I would have had to have been actively on fire to not take the opportunity to talk with Jerry Seinfeld about his new Netflix special, 23 Hours To Kill (which is streaming now) on a Zoom conference call when it was presented to me. When I was 15, I threw a sad solitary comedy nerd party for the series finale of Seinfeld, thumbing through a copy of some purported “complete” guide to the show during commercials while hoping the end would never come. I also devoured/memorized I’m Telling You For The Last Time, his 1998 HBO special and album/swan song for many of his classic bits. And then I waited (for a while) for whatever was going to come next, delighting in twice nightly reruns of Seinfeld (that doubled and tripled my experience of watching every episode) and blips like the Comedian documentary and Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee. But, perhaps more exciting than the opportunity to talk comedy with Seinfeld was the chance to experience Jerry Seinfeld on a Zoom call.
So many questions rush into your mind when you think about the dynamics of that, powered by the perception of his tastes and temperament. Would he be in a very expensive suit or is he secretly an athleisure guy when at home? What does his Zoom bunker look like? Was it an airplane hangar with 74 vintage Porsches? What if he used the Seinfeld living room virtual background? And what about… the stuff? That’s the medicine cabinet snoop for our time — knick-knacks, shelving, and the internal judgment of those things. And, indeed, I did spend too much time staring at the wall unit behind Seinfeld while waiting for my turn as other writers on the call asked him questions.
Here’s what I learned: Jerry Seinfeld appears to have a mammoth vinyl collection. Like, a literal wall of sound. I could only make out two albums that were fronted out for display: Lenny Bruce — Carnegie Hall and The Incomplete Works Of Carl Reiner And Mel Brooks. Given more time and more questions, I might have asked about the import of those specific albums to Seinfeld. Absent that, my takeaway is that they reinforce the idea that he prefers things with a history to them. His near entire post-Seinfeld on-screen career is built on that, blending bafflingly beautiful vintage cars with simple pleasures like a long chat with friends over coffee and shared reverence for the craft and history of comedy in the aforementioned Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee. Is he a classicist or is he just uninterested by shiny new things?
In the new special, Seinfeld offers some guidance, but there are holes: “I don’t want to grow, I don’t want to change, I don’t want to improve at anything, expand my interests, meet anyone new, or learn anything I don’t already know,” he says. That sounds utterly curmudgeonly, but here he is virtually in front of me, sitting on a Zoom call, adapting. The special offers additional proof that things aren’t so clear cut. Because the act of releasing something new and trying to make an audience laugh breaks the mirage of gentle misanthropy and qualifies as a strive toward getting better at something. Oh sure, Seinfeld demures over modern conveniences and social quick keys, but he’s also subtly delivering a message that, intentionally or not, cuts through the idea of a bold red generational dividing line. Quite beautifully, while there are certain places where youngs and olds can’t meet in the middle, by and large, we should all realize that we’re unified in our exasperation for so much of life’s petty annoyances, inconveniences, and obligations.
While Seinfeld isn’t directly plugged in to pop culture ephemera, he’s still aware of it. I ask him if he knows that he played a small role in the most recent episode of The Last Dance docuseries and he says that he does, but only because his 14-year-old just told him. In the episode, Seinfeld gets to hang out in the locker room with the great Michael Jordan during his farewell tour (briefly). He also draws light parallels between himself and Jordan when interviewed at that time; a moment when both were allegedly walking away from highly lucrative and celebrated careers. If you’ve seen the series (or his somewhat salty Hall Of Fame speech or read Wright Thompson’s brilliant ESPN profile of him from 2011), you know that Jordan is and always has been somewhat consumed by his competitive nature. His heart, mind, and soul still operate as if they are actively a part of the best basketball player alive, but his body can’t hold up its end of the bargain.
Comedians don’t necessarily fade because their bodies fail them, but it is easy to get cut off by a culture that is designed to drift away from us all, eventually. To not have that happen and to continue making people laugh at a high level, the solution is as simple as it is difficult — you’ve got to paddle harder. And so Seinfeld does, even while being outwardly unimpressed by aspects of the technoculture.
“I’m intensely competitive, but not with other people. I feel like I’m competing against the natural forces of the universe, which is to be lazy, to not work, to coast and not do things that make you nervous,” he tells me before recalling a lesson learned from his father, Kal, who was a sign maker and small business owner on Long Island. “I think inertia is the key physical aspect of human experience… To always be thinking about inertia. My father always used to quote the first law of relativity, Newton’s first law: ‘a body at rest tends to remain at rest.’ But when he said a body, he meant the human body. So yes, I do compete very hard against myself to like, okay, this is how much work you did last week. I want to see more this week. That’s the game I like to play and I’ve gotten more intense about it actually at this stage of my life. Because I feel the end of time more clearly.”
The end of time and, of course, normality, feels like a more clear concern to a lot of us in this frightening and weird moment. Seinfeld sees it and the effect of it, mentioning the work his wife, Jessica, is doing through Good+ to help people already impacted by poverty. And he surely knows comedians that are worried about their future as road warriors. It’s natural to wonder how COVID will continue to influence comedy, specifically, what makes people laugh and if they even want to. This special is, in fact, a bit of a test case, with myriad jokes born from observations about pre-COVID living.
When I ask Seinfeld directly about whether people will want to laugh about the mad experience of quarantines and social distancing when this is all over or whether they’ll want to snap back to laughing about the mundane and terribly missed minutiae of life upon which he has built a career, he doesn’t offer a straight answer. I think, because he doesn’t have one. He’s discussed it with friends, relaying a thought from Colin Quinn about how he thinks “people are going to be sick of it by the time we get into those venues and [they’re] not going to want to hear about it.” But then he adds his own, very simple, and not unexpected addendum. “A great joke is a great joke. If you have a great joke about the virus…”
And then Seinfeld does what he has always done: he sees a topic, he absorbs it, and he spits out a joke like some kind of machine.
“What I’ve been saying about it is I think if I was another virus, I would be intensely jealous of this virus coming up with this two weeks of no symptoms idea. Like the most brilliant bit ever that a virus has thought of. That we can spread without them knowing that we’re in there. And so, yeah, I think, you know, the virus has got some very clever stuff.”
It’s funny, I laugh, and then afterward I realize that, when all is said and done, whether people want to laugh at this moment or something completely unrelated, Jerry Seinfeld will likely fill his time trying to find the right joke.
’23 Hours To Kill’ is available to stream on Netflix now.