“Seinfeld” proudly proclaimed to be a show about nothing. Jerry Seinfeld’s first book in nearly three decades, “Is This Anything?” it’s about everything. It’s about childhood, adolescence, adulthood and parenting. It’s about bumper cars and dry cleaning, wizards and supermarket check-out rubber dividers, marriage and the zip line.
“Is that something?” is a decades-long collection of ideas Seinfeld originally wrote on yellow notepads. Everything that he meticulously and persistently worked out, worked on and honed in front of an audience until they became something, and these things became his action.
“These pages,” he writes, “are the map of the forty-five year long road in which I became that strange, unusual thing that is the only thing I ever really wanted to be.” He became one of those people “who killed themselves to keep developing great new material that was able to rise through the many levels.”
But in the beginning there is the idea. This book gets its title from the question that every comedian asks other comedians about the comic viability of a new play. He realizes that he has saved all of his material and stored it in accordion files. One of George Carlin’s classics was finding a place for your things. This is Jerry’s stuff, and the place he found was this book.
His signatures are here, including his reflections on the life of a sock (“washing day is your only escape”), air travel (“They’ll show you how to use a seat belt if you haven’t been in a car since 1965”), and a Commercial for improved tides (“I think if you’ve got a blood-stained t-shirt, laundry might not be your biggest problem right now”).
“Is that something?” is not a treatise modeled on Steve Martin’s “Born Standing Up,” but it serves as Seinfeld’s “This Is Your Life,” only with jokes rather than expelling distant relatives and former teachers.
Bit by bit, we record his growth as a master joke craftsman. Decade after decade we follow his life’s journey and look at the world from his perspective of what he found funny.
In the 1970s, he joked about childhood, parents, his first wallet and boy scouts. There are some things about airplanes and hotels in the 1980s that reflect his rising star status following his breakthrough on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show. (“Comedians talked about getting on Johnny Carson the way Dorothy talked about going home,” he writes.)
At 20, he ponders: “You were a single bachelor for 45 years. Then you turned on a penny. Marriage-wife-children-family. “
The bits are presented in their polished form. For budding comedians, it might have been instructive if Seinfeld had illustrated how he picked up an idea and worked on it until he was where he wanted it. But they will learn some lessons as Seinfeld finds new attitudes on well-trodden subjects.
For example, airline food has likely been food for comedians since the Wright brothers started by Kitty Hawk. However, Seinfeld focuses on less-noticed flying experiences and even gives the aircraft bath a positive note:
“I just like this little room. It’s like your own little apartment on the plane, isn’t it? You go in, close the door, the light comes on after a second. It’s like a little surprise party. “
Seinfeld’s keen-eyed encapsulations of the trivialities of daily life are evidence of the old saw about how in particular the universal is. We’ve all been to the pharmacist, but we may never have thought, “Why does the pharmacist always have to be 2½ feet higher than everyone else?” That is Seinfeld’s job.
Readers of a certain age will get a nostalgic kick if they refer to “The Ed Sullivan Show” and the children’s puppet show of the 1940s and 1950s, “Kukla, Fran and Ollie”. With the exception of jokes about outdated technology (the BlackBerry), this material doesn’t feel out of date.
As is well known, Seinfeld works cleanly. While some jokes go back decades, there is little material that matters when it comes to gay, ethnic, and gender stereotypes. And nowhere in the book will you read the phrase that is so often associated with Seinfeld: “What’s wrong with …?”
“Is that something?” captures the results of one of our great comic book minds who is still excited about working “tiny clubs of flimsy things, night after night, month after month”. And it takes as long as it takes. “
And that’s a big deal.
Liebenson is an entertainment writer. His work has been featured in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, VanityFair.com, and New York Magazine’s Vulture website.