For almost five decades, Jerry Seinfeld has been saving his jokes, writing them down on a yellow legal pad.
Now, the 66-year-old stand-up comedian and Seinfeld legend is releasing the jokes — which he calls a “map of the forty-five-year long road” — in his new book, Is This Anything?
Below is an excerpt of the book — Seinfeld’s first in 25 years.
“Is this anything?” is what every comedian says to every other
comedian about any new bit.
Ideas that come from nowhere and mean nothing.
But in the world of stand-up comedy, literal bars of gold.
You see that same comedian later and you will be asked,
“Did it get anything?”
All comedians are slightly amazed when anything works.
Picture me in the mid-1960’s, living room floor, legs crossed,
one foot from our twenty-five-inch Zenith measured diagonally,
jeans, horizontal-stripe T-shirt,
white, low-top US Keds, staring at a comedian in a dark suit
and tie on
The Ed Sullivan Show.
I could say something funny once in a while but everything out
of this guy’s mouth is hilarious.
“How are they able to talk like that?”
I was so mystified and fascinated by them.
But I never, ever imagined I could be one of them.
They were like astronauts or Olympic athletes to me.
Some different, other breed of humans.
Not even really part of the world.
I grew up on Long Island and remember, sometime in the early
seventies, hearing my friend Chris Misiano’s older brother,
Vince, say that there was a place in New York City where
young people were getting onstage and doing a new kind of
That there was a guy who would tell a story while playing a
conga drum, and then he started crying and playing the drum
in rhythm to the crying!
That sounded so crazy and hilarious to us.
We thought, “We have to see this guy!”
So we started going into the city, which was incredibly fun and
exciting anyway, to see these new comedians at the Improv
and Catch A Rising Star.
That comedian, of course, was Andy Kaufman.
And there were lots of other amazing comedians there too.
Like Ed Bluestone, Elayne Boosler, Richard Lewis, Bob Shaw,
and Bobby Kelton.
We even saw big stars performing at these places, like Rodney
Dangerfield and David Brenner.
Hearing live laughs burst out of these crowds in these packed
little rooms was almost a scary sound.
How did the comedians know that what they said would get
such huge laughs from a crowd of total strangers?
I could not figure it out.
Then in 1974, two things happened that tripped my head out
of whatever thick, suburban haze I was in and off into a whole
different realm of life.
I read a book called The Last Laugh and saw a movie called
The Last Laugh by Phil Berger was the first book completely
about the world of stand-up comedy.
Lenny was a Dustin Hoffman movie about the life of Lenny
The poster for Lenny showed him in a smoky nightclub
hunched over a microphone.
There’s a scene in the movie where Lenny Bruce is having
dinner late at night in a cafeteria after a show that did not go
Tie undone, still in his suit, he pushes his tray along and meets
a stripper, Hot Honey Harlowe.
I think that was the scene that did it.
The absolute lack of glamour and/or normalcy drove me wild.
What a completely offbeat, nonsensical existence.
Comedians seemed to hurtle through space and time
untethered to anything but the sound of a laugh.
“I want to do this.
What if I can’t?
What if I’m not funny?”
I remember thinking,
“Well, but I wouldn’t have to be that funny anyway.
I would just have to be funny enough to buy a loaf of Wonder
bread and a jar of Skippy peanut butter a week.”
I could easily survive on that.
It was all I ate in my parents’ house, anyway.
And even if that’s all I had, it would be a better life than any
other I could envision.
I was more than happy to accept being a not-that-funny
comedian over any other conceivable option.
Without realizing it, of course, this attitude is the exact right
way to start out in the world of comedy.
Expect nothing. Accept anything.
I had only ever tried to make my friends laugh.
That wasn’t that easy.
How in the world do you make people that don’t even know
In The Last Laugh I read about a joke Jimmie Walker did at
Catch A Rising Star one night.
How great is that name for a nightclub of new comedians, by
Still the best name I’ve ever heard.
And still the coolest club I ever walked into.
I love that it’s the very first place I ever stepped on a stage to
try and do comedy.
Anyway, Jimmie Walker’s joke was that it was raining so hard in
New York that night he “just saw Superman getting into a cab.”
I thought that joke was so incredibly funny.
But how do you think of something like that?
It just seemed like a miracle to me.
I still don’t know exactly for sure where jokes come from.
I think it’s from some emotional cocktail of boredom,
aggression, intense visual acuity and a kind of Silly Putty of the
mind that enables you to re-form what you see into what you
want it to be.
I was a very, very nervous performer when I first began going
But I was encouraged by my Queens College friends Jesse
Michnik, Joe Bacino and Mike Castanza.
I am still grateful to those guys.
I was not a naturally outgoing person or really even attention
seeking in my normal personality.
My favorite thing was to whisper something funny in class to
the kid next to me and crack him up so he got in trouble.
I tried being in a couple plays in high school and college but
unless the part was all comedy I couldn’t stay interested in the
I was also reprimanded several times for trying to make a part
funny that wasn’t supposed to be.
Loved doing that.
Even in the early years of Seinfeld I had difficulty focusing on
the story aspects of the show.
I would only perk up when Larry and I got to writing the
dialogue and we needed funny lines for the characters to say.
I got better at story structure as the years went on but still find
that kind of work a bit dreary.
But at twenty years old, when I walked into the Manhattan
comedy clubs for the first time, every neuron in my little brain
just lit up.
I felt like I had finally found my home on planet Earth.
And it wasn’t just that I could now immerse myself in the art of
comedy, it was also the world of comedians I was suddenly in.
I have many great friends who are actors, writers and artists of
But when I’m in the company of other stand-up comedians I
feel like I’m rolling around in a litter of puppies.
To this day, I feel that same excitement when I walk into a
And I have to say, part of it is also this feeling that wherever
comedians are working, it is a place of battle.
I am totally in love with the very clear winning-and-losing
outcome that a stand-up set can have.
It’s more sports than theater, really.
This might work tonight.
And it might not.
The real problem of stand-up, of course, is that you must
constantly justify why you are the only one talking while a
room full of people sit quietly.
And in the beginning, to just put yourself into what is—let’s
face it—that fairly untenable position, you have to love it badly,
madly, maybe even sadly.
Getting live laughs is a druggy kind of lifestyle.
Adrenaline, dopamine, oxytocin.
The drugstore of the brain does not ask if you have a
It’s like those yogurt places where they let you pull the handle
Oxytocin is sometimes known as “the love drug” because
the brain releases it when it receives positive social and/or
And let me tell you, when you’re on a stage all by yourself
under a hot light,
with a hot mic,
and those laughs are crashing down around you,
it’s a strong, pure hit of whatever you like.
When I was young, I was obsessed with race-car driving,
big-wave surfing, skydiving
and really fast motorcycles.
One year into doing stand-up comedy I lost interest in all of it.
I learned very quickly that stand up comedy survival has a lot
to do with how much and how good your material is.
I never met a stand-up who wasn’t funny at all.
But for the most part, it was the people who killed themselves
to keep coming up with great new material who were able to
keep rising through the many levels.
And whenever I came up with a funny bit, whether it happened
on a stage, in a conversation or working it out on my preferred
canvas, the big yellow legal pad, I kept it in one of those
old-school accordion folders.
So, I have everything I thought was worth saving from
forty-five years of hacking away at this for all I was worth.
And I know for sure it was because I loved doing it so much
that I was able to spend endless amounts of time on some of
the silliest ideas you can imagine.
And they’re all here.
Looking back, I like that I was successful.
I’m happy I made money at it.
But honestly, I swear I have really been in it for the laughs since
day one, day two and every other day, including today.
I still go out to the clubs every week.
Still love working on the bits.
And appreciate every set I get to do.
And I still get excited meeting and talking to the other
stand-up comedians that live for this peculiar, precarious
It was my agent Christian Carino that convinced me people
would like to see all this stuff and that we should put it out as a
A lot of people I’ve talked to seemed surprised that I’ve kept all
I don’t understand why they think that.
I don’t understand why I’ve kept anything else.
What could possibly be of more value?
In the sixties and seventies they would say on TV about certain
“And he writes all his own stuff.”
Because that was a new thing.
Comedians like Bob Hope and Jack Benny would actually joke
about their writers as part of their act.
Stand-up comedy in the sixties made the same turn that music
did with singer-songwriters becoming the way it was done.
I’ve never done anything else.
There is something exciting, I think, about being in the same
room with the person who originally thought all the ideas
One of my favorite stories about stand-up comics is from my
friend Barry Marder.
Barry is a writer, comedian and creator of the Ted L. Nancy
In the eighties Barry was making a living selling jokes to
comedians at the Comedy Store in LA.
The going rate was $75 a joke.
When Barry’s father, a home improvement salesman, heard
this, he couldn’t believe it.
“Why would they pay that much for a joke?” he asked.
Barry told him,
“Because the guys that need them, really need them.”
And we do.
I can personally guarantee you that every comedian you’ve
ever seen feels inside that they don’t have as much good
material as they really wish they had.
The biggest comedians you can name still go onstage with a
little worry in the back of their head, that whatever they have
might not be good enough tonight.
We always want more.
I deeply love the endless, somewhat torturous struggle of
never quite feeling that you’ve got your act where you want it.
Because I don’t want it to ever end.
And when a new bit breaks through and gets a real laugh,
that’s when you feel like you’re at the beginning of the journey
all over again.
You feel like you’re just starting out.
And maybe you do have what it takes.
I love hearing a laugh that’s never existed in the world before.
Because every laugh is slightly different. Unique even.
So these pages are the map of the forty-five-year long road
I’ve been on to become this odd, unusual thing that is the only
thing I ever really wanted to be.
And I wish I could recommend it to you as an experience you
But it’s like recommending that someone become an iguana.
If you don’t have those crazy eyes, leathery skin and the long
tongue, it’s tough to get there.
But I hope you enjoy taking the ride that has been my life with
me through these pages.
I’m a little frustrated that if you do laugh at something in here I
won’t get to hear it.
And that’s why I’ll probably be out at a club in front of an
audience somewhere tonight.
“Because the guys that need them, really need them.”
Excerpted from Is This Anything? by Jerry Seinfeld. Copyright © 2020 by Jerry Seinfeld. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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