Jerry Seinfeld’s book is really something

What’s the deal with Jerry Seinfeld’s new book, Is This Anything?

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The title comes from the eternal query comedians ask one another about a new bit, Seinfeld writes. Over the years, Seinfeld's "anythings" turned into "somethings" that, through "the endless, somewhat torturous struggle of never quite feeling that you've got your act where you want it," he rose to the pantheon of stand-up comedians.

In 1998, Jerry Seinfeld "retired" his material in an HBO comedy special, I'm Telling You for the Last Time . Apparently, his observational jokes, riffs and bits that he wrote down old school-style on yellow legal pads got tired of the laughless life gathering dust in the accordion files Seinfeld has kept all these years. "I have everything I thought was worth saving from 45 years of hacking away at this for all I was worth," he writes. And now he has published them.

Is This Anything? is a decade-by-decade joyride along "the long road I've been on to become this odd, unusual thing that is the only thing I ever really wanted to be," he writes.

His signature bits are here, including his nostalgic childhood reverie on Halloween ("Everyone we know is just giving out candy??!!"), the deal about men and superheroes ("These are not fantasies to us. These are our options"), and his contention that the worst thing in the Olympics is the silver medal ("Congratulations, you ALMOST won.")

Fans of Seinfeld's eponymous TV series may recognize bits that inspired classic episodes. Onstage, Seinfeld mused on what would happen if, as a comedian, he went to a member of the audience's place of business and commented on their job performance, a situation hilariously played out in the fifth season episode, "The Fire."

For budding comedians, this book will be instructive on how to find unique entries into well-trod topics. For example, unlike the conventional spouse-bashing punchlines of a Henny "Take my wife, please" Youngman, Seinfeld makes himself the butt of the joke, as in this routine:

"When I'm with my wife, who I love so dearly, and a thought enters my head, the first thing I think is, "Well, I know I can't say that." Maybe I could say I heard someone else say it. And then she and I can share a warm moment together, agreeing on what an idiot that person must be."

Is This Anything? serves as something of a memoir. Each bit is a time capsule that preserves how Seinfeld viewed the world and what he found funny at the time. We can chart his comedic, as well as his life, journey. In the 1970s, he jokes about childhood, parents, his first wallet, and Cub Scouts. In the 80s, there are bits about airplanes and hotels, reflecting his ascendancy as a nationally touring road warrior, following his breakthrough on Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show .  By the 20-teens, he is musing: "You were a single, bachelor guy for 45 years. Then you turned on a dime. Marriage - wife - kids - family."

The bulk of Seinfeld's material still plays/reads well (it's impossible to read without hearing his distinctive, oft-imitated voice). Mostly eschewing topical references, which have a shelf life, Seinfeld mainly ponders universal daily experiences. We've all been to the pharmacist, but perhaps never thought to wonder, "Why does the pharmacist always have to be two and a half feet higher than everybody else?"

Is It Anything? captures the output of one of our great comic minds, still firing on all cylinders. In one of the chapter introductions, Seinfeld writes lovingly about the arduous process: "So, it's back to tiny clubs with flimsy stuff, night after night, month after month. And it takes however long it takes. When you see a comedian with a ton of great stuff, what you're really marveling at, or should be, is 'How could someone crawl on their belly that great a distance?'"

Donald Liebenson is a Chicago writer who writes for  VanityFair.com LA Times Chicago Tribune , and other outlets.

 



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