriss: Right. How they feel is fact.
Jerry Seinfeld: Suffer that pain or have that advantage.
Tim Ferriss: When you did well, much like after checking the box of doing an hour long writing session, would you reward yourself, or was that not part of the process for you?
Jerry Seinfeld: I reward myself constantly, I mean, but there’s no greater reward than that state of mind that you’re in when that set is working, if you can extricate yourself from yourself, which is the goal in all sports and performance arts. If you get out of your mind and are able to just function on your sense technique that you have, there is no greater reward. But if you want to have an ice cream sundae, go ahead. It’s going to pale in comparison.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Did you have a long-term plan? If we go back to the early days, did you have any type of long-term career plan for yourself, or was it really the ball in front of you and executing on that one next step, and then career emerged from that approach, or something else?
Jerry Seinfeld: Are you asking me if I had a backup plan if stand-up didn’t work out? Is that what you meant?
Tim Ferriss: No. I’m asking you if you had a long-term career plan within the world of comedy.
Jerry Seinfeld: No. I didn’t even know if you could make a living as a stand-up comedian unless you were George Carlin. So I didn’t know anything about it. And the truth was, there really wasn’t a world, an infrastructure, like exists today. We didn’t know if there was any jobs out there, even if we were able to learn how to do it. We had no idea of what we were doing. It was completely blind leap of faith, out of the plane with the parachute, hoping there wasn’t laundry in there.
Tim Ferriss: What is the feeling? I mean, you mentioned it, but I would love, as someone who is hypersensitive, for you to describe that feeling that would make an ice cream sundae superfluous. Right? That feeling of getting that feedback. What is it in the body? What is it — or in the mind? However you want to answer that. What does it feel like to you?
Jerry Seinfeld: I sometimes will describe it as math and music, which is kind of the same thing. Music is so mathematical, as is stand-up, is extremely mathematical. So I mean, I certainly don’t have to tell you what — that you’re just looking for a state of mind. You’re trying to maneuver yourself into a state of mind that you know is your highest function level. But there are many levels below that that are good enough to get the job done so that you can call yourself a professional. So that’s all there is. It’s musical, it’s very rhythmic and musical. It is for me. I’m looking to get myself in a rhythm and then to get the audience in a rhythm, very much like a conductor, I think, would feel. A conductor has a piece of music, I have a piece of music in front of me, and now I have to get the symphony to be doing it the way we know it can be.
And then the audience comes along and supports that, and it’s this absurd struggle. And I really think being a conductor or a surfer is the best analogy because the forces that you’re attempting to corral are so much greater than you. The wave has so much more strength than you have. All you can hope to do is navigate within it. And that’s the goal, to just get to that very brief, very transitory perception of mastery. It seems in this moment that I am completely mastering this audience, but it’s only a moment. It’s only a moment. I couldn’t stay up there very long. And even an hour is not a long time.
Tim Ferriss: Totally.
Jerry Seinfeld: It’s not a long time. And it takes years and years and years of work and study and practice to be able to do that, to do the hour. The hour is really the standard in my business. A lot of people can do 20. Some can do 35. There’s a lot of really good guys at 45. An hour, an hour 15, I think, again, I’ll go to my favorite, which is baseball, for analogies. It’s the complete game. Can you finish the game? And that’s the hour 10, hour 20. That’s nine innings of mastery.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. You need to have not just a lot of material, but a lot of practice and tonnage, as you put it, to perform at a high level for that period of time, and you’ve —
Jerry Seinfeld: And manage their energy and yours.
Tim Ferriss: Totally.
Jerry Seinfeld: It has to ebb and flow.
Tim Ferriss: And that’s, just to piggyback on the analogy you used, very much similar to sports. And I’ve had a lot of athletes on the show, and even some surfing legends like Laird Hamilton that’ll say you should call surfing paddling, because that’s what you’re actually doing most of the time. What you get to show at the end of the day is the cover shot surfing the big wave, but that’s really the output of a lot of tonnage.
Jerry Seinfeld: Right.
Tim Ferriss: And I know you’ve been quoted as thinking of yourself more as a sportsman than an artist. And for a lot of athletes, routine is super key to managing energy and putting in the reps and producing good results. There’s a quote from you in The New York Times, and the quote is, “I’m not OCD, but I love routine. I get less depressed with routine.” Aside from the writing sessions, are there any other routines for you that are particularly important as scaffolding or automatic behaviors?
Jerry Seinfeld: Yeah. Exercise, weight training, and Transcendental Meditation. I think I could solve just about anyone’s life, and I don’t care what you do, with weight training and Transcendental Meditation. I think your body needs that stress, that stressor. And I think it builds the resilience of the nervous system, and I think Transcendental Meditation is the absolutely ultimate work tool. I think the stress reduction is great, but it’s more the energy recovery and the concentration fatigue solution, which is of course, as a standup comic, I can tell you, my entire life is concentration fatigue. Whether it’s writing or performing, my brain and my body, which is the same thing, are constantly hitting the wall. And if you have that in your hip pocket, you’re Columbus with a compass.
Tim Ferriss: I was chatting with Hugh Jackman on the podcast, and he’s also a — devout seems like an odd word to use since it can be used quite secularly, but proponent of TM. What does your weekly schedule look like for weight training? When do you do it? And do you do TM twice a day? Or do you —
Jerry Seinfeld: I do it at least twice a day, but I will do it any time I feel like I’m dipping —
Tim Ferriss: Energetically.
Jerry Seinfeld: Yeah, yeah, yeah. If I sit down and the pen doesn’t move for like 20 minutes, I know I’m out of gas. Why isn’t the pen moving? My weight training routine is three times a week for an hour a session, but I’m into that. I’ve been into that. I mentioned the Bill Phillips Body For Life program —
Tim Ferriss: Body For Life.
Jerry Seinfeld: — the HIIT training. So it’s three times a week of weights, and three times a week, the interval cardio training. And there are a lot of days where I want to cry instead of do it because it really physically hurts. But I just think it’s very balancing to the forces inside humanity that I think are just, they overwhelm us. We are overwhelmed by our own power. And you got to put that ox in the plow, make it do this stuff that it doesn’t want to do. It just keeps it — what the hell do oxes do in the wild? I can’t imagine they were happy.
Tim Ferriss: Checking Twitter, just developing neuroses.
Jerry Seinfeld: Yeah. So put it in the harness. I mean, I don’t know. A lot of my life is — I don’t like getting depressed. I get depressed a lot. I hate the feeling, and these routines, these very difficult routines, whether it’s exercise or writing, and both of them are things where it’s brutal. That’s another thing I was explaining to my daughter. She’s frustrated that writing is so difficult, because no one told her that it’s the most difficult thing in the world. It’s the most difficult thing in the world is to write.
People tell you to write like you can do it, like you’re supposed to be able to do it. Nobody can do it. It’s impossible. The greatest people in the world can’t do it. So if you’re going to do it, you should first be told: “What you are attempting to do is incredibly difficult. One of the most difficult things there is, way harder than weight training, way harder, what you’re summoning, trying to summon within your brain and your spirit, to create something onto a blank page.” So that’s another part of my systemization technique, learn how to encourage yourself. That’s why you don’t tell someone what you wrote. And be proud of yourself, treat yourself well for having done that horrible, horribly impossible thing.
Tim Ferriss: I would have to imagine, and maybe this is just a projection, because I hope that when I have kids, which I don’t have yet, that this will be true for me, but that being kind to your creative self and offering positive reinforcement for yourself through the process would affect how you parent, I would have to imagine.
Jerry Seinfeld: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Or is that —
Jerry Seinfeld: Yes. Unfortunately, we seem to have lost the Lou Gossett side of parenting.
Tim Ferriss: Pesky Child Protective Services. What do they know?
Jerry Seinfeld: But yeah, it is similar. You want to be very encouraging, but you also want to explain, “There are laws in life that you need to know about, or it’s going to hurt.” I think one of the better lines I’ve come up with over my life is that pain is knowledge rushing in to fill a void with great speed.
Tim Ferriss: Huh. Could you say that one more time, please?
Jerry Seinfeld: Pain is knowledge rushing in to fill a void. You don’t know that that post of your bed was not where you thought it was, but when your foot hits it, that knowledge is going to come rushing in really fast, and it’s going to really hurt when your foot hits that post, because that was a piece of knowledge that you didn’t have, that you’re going to get, you’re about to get.
Tim Ferriss: You were talking about Black Stallion and learning to ride the black stallion lest you be broken yourself by your superpowers/potential murderers. I’ve struggled with depression for decades and have found some respite in the last five or six years for a whole host of reasons. But aside from the writing and weight training, is there anything else that has contributed to your ability to either stave off or mitigate depressive episodes, or manage?
Jerry Seinfeld: No. I still get them. I still get them. The best thing I ever heard about it was that it’s part of a kit that comes with a creative aspect to the brain, that a tendency to depression seems to always accompany that. And I read that 20 years ago, and that really made me happy. I realized, well, I wouldn’t have all this other good stuff without that. That just comes in the kit, that you have a tendency to depression. But I think it’s fair to say that I don’t know a human that doesn’t have the tendency. I’m sure it varies.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I have a number of friends who are in comedy, and a lot of them are afraid of getting any type of treatment or taking antidepressants because they worry that it would rob them of their comedic insight. I don’t know if that’s something you’ve run into yourself, or is it more that you accept it as a natural byproduct or companion to the sensitivity?
Jerry Seinfeld: I would agree. A chemical intervention to stabilize your mood, I would be nervous about that also. And besides which, as you know, as we all know, there are many other better remedies that — basically a pair of running shoes is probably better than any of the drugs they have on the market, depending on the severity, of course.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Or at least make sure that you’re adding those elements into your life, since I think we all know people who take antidepressants and are still depressed, so it’s worthwhile to tick off the bigger boxes, behaviorally speaking.
Jerry Seinfeld: Yeah. I don’t think depression is really a creative source. I think irritability and crankiness is, but not depression.
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Jerry Seinfeld: Depression is just an annoying thing we have to deal with.
Tim Ferriss: So you gave me a quote. I’ll ask you one more question, and then we can —
Jerry Seinfeld: We can go a little more. I’m enjoying this so much. Let’s go a little more.
Tim Ferriss: All right. Let’s do it. So, following up on depression, I’d love to ask about failure just to keep this bright and shiny. Can you think of how a particular failure or apparent failure set you up for later success? In other words, do you have a favorite failure of any type, something that seemed catastrophic at the time that in fact set you up for great things later?
Jerry Seinfeld: Yeah, yeah. I have a couple really good ones. And that’s another thing I try and teach the kids. When something horrible happens, I think, of all the things I would trade, if you could take your experiences and ask to trade them in, the last ones I would trade would be the failures. Those are the most valuable ones. But when I moved to L.A., I was only doing comedy four years, but I had built up a pretty good reputation in New York. And New York was really, in those days, still very much the minors to L.A., which was the majors. And so I went out to L.A., and people talked, that I was coming, and that I was one of the hot guys coming out of New York. And I was only doing it four years. I was 25 years old.
I mean, really still just starting. And The Comedy Store was the club in L.A. that you had to break into, that was the club, and the guys that worked there and the women were killers. I mean, these people made the room just shake with laughter. It was very intimidating to go on there. And I went on there, and I did very well. And in those days, you would call, and they would give you spots if you were good, and I would never get spots. I would get like one spot a week, and one spot a week is like one push-up a week. It’s like, forget it. Don’t even bother. And so I asked to meet with Mitzi Shore, who was the owner of the club and the person who ran the whole thing there.
And she said to me, “I’m the kind of person that needs to get stepped on, and that’s what you need. You need someone to step on you, and I’m going to be that person.” And she said, “If I had four spots available and you called in, I would give all four spots to this other guy.” She mentions this other guy. And I sat there in her office, and I nodded.
I nodded, and I said, “Well…” I won’t mention the name of the guy she said she was going to give the four spots to. I said, “Well, if maybe he can’t do all four, I’d be happy to take any of the ones he can’t do.” And I walked out of there, and I never worked at The Comedy Store again. And saying you’re not working at The Comedy Store in L.A., it’s like saying, “I want to be a baseball player, but not the majors. Not the majors of the United States. I’m going to ply my trade someplace else.” You know what I mean?
Tim Ferriss: Lithuania.
Jerry Seinfeld: Yeah. And so from there, I went from — I hope it doesn’t sound immodest — from being absolutely at the top of the heap in New York City to playing at discos in the basement in L.A., to like eight people. But my resentment and hostility to her, I would say I was a three day a week guy in terms of my writing discipline in those days. And I went from three days a week to seven right there. And I was like, “Okay, this is…” I was angry. I was angry. I was frustrated. I was resentful. But I used that. It was just fuel for me. She wasn’t stopping me. Nobody was going to stop me. But when someone is that hostile to you, that can be a very good thing if you’re tough, if you’re tough enough to eat that shit and say, “She’s not stopping me.”
Tim Ferriss: That’s a great story. It makes me think of one of my friends, Alexis Ohanian, co-founded Reddit. And at one point early on, they were super excited about — of course, their company, their baby, they’d put all of their waking hours into it. And they met with some Yahoo executive who was basically just fishing for inside information. And at some point in the meeting, this exec said, “Oh, there’s your traffic? Oh, that’s a rounding error for us.” And so Alexis —
Jerry Seinfeld: Oh, God.
Tim Ferriss: — and his guys took a huge — they made a poster that said, “You are a rounding error,” and put it on the wall in their office. It worked.
Jerry Seinfeld: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: It worked. So what then transpired after you went from three days a week to seven days a week? When did you get a glimmer of hope and/or vindication after just doubling down?
Jerry Seinfeld: The Tonight Show saw me, and every comedian in the world wanted to get on The Tonight Show in the ’70s and ’80s. It was the only way out of the clubs, to real gigs, was to be on The Tonight Show. The clubs was, you’re working for free. Free. Zero. That’s not really the object. The object is to get paid. The object is to be a professional. So when you’re on The Tonight Show, you’re going from the service road to lane one in five minutes.
Tim Ferriss: No more Applebee’s. Yeah, yeah.
Jerry Seinfeld: In five minutes. And I told that story in the book, too, what that felt like. My favorite sporting thing — I mean, I’m a baseball maniac, but the hundred meters in the Olympics is this thing I love. I love the hundred meters. And that’s what happened when you did The Tonight Show in those days. When I see Lindsey Vonn at the top of a mountain, or I see those guys kicking their legs when they’re in the blocks, I know what that feels like. I know. And I’m very grateful that I know that, because if you’re an adrenaline junkie, which I am, there’s no good comedian that isn’t, that’s a big treat in life to know how that feels, that I’m going to change my whole life in the next three minutes.
Tim Ferriss: How many times did you rehearse that three minute segment of material? I mean, I would imagine you must have done it a thousand times before you —
Jerry Seinfeld: A thousand times, a thousand times.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Did you ever have another conversation with Mitzi Shore, or did you ever convey any message to her or have any communication?
Jerry Seinfeld: I did. I did. When I got my TV series in the ’90s, I moved up to this fantastic house in the Hollywood Hills that overlooked all of L.A. And every day I would drive down the hill to go to the studio to work on the show, I would see Mitzi taking her walk on a nearby street that we happened to have in common. And I would always give her a nice look. I wouldn’t wave or honk, but our eyes met many times.
Tim Ferriss: Newman! Newman!
Jerry Seinfeld: Many times. And you know what? Maybe she was right. Maybe she was right. Maybe I did need someone to step on me.
Tim Ferriss: Why did she respond that way? That just seems so aggressive. Did you —
Jerry Seinfeld: Because I would never be the type of broken-winged bird that she wanted to have in her little chicken coop of dysfunction that was The Comedy Store in those days. I was not built like that. The whole reason I wanted to be a stand-up comic is because I wanted to say to myself and to the world, “I don’t need you. I can do this myself.” And The Comedy Store was filled with people that needed her, and she’s going to — the comedy world in those days was a druggie — it’s a very dysfunctional world, the comedy world, because you’re taking these people that can’t fit in, they have this one skill, and then you put them in a situation where they can get anything they want. So whatever dysfunctional chemical, sexual, you’re lazy, you’re broken, you’re messed up, now you have no structure around you to fix it. You know what I mean? You’re out in the world. You’re completely on your own. It’s designed to break human beings, stand-up comedy. It’s a perfect way to break a person psychologically.
Tim Ferriss: I’ve only been to The Comedy Store once. I was brought there by a friend. And I went into one of the back rooms, I’m sure you would know the name of this room. But they listed off a whole lot of old names. I want to say Sam Kinison and a bunch of others. And they said, “This was the green room,” blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And there was this huge table with a mirror top with thousands of scratches on it, and not from fingernails, right? You just think, “My God. if you don’t have rails to stay on, I mean, pun intended, I guess, the environment is just designed to destroy.”
Jerry Seinfeld: Yes. That’s part of the fun, also —
Tim Ferriss: The moguls, yeah.
Jerry Seinfeld: It’s like you’re a fish in the Hudson. It’s a toxic environment. The attrition is brutal. You never have to say, “I don’t get why people like this comedian.” Don’t worry. Don’t worry. You don’t have to comment on it. The environment itself will correct — it is a self-correcting ecosystem of pure toxic water.
Tim Ferriss: The self-sufficiency or desire for self-sufficiency that you gave voice to, the proving to others that you can do it on your own, seems to be a very sharp contrast to a lot of entertainers I know, including comics who seem to have a lot of codependency, right? They need the audience to validate like they need life support if they had respiratory collapse. Was that perspective and that, I suppose, just character or constitution rare, meaning your particular ability to —
Jerry Seinfeld: I have to say that the constitution is kind of rare. But I also have to say I don’t know anyone who made it over a long period of time that didn’t have it.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Jerry Seinfeld: And that’s another thing that kind of leads me to the weight-training aspect. I think it builds your constitution.
Tim Ferriss: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. Yeah, the weight-training — I just want to give credit where credit is due, with Bill Phillips — I read that book a long time ago. This was before my second book, which was on physical performance. And I was really impressed because it is to me, first and foremost, a book about behavioral modification and behavioral psychology and it really nails those elements really, really well. And if I think back across the hundreds of interviews on this podcast, whether it’s Bob Iger and the world of business and heading Disney, or an athlete, or otherwise, if you look at the people who have really performed at a high level for decades, weight-training seems to be one of the constants or one of the near constants.
Jerry Seinfeld: Yeah, because you’re deteriorating. You’re just trying to bend that curve a little bit. I’m 66. I shouldn’t be performing at this level at 66. I should be over. So you have to cheat the biology.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. 66. I suppose I could have tried to do the math. I never would have guessed. Do you just wake up some days and find that number to be unbelievable to you? Or is it a foregone conclusion, I guess, because you’re in your own body and go year by year?
Jerry Seinfeld: I find it funny and I find it really makes the game fun because I know this should not be happening. I am getting away with murder. That’s another thing I believe in. We’ve talked about systemizing. Gamifying is another thing I’m very big on. Let’s make this into a game. Whatever the problem is, let’s make it a game. So, to me, it’s a fun game. I wouldn’t say this around my family, but I don’t care if I drop dead tomorrow. I still feel like I played the game well, you know?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Jerry Seinfeld: That’s all I want to feel. I just want to feel like I played the game well.
Tim Ferriss: What would be an example of gamifying? I mean, I’ve read of course about Seinfeld‘s productivity secret, marking the crosses on the calendar, which I guess some people —
Jerry Seinfeld: That’s not really a game. That’s more of a stat — I think stats are good if you want to improve anything. My trainer, Adam Wright, and I always like to play this game, well, this was the maximum amount of weight you did three months ago for this many seconds or whatever, and then it’s like — so it’s a game now. Let’s see if I can keep the reps going for 30 seconds. Last time was 25. So it’s a little game. Again, this goes back to the human brain is a schnauzer. It’s just a stupid little contraption that you can easily trick. As soon as you tell me I did it 25 seconds last time, okay, let’s see if I can do 30.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Jerry Seinfeld: That’s not wisdom. That’s not intelligence. It’s a stupid little machine. It’s going to do that every single time. Every time you tell someone your last best was 25 seconds, you’re going to try for 30.
Tim Ferriss: Well, thinking back to what ox do when they’re not in a yoke and how disquieted they would be if they were checking Twitter all day —
Jerry Seinfeld: Yeah, oxen in the wild.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. In the world of dog training, I know a couple of really high level dog trainers, and one of the expressions you hear, it’s kind of this mantra like you would find in the military or something, which is a tired dog is a happy dog, and just ensuring that your dog is properly exerted, right?
Jerry Seinfeld: Uh-huh (affirmative). Yes.
Tim Ferriss: I think there’s a lot to that as a human also.
Jerry Seinfeld: Yeah, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So if you’re looking at gamification in the, let’s just say the fitness realm, are there other ways that you’ve applied that to your creative or professional work? I guess you have these logs, so in a way, I mean, you have.
Jerry Seinfeld: Yeah, but I don’t score myself creatively. I don’t believe in that. This kind of gets into my thoughts on material. I don’t know if this will illuminate this for you, but one time I was — I love to go on stage at Gotham, and hearing about the vaccine today got me very excited that maybe I’ll be going back there soon on 23rd Street in the city. That’s where I like to play with material. So I’ll go there and I’ll go on stage, I’ll do 20 or 30 minutes just working on material. And then I like to take questions from the audience. And when I perform for gigs, the audiences are too big to really take questions. It’s too difficult. But in a room of a couple hundred people, you can take questions.
So one night this guy says to me, he says, “When you go back to the same city twice, do you ever worry that they’re going to see the same show you did last time, or how do you know what you did? How do you know when it’s time to take a piece of material out of your act that you’ve been doing it too long and it needs to be retired and you should do something else?” Kind of reasonable questions from a regular person. And I said, “So these pieces I was doing tonight,” I said, “do you think that you could think of things similar to this?” And the guy says, “Oh, God, no, not in a million years.” And I went, “Yeah, that’s what I was thinking.”
So the point of that story is if I’m going onstage and I’m doing these bits, however long it took me to figure this stupid bit out and however many years I’ve been doing it, which I don’t even know, just be glad I’m doing that. It’s a good thing. It’s a good thing. This goes to my nurturing side of the equation. If you’re getting onstage and standing in front of a group of strangers and trying to make them laugh, God bless you. I don’t give a shit what you do. I don’t care if it’s old stuff, new stuff. I don’t care if you’re dirty, if you’re clean. If you’re going to stand up there by yourself and try and make me laugh, I love you, and I’m not going to criticize anything you do beyond that. I’m not going to criticize it. And you shouldn’t criticize yourself either. So in other words, to go back to do I gamify it? No. It’s always a win. If I got up there and tried to do it, I win, even if I didn’t reach what I’m trying to reach. Even if to me it’s a four out of 10 show, I still pat myself on the back for it.
Tim Ferriss: It’s still a win.
Jerry Seinfeld: It’s still a win.
Tim Ferriss: When you hear the word “successful,” who comes to mind for you and why? Could be parents, but could be outside of parents. Could be anybody, but for you, when you hear that word, is there anyone who is really a sort of paragon of what you would consider success or someone you have looked up to as someone who is successful?
Jerry Seinfeld: Well, that’s a pretty broad term.
Tim Ferriss: Hyper-broad. It comes down to kind of how you define it. also.
Jerry Seinfeld: Yeah. I don’t know if I mean it as a joke, but I say a lot these days, survival is the new success. And I’m a big — look, Tim, what do you want me to tell you? In my business, if you’re 60+, or even if you’re 55 and you’re getting paid to work, paid well, you have crushed it. So stand-up comedy, I would move this piece of our conversation next to the toxic ecosystem of this world, when you have seen the attrition that I have seen, it’s like In the Heart of the Sea. You know that book? Ron Howard made the movie. When they’re dropping like flies and the handful, that small handful —
Somebody asked me the other day, “How many people whose careers were made on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson are still working?” I didn’t want to answer the question. Longevity is what I — because you had it. You know what I mean? You had it. You had it. So once you have it, you can only lose it. You can only fail to take care of it. And that’s when we get to health and work ethic and managing yourself so that you don’t break. Because they’re trying to break you. I always tease my friend, Jimmy Fallon, that this is like a sick experiment, these talk show gigs. Let’s take a human being, put them in a studio for decades, doing an hour of television a day, and let’s see what breaks. It’s sick. It’s a sick human experiment. It’s like a Pope job. It’s like they just do it till you’re dead.
Tim Ferriss: The forever Skinner box.
Jerry Seinfeld: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, God. Yeah, that’s brutal. Brutal.
Jerry Seinfeld: There’s a fantastic book about stand-up that I read during the virus called Seriously Funny, and the guy writes only about comedians of the ’50s and ’60s. And the introduction of that book, which is like 20 pages long, and he goes through Woody and Lenny and Joan Rivers and all these great people, and how it broke one after the other. One after the other was broken by it. They’re either worn out or their brains cracked or their psychology cracked. It just took them apart. It’s a very, very difficult profession to sustain in. So just to survive, to me, is the game. That’s my concept of success. Did you beat them at their game? They designed this thing to kill you.
The travel. Do you realize what it takes to travel, to go to the airport in your 50s and your 60s, to fly on planes, to go to strange cities, to go to hotels, to put on a suit, to go out on stage at eight o’clock at night and run around and yell and project your physical energy for an hour in front of thousands of people? They’re trying to kill you. So I have made it into a game. It’s like Mitzi. I’m going to step on you, and I went, “No, no. I’m going to step on you.” That’s the game we’re playing. That’s life. Life is they’re trying to kill you. You get this free ride till you’re, let’s be generous, 43, and then God goes, “You know what? I’m going to move on to the people in their — 16 to 23 and I’m going to give them my best. If you want to hang around, you can hang around, but I’m not giving you anything anymore. It’s on you now. If you want to stick around, go ahead, but I got nothing for you. You figure it out.”
Tim Ferriss: So this caught my attention because I’m exactly 43, so perfect.
Jerry Seinfeld: We got to end on that. That was great.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Jerry Seinfeld: God is happy to — “I’m not going to ask you to leave, but I got nothing for you. I’m going to start giving these 15-year-old girls amazing stuff. And the boys, I’m going to give them crazy — that’s my focus. My focus is 15-year-olds, turning them into superhumans. You? Done with you.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I’m the eight-foot sturgeon in the Hudson, barely limping along.
Jerry Seinfeld: Yeah. No one’s going to ask you to leave, but we’re not giving you anything. No food. No help. There is no help.
Tim Ferriss: So survival is the new success. If you have time for one or two questions, then I can bring this to a close. I need to go do some interval training, eat some lentils. This is a question that sometimes hits a dead-end, and I’ll take the blame for that if it does. You’ve already given a bunch of possible answers to this, but if you had a billboard, metaphorically speaking, that could get a message, a quote, an image, question, anything out to billions of people, what might you put on that billboard?
Jerry Seinfeld: Back in the ’80s, I had a friend who was teaching a comedy course at The Improv on Melrose in L.A., and he asked me if I would come in and talk to the class. I said sure. And I went in and there was, I don’t know, maybe 20 people in the class. It was in the afternoon. And I went up on stage and I said, “The fact that you have even signed up for this class is a very bad sign for what you’re trying to do. The fact that you think anyone can help you or there’s anything that you need to learn, you have gone off on a bad track because nobody knows anything about any of this. And if you want to do it, what I really should do is I should have a giant flag behind me that I would pull a string and it would roll down, and on the flag would just say two words: just work.”
Tim Ferriss: Just work.
Jerry Seinfeld: Just work.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I love it. Well, that is, I think, an excellent place to wrap up. Jerry, people can find you on all the socials, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook @JerrySeinfeld. The new book, Is This Anything?, Which features your best work across five decades, that’s nuts, in comedy and it’s a fascinating book and a hell of a ride. I highly recommend people check it out. For anyone who is a student of creative process, it doesn’t have to be comedy, but craft, whatever that craft happens to be, I think you are a real exemplar of just doing the work, but doing it in also a systematic way, which is a particular species of working that I think makes a beautiful case study. This has been so much fun for me. I really appreciate you taking the time, Jerry.
Jerry Seinfeld: Thanks. I love talking with you, Tim, and your podcast is the best.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, thanks so much. It really makes my day to have the chance to have a conversation with you. I’ve had the bass riff from Seinfeld go through my head all day in prep for this, and it’s a real gift that you’re showcasing and sharing your notes with the world over such a period of time. I mean, it is I think something that will really provide, like you said, just work, but nonetheless will provide so much help to and inspiration to people who are just setting out, unlike the 43-year-old, eight-foot sturgeons, those 15-year-olds, 15- to 20-year-olds. I will let you get back to your day, but this has been great. And please do let me know if I can help in any way or with anything else.
Jerry Seinfeld: Oh, it’s been a great pleasure, Tim. Great pleasure. And thank you for the kind words. It’s much appreciated.
Tim Ferriss: Absolutely. And to everybody listening, we’ll have links to everything, including Is This Anything? in the show notes as per usual at tim.blog/podcast. And until next time, thanks for tuning in.
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.