News Column

Comedy is Serious Business for Jerry Seinfeld

February 10, 2011

Kirk Baird


By all rights, Jerry Seinfeld should be enjoying retirement. As a stand-up-turned household name, Seinfeld made millions laugh in the '90s with his eponymous NBC sitcom, and made millions more in profit from the show. His earnings from Seinfeld's syndicated rights and DVD sales alone should keep him financially healthy for the rest of his life, times 10.

A July, 2009 Forbes article about wealthy comics estimated that Seinfeld earned $85 million between June, 2008 and 2009 -- the bulk of it through syndication -- making him the highest-earning stand-up in that period. No. 2, incidentally, was Chris Rock with less than half that amount, $42 million.

The man doesn't need to work. Ever.

Still, Seinfeld is in Toledo again, nearly three years since his previous appearance, for a sold-out performance at 7 Friday night at the Stranhan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd. At 56, he's hardly too old to hang up the mic for good. The point is, he doesn't need to do this. He doesn't need to be a working comic anymore.

Or does he?

In Comedian, the candid 2002 documentary about his return to stand-up comedy from basement-floor clubs to theater headliner, the comic opened up about his decision to go back onstage: "I'm scared I'm not going to be able to do it anymore if I don't keep doing it."

From such casual neuroses he makes the decision to start fresh as a comic and retire all his classic stand-up material, the "did you ever notice ..." quick-witted observations that made him a regular on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and Late Night with David Letterman in the 1980s. Starting from scratch is something few big-name comedians are willing to do, apparently.

"I could never do what you do, give it away," Jay Leno tells him backstage after a quick performance of new material. "You're a comic. Your act feeds you. It pays the rent."

It's a tough go in the beginning as Seinfeld pops into New York City comedy clubs unannounced to work out five, 10, then 20 minutes of new material for surprised audiences. His jokes are written on cards and sheets of paper, which he uses as crib notes throughout the set like a young would-be comic at amateur night. In one uncomfortable moment onstage, he freezes during his act and retreats to his notes for help.

After several painful seconds of not finding or remembering the joke, he gives up.

"Is this your first gig?" an anonymous woman with a British accent calls out to him onstage.

"Yeah, yes it is," he replies. "Well, you know ... doing all this stuff I have never said before to anyone. It's just thoughts. This is how comedians develop material. And as you can see, it's quite painful."

Being a stand-up can be painful -- brutal to comics' fragile egos and psyches -- especially when your name is synonymous with comedy. "You get a little bit of a break up front and then you still gotta be funny," friend and fellow stand-up Colin Quinn tells Seinfeld over dinner. "That's the beauty of stand-up comedy. It's the closest to justice."

Being a comic is anything but a joke. It's a job Seinfeld takes seriously, almost neurotically.

"I have this image in my mind of what a comedian is supposed to be, that I'm always trying to live up to them I always fall short of," he confesses to the camera. "I'm the show for the night. I have to make the evening work for those people."

Source: Copyright (c) 2011, The Blade, Toledo, Ohio

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