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Jerry Seinfeld on the science of laughter


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Now the science of laughter, as told by the one and only Jerry Seinfeld.

He's had a big year, with a Netflix special and a recent book which has been on bestseller lists for the past 10 weeks.

Jeffrey Brown caught up with him for our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: It's an especially harsh holiday season in New York, but on a recent walk with daughter Sascha, Jerry Seinfeld got quite a thrill.

Jerry Seinfeld: Holy cow. Oh, my God. I can't believe it.

Jeffrey Brown: Above them, a giant billboard blow-up of an op-ed he'd written for The New York Times last August titled, "So you think New York Is Dead. It's Not."

Man: Good-looking guy up there.


Man: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: A response to doomsayers arguing the city will never recover from COVID.

Woman: You go, Jerry.

Jeffrey Brown: He greeted grateful fellow New Yorkers.

Jerry Seinfeld: Yes, so you see this?

Woman: It's gorgeous.

Jerry Seinfeld: Yes, thank you.

Computer Voice: Please record your message.

Jeffrey Brown: And after a technological near-miss, he reached me to talk about it.

Jerry Seinfeld: It was unreal. And I'm used to seeing myself on things, but that was something so different and powerful to me, that I could have that impact on anyone. It's an unbelievable feeling.

Jeffrey Brown: You wrote that op-ed piece. You clearly didn't like all this talk, right?

Jerry Seinfeld: I didn't like it. And I wanted to say it in a funny way that we know things are tough. But things are always tough here. That's what we're used to, and that we're going to get through this, and that everyone is going to get through it.

Jeffrey Brown: New York's small comedy clubs are where Seinfeld started and continues to return.

Jerry Seinfeld: I saw this lady today with a little -- I don't even know the names of these little dogs. I wouldn't even know if you said it.


Jerry Seinfeld: It doesn't matter.


Jason Alexander: I like sports. I could do something in sports.


Jerry Seinfeld: In what capacity?

Jeffrey Brown: "Seinfeld" the show brought world fame and fortune.

Jason Alexander: Well, like the general manager of a baseball team.


Jeffrey Brown: But he told me the next day from his Manhattan apartment, stand-up comedy was all he ever wanted.

Jerry Seinfeld: I love living in the little world of stand-up comedy. It's a small universe.

Jeffrey Brown: Now five decades of his jokes and routines are gathered in a book titled "Is This Anything?"

It's what comedians ask as they try out new material, seeking the magic of getting a laugh.

Jerry Seinfeld: I do enjoy the mechanics and the dismantling. I think I would like watch repair. I think that's a field I would enjoy, because that's what I like to do with my stuff. It's like watch repair. I like to get into the gears of how it works.

Jeffrey Brown: This is a very disciplined thing for you.

Jerry Seinfeld: For me, it is, but it's not for everyone.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Jerry Seinfeld: It took me about two years after I started to realize this whole racket is writing. It's all writing. If you learn to write, to become a writer, you will survive in this business. If you don't, you will die.

Jeffrey Brown: But why is that? What is it about the -- the writing is what really brings you into the comedy?

Jerry Seinfeld: You need a lot of stuff.


Jerry Seinfeld: You need stuff. It's like a bakery. You need fresh donuts. And it kind of takes you down the road of what you see and who you are. And you must always be able to look around. You have to be able to see it and go, there's something funny there. I have to find it.

I don't lie in restaurants anymore.

"How is everything?"

"I don't like it here."


Jeffrey Brown: Of course, once you have written a joke, you have to deliver it.

"23 Hours to Kill," Seinfeld's latest Netflix special released earlier this year, shows his trademark style.

Jerry Seinfeld: A lot of people around my age like to make a bucket list. I made a bucket list, and I turned the B to an F, and I was done with that too.


Jerry Seinfeld: Comedy is just about the feeling of connection. That's what stand-up comedy is.

When you get a laugh from an audience, you're like one thing. It only lasts a few seconds, but you feel completely connected to them. They feel connected to you. And it's very satisfying.

Once you really know the words, that's a gigantic piece of it. That's 80 percent of it.

People talk about going out.

Because that gives you a veneer of confidence.

Well, this is it.


Jeffrey Brown: Yes, I noticed the word veneer, so whether it's real or not.

Jerry Seinfeld: It doesn't need to be real at all.

Jeffrey Brown: In fact, Seinfeld sees himself as most authentic when he's on stage. He says he's not a naturally outgoing or even attention-seeking person, and thinks that helps him as a performer.

Jerry Seinfeld: This could be my favorite spot in the entire world right here, right now.

For me, that stage is my only outlet to humanity.

Jeffrey Brown: You're serious? That performance is your way to meet people, to interact with people?

Jerry Seinfeld: Well, I can really be myself. On stage, that's really me. At a cocktail party, that's a total performance.

Jeffrey Brown: "Seinfeld" has called the show that made him rich and famous a nine-year detour from his real job of stand-up, but one for which he is extremely grateful.

Jerry Seinfeld: It was a stunning, mind-boggling experience.

But it was really like being part of a weather event, to tell you the truth.

Jeffrey Brown: A weather event? You mean like a big hurricane or something?

Jerry Seinfeld: Yes. It was like a giant, swirling funnel of energy. That just felt like hanging onto a rocket the whole time. I don't know what this thing is doing, but let's try and keep it from crashing.

Jeffrey Brown: "Seinfeld" the series ended in 1998, but is seemingly on somewhere at all times to this day.

Jerry Seinfeld: Could we start with some coffee?

Steve Martin: Could I use some coffee.

Jeffrey Brown: More recently, he created a popular Web series, "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee."

Kevin Hart: Is it safe?

Jerry Seinfeld: No.

Jeffrey Brown: Seinfeld and friends and a memorable episode with President Obama.

Jerry Seinfeld: Are these washed?


Jeffrey Brown: For Jerry Seinfeld, though, there's clearly just one thing he wants to hold on to, the old accordion folders in which he stored decades of jokes.

That's not near you, is it?

Jerry Seinfeld: It is. I have it near me. Why? You want to see it?

Jeffrey Brown: I'd love to see it, yes? Can you grab it?


Jeffrey Brown: Yes, come on.

Jerry Seinfeld: So, this is the accordion folder.

Jeffrey Brown: This is the famous folder that holds all Jerry Seinfeld jokes.

Jerry Seinfeld: And it's got the letters, and the jokes are inside. And I have a few of these. This was my first one, though, that I bought in '76.

When I had a bit that was working, I would just put it in there. And that's it. That's my whole career right there.

Jeffrey Brown: And you start saving them because you got to hold on to everything, or you -- just for posterity, or what?

Jerry Seinfeld: I had two pairs of jeans and two shirts. That's it. I had no socks. And I had these jokes.

So, what am I going to save? I'm going to save the jokes. The jokes are the only thing I had. You don't have anything in your pockets when you go on stage to do stand-up. All you have is your jokes.

Nice to meet you.

Jeffrey Brown: With pandemic raging, Jerry Seinfeld says now is not a time for comedy. But just wait. Soon enough, the jokes will come out of the folder, the laughs will come again.

Jerry Seinfeld: Do a really interesting one.

Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Judy Woodruff: Boy, do we need Jerry Seinfeld, now, more than ever.

Thank you, Jeffrey Brown.

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