Did you ever hear the one about the New Yorker who, even in the best of times, was famous for focusing on life’s little annoyances? A global pandemic hit and – here’s the punchline – he turned into a pillar of optimism. So it goes for that titan of comedy, Jerry Seinfeld. Now 66, Seinfeld has halted his sold-out, stand-up tour due to Covid. His latest successful show – Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee – is also on hiatus. Like many of us, he’s been sheltering at home with family. But that hasn’t stopped him from doing what he’s always done: helping himself to life’s absurdities and meticulously spinning them into comedic gold. The observational comic, almost by definition, sees the world differently. We spent a day in September with Seinfeld and found out how he sees things in the year 2020.
Greeting Jerry Seinfeld can be uncomfortable under normal circumstances, then you factor in COVID.
Jerry Seinfeld: No more handshakes, no more hugs.
Jon Wertheim: You’re not into the elbows?
Jerry Seinfeld: Nah. It’s– it’s a poor substitute.
Jon Wertheim: Are you seeing comedy in this mess?
Jerry Seinfeld: I did write some things down. Oh, the thing about– that the first thing they told you– remember, they don’t say it anymore, but they said, “Don’t touch your face.” Okay, so we’re gonna stop the whole world, and you can’t– you can’t do this (PUTS FACE IN HANDS). But don’t do this. How– how do you not do this when they tell we’re– we’re shutting down the world, (LAUGH) but don’t go, “Oh my god. Oh, my god.”
When we asked Seinfeld where he’d like to spend the day, he said Queens, halfway between his hometown of Massapequa, Long Island, and his current address in Manhattan. This park was the site of the 1964 World’s Fair, which Seinfeld visited as a boy.
Jerry Seinfeld: You know, the World’s Fair was always about, “We’re going to perfect the world. It’s gonna be easy.” And we’re gonna do it. And here’s what we’re gonna do. And it’s gonna be great.” And when you’re 10 years old, you believe that. And I don’t think that completely foolish optimism has ever left me.
We found Jerry Seinfeld downright upbeat to be out of the house and in front of a camera for the first time since COVID.
Jon Wertheim: Are we ok with this?
Even with the aggravation of planes flying overhead.
Jerry Seinfeld: Now we’re in show biz. Now we’re back. This is really being back. Hold for plane.
Show business has been his business for five decades. When 60 Minutes checked in with Seinfeld in the ’90s, he was in the thick of his wildly successful sitcom.
The series grew out of Seinfeld’s observational style of stand-up.
Jerry Seinfeld doing stand-up: Waterproof watch that’s important. Gee, I’m completely out of oxygen and look at the time. Now I’m dead and I’m late.
He first honed his craft on Manhattan’s comedy club circuit.
Jon Wertheim: What was it like coming into the city to perform?
Jerry Seinfeld: It was like when the doors open on the Emerald City in– in “The Wizard of Oz.” And I would gulp so hard. “Oh my god. I’m going into the grown-up’s place.” And not just going in there. I’m gonna go on stage there.
Jon Wertheim: Did it live up to your expectations?
Jerry Seinfeld: Sure. Still does. I am so madly in love with New York City. I didn’t know how to be. And– and in New York they’d say, this is how you do, this is what to do. Here’s how to be. Be cranky and be loud and be funny. And– and complain. And– and suffer. And make fun of everything and everybody. That’s how you be.
This city he romanticizes. Seinfeld remembered seeing a miniature replica of New York at the World’s Fair as a kid. The model is still on permanent exhibit at the Queens Museum and since we were right there…
Jerry Seinfeld: Wow…
He wanted to take another look. We were allowed past the perimeter, through a hidden entrance for a VIP perspective.
Jerry Seinfeld: I guess this is the way God looks at things.
Jerry Seinfeld: My first apartment would be right there.
His civic pride is such that when a local comedy club owner posted an essay on LinkedIn this past summer, claiming New York City would never bounce back from COVID, Seinfeld was moved to write a rebuttal.
Jon Wertheim: Is New York dead?
Jerry Seinfeld: Are you asking me?
Jon Wertheim: I’m asking you.
Jerry Seinfeld: Pssshh. When you were a kid, remember kicking over the anthill?
Jon Wertheim: Sure.
Jerry Seinfeld: That’s what just happened to us. They just kicked over the whole anthill. And what do the ants do? “All right. Hand me the next crumb. Let’s get back to work.” And by the way, I have nothing against that guy. He’s fine. I didn’t like that nobody was rebutting it. Then I realized, “Oh, I guess that’s my job.” Somebody –a real New Yorker has to answer this.
Jon Wertheim: You called him “some putz on LinkedIn.” (LAUGHTER)
Jerry Seinfeld: I don’t even know what LinkedIn is. That’s who that guy is for the rest of his life. “Oh, look who’s here. The putz from LinkedIn.”
Jon Wertheim: But you felt the need to– to defend your turf.
Jerry Seinfeld: I just don’t want New Yorkism to die. I don’t want it to be replaced by–
Jon Wertheim:By what?
Jerry Seinfeld: Deep concern. And over-sentimentality. You can have those things, but– be– be a little badass, too. We don’t care that things are tough. We didn’t– everything’s always tough. It’s tough to live here.
Jon Wertheim: You got a little– little blowback for that. “Oh, he’s out in the Hamptons writing about New York.” Did you–
Jerry Seinfeld: Oh, shut up.
Jon Wertheim: –did you expect that? (LAUGH)
Jerry Seinfeld: Sorry. Sorry I did better than you. (LAUGH) My apologies. Got a laugh from the camera guy. (LAUGHTER)
Getting a laugh was the ultimate currency for Seinfeld. Growing up, as he did, in a middle-class, Jewish household.
Jon Wertheim: Were your folks funny?
Jerry Seinfeld: Yes. My dad particularly. Wildly funny. Like, if– there’d be a fly, would land on your soup, and somebody would go, “Ew.” And he’d go, “How much could he eat?” (LAUGHTER)
Jon Wertheim: What was their parenting style?
Jerry Seinfeld: Complete neglect. Absolute, total neglect. It worked for me. It made me very independent. They were both orphans. So they had a natural independence.
Jon Wertheim: Both your parents were orphans?
Jerry Seinfeld: Yes.
Jon Wertheim: What impact do you think that had on your family growing up?
Jerry Seinfeld: It was fantastic. Complete self-reliance, that was expected. Now, you know, you end up having to raise yourself in a lot of ways. I– you know, I don’t know how to hold a fork, or I– I can’t make a sandwich. You know? 18 years, not a hint of what to do.
For someone who couldn’t make a sandwich, he’s done all right.
“Seinfeld,” the series, has made more money in syndication than any other comedy.
In 2017, Seinfeld signed an estimated $100 million deal with Netflix to run two comedy specials and a series no streaming service wanted at first.
Jon Wertheim: Why does “Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee” work?
Jerry Seinfeld: I think it works because comedians don’t like to chitchat. We like to really talk about something.
Jerry Seinfeld: And I wanted to show this other part of my world, of hanging out with these people and how fun it is.
His latest project: the guy who, famously, did a show about nothing, has a new book titled “Is This Anything?” Seinfeld explained that’s what comedians ask each other when they’re working on new material. Published by Simon and Schuster, part of ViacomCBS, the book is a primer on joke writing.
Jerry Seinfeld: I’m not an autobiography kinda guy. But what I’m interested in is craft and technique and approach to doing an art. And being able to look at how these bits are built, you could kinda learn, oh, I see why that word is here.
Jon Wertheim: Are there words that are objectively funny?
Jerry Seinfeld: LinkedIn. Putz. I mean, LinkedIn, if I was to break it down, it’s the Ks and the Ns and the Ls, and it’s new. And– I mean, if you want me to go further, I will. You’re taking a Yiddish word from the 18th century and you’re putting it with LinkedIn. That’s what a laugh is. It’s a chemical explosion.
Jon Wertheim: A little shtetl, a little Silicon Valley–
Jerry Seinfeld: A little shtetl, a little internet. (LAUGHTER)
Jerry Seinfeld: The Yiddish language is the greatest gold mine of comedy– ever. Every word is funny.
Putz notwithstanding, Seinfeld has always kept his act clean at a time when many comedians have had to apologize for causing offense, he considers it part of his job description to accommodate changing standards.
Jon Wertheim: What do you say to some of your colleagues who say, like, “Everyone’s so sensitive. You can’t joke about anything anymore”?
Jerry Seinfeld: They’re always movin’ the gates. And ya gotta make the gates. And it is always difficult, changing, sometimes unfair, sometimes not right, you know? Lenny Bruce dealt with what he had to deal with. And we have to deal with what we have to deal with.
It was time for a break in our interview and Seinfeld focussed his powers of observation on us.
Jerry Seinfeld: Oh, we got to do the walk and talk. You have to see people walking on 60 Minutes. We want to know how, can this person walk? Let’s see it. I don’t know why. You never do a thing on 60 Minutes without: watch them walk. Look at that, they’re walking.
And sure enough…
Jerry Seinfeld: It’s so beautiful…
Seinfeld has spent the last two decades growing into another role, family man.
Jessica Seinfeld: I’m very nervous here Jerry.
He and his wife Jessica have three teenaged children and lead a largely private life.
Jessica Seinfeld: Are you wearing your white socks on TV?
Jerry Seinfeld: Yeah. Yeah.
She is more complimentary of his co-parenting skills.
Jon Wertheim: Stand-up seems like such an individual sport. How– how is he as a teammate?
Jessica Seinfeld: I will tell you that it was a slow build. It wasn’t natural. And when we first had children, he had absolutely no idea what to do.
Jerry Seinfeld: The look on their face was, “Is anyone helping you?” (LAUGH) Because I didn’t seem to be connected to anything that was going on. (LAUGHTER)
Jon Wertheim: But you say he’s hit his stride now that he’s parenting teenagers.
Jessica Seinfeld: He wasn’t one of those dads who wore a front carrier. (LAUGHTER) He grew up in the ’50s. But now he is much better at this age than I am at this age.
Jerry Seinfeld: Yeah, that’s true. I never th– looked at it that way. We’ve kinda–
Jessica Seinfeld: Switched roles.
Jerry Seinfeld: Yeah, a little bit.
Jessica runs Good+, a foundation she started almost 20 years ago as a used stroller and baby goods drive. Good+ now helps 50,000 low-income families, with a focus on engaging dads. And she does it despite some household distractions.
Jessica Seinfeld: I think maybe that he misses being on stage. And when he and his friends are on the phone, they just yell. (LAUGH) And it is something to live with.
Jerry Seinfeld: You know, a lotta times when you– you could say the same thing louder, it’s funnier when you say it louder. Why would you do that? (LAUGH) It’s stupid. (LAUGH) Right.
Jessica Seinfeld: Yes, that.
With the home of his other great love just a few hundred yards away, we asked Seinfeld if he had considered putting in a bid this year when the New York Mets were up for sale.
Jerry Seinfeld: I don’t have the money.
Jon Wertheim: Would you if you did?
Jerry Seinfeld: No, absolutely not. Why? Why? So I could have more people yelling at me on the street (LAUGH) when they lose? The ultimate peak experience of a baseball game is a seat, a hot dog, and a beer. There’s nothing above that.
He’ll have to wait to sit in the stands with a hot dog, just as his fans will have to wait until the pandemic is over to watch Jerry Seinfeld perform in person.
Jerry Seinfeld: This will be funny. Comedians will figure out what we can say and– and can’t say when we get back in front of audiences.
Jon Wertheim: How’s this gonna work?
Jerry Seinfeld: I don’t think it’s gonna work for a while. I don’t like compromised versions of things. I want the real thing, the authentic thing. I want the pure hit. I want the real drug. I want real New York pizza. So– I’ll wait.
ViacomCBS has acquired a variety of “Seinfeld” syndication rights.
Produced by Nathalie Sommer. Associate producer, Kaylee Tully. Broadcast associate, Elizabeth Germino. Edited by Peter M. Berman.