“Standup comedy’s the most mysterious profession in show business,” Jerry Seinfeld told David Letterman during a Los Angeles taping of the host’s Netflix series “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction…” a rollicking, wide-ranging conversation that explored their long shared history as comedians and occasionally diametrically opposed views on comedy and show business.
“It’s completely shrouded in mystery,” Seinfeld continued. “How do these people do it? How do they do it so often? Do it so consistently? Only other comedians understand it. It’s like being a cop or a prostitute: you can only hang out with other people that do that.”
Now arguably among the most preeminent and influential comedic presences of their generation as they sat down at Netflix’s FYSee exhibition space at Raleigh Studios, the two in part explored their 40-year association. They first met around 1978 at The Comedy Store comedy club in West Hollywood, where Letterman was a favorite of its owner, the late Mitzi Shore, while Seinfeld was effectively “non grata” there because Shore disliked his act.
But in 1982, during the first month of Letterman’s genre-smashing wee-hours NBC talk show “Late Night,” Seinfeld made his first of many appearances on the host’s program and his subsequent CBS series “The Late Show” throughout his own rise and reign as an equal master of TV reinvention with his NBC sitcom “Seinfeld.”
“I was one of the first comedians on your show — that was a big deal at that time,” Seinfeld reminded Letterman after the two were brought to the stage by Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos (clearly a longtime comedy junkie in his youth, given his spot-on recall of both performer’s classic comedy bits). “I was the only guy at the time, the early ’80s, that was welcome on your show and on [Johnny] Carson [and ‘The Tonight Show’] — usually there was a bit of a wall there. If you were a Carson comic, you were probably not young enough or cool enough for ‘Late Night,’ and vice versa, but I for some reason was able to go back and forth, and I was very proud of that in the early days.
“And I was very nervous,” Seinfeld added. “It’s very fun to be with you now and not really care how I do, because for so many years it was so important. It was terrifying to be on either of those shows. Those were the only shows!”
“I know the experience of being with Johnny,” nodded Letterman. “If you didn’t do well, they would pull your show business license, and you would be gone. And many people did not come back from a bad experience on that show.”
In recalling his early career ambitions, Letterman had simple — if not exactly realistic — goals. “All I wanted to do was get on ‘The Tonight Show,’ and I thought ‘Once I get on “The Tonight Show,” by God I bet they’ll give it to me.’”
During a conversation that lasted for more than an hour, Letterman and Seinfeld shared views and anecdotes on a slew of topics, often playfully vying for control of the line of questioning and frequently revealing sharp differences in the way they viewed the art of comedy, the field of show business and their estimations of their own contributions to both. While both men were quick to casually dismiss high appraisals of their own work, Seinfeld largely displayed the sense of confidence, pride and self-satisfaction with his craft that so often informs his comedic perspective, while Letterman exhibited hints on the more self-critical and sometimes tortured approach for which he’s been known.
In a particularly revealing moment, Letterman admitted he felt he may have stayed on the late night talk show stage too long.
“When you’re in show business, it’s so self-consuming and so egomaniacal that you only look at a very small focus, which is yourself. And if you have the energy and the ability to do that, you should do it — but don’t do it as long as I did it. I did it too long,” he said. “I should’ve left 10 years ago, because then I could’ve taken some of that energy and focus and applied it to actually doing something good for humans.”
Seinfeld quickly took exception. “I think you could not have done more for humans than what you did,” he said. “You think of your career as a self-satisfying, self-aggrandizing, self-enriching pursuit, and if you’re any good at it, Mr. Letterman, you’re not that kind of person. If you’re really thinking like that you’re gonna suck. …The people that are good at it do it because they know it’s making people happy, and that’s what’s driving them, and that’s why you were so great.”
Still, Letterman would demure. “I didn’t think I would change anything,” he revealed. “We had the benefit that we were hiding. It was 12:30. In those days, TV was off the air at 1:30 — maybe 1, maybe midnight. So we really were niche programming and hiding and hiding and hiding, so in many ways we would do stuff and let it go and not worry about it. But I did worry about it. But changing? No. All I was trying to do was stay employed. I wanted to stay on TV.”
Seinfeld was especially interested in exploring their shared roles as disruptors who brought fresh and especially personal takes to hidebound television formats. “The secret to television is the person who gets the opportunity wants to re-form this type of content to them personally,” he offered.
“That’s absolutely true,” agreed Letterman. “When I started in television, I used to talk to people on the staff and it was ‘Oh boy, wait’ll they see this! This is the thing that television has been waiting for! I can’t wait to get out there and show them what they’ve been missing all these years.’ And then you get out there and you realize, well, no, you’re not the savior that you would like to be.”
“You couldn’t be more wrong there,” countered Seinfeld, “because you were the savior, you were the guy who smashed the glass, and said, ‘What if we do this a whole different way that I think is funny, for no particular reason?’”
Letterman explained that much of his early, innovative approach to his show’s format was in response to all of the things the network told him he couldn’t do, to avoid infringing on territory that “The Tonight Show” had already staked out and remained possessive of. We looked around at what we were left with and said, ‘We’ll pick up the pieces and do what we can with what we’re left with.’”
“It was the same thing” for his series, agreed Seinfeld, who wasn’t even a fan or regular viewer of sitcoms, favoring only “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Honeymooners.”
“Anytime somebody said ‘I think they kinda did something like that on “Newhart,”’ we’d say, ‘Forget it.’ Anything that somebody else had touched. It just had to be something weird, something unusual.”
He admitted that he and co-creator Larry David were largely driven by ideas and concepts that amused and entertained themselves — any other laughs they got were bonuses. “Larry and I were so good together, if we both thought something was funny, that was good enough for us. If it can get through those two filters and we both think that’s funny, I wouldn’t even care if it wasn’t funny,” he said.
Seinfeld and Letterman also discussed some current comedy they favored, including the series “Portlandia,” the Broadway production “The Oh, Hello Show” and comedian Michelle Wolf. Of the latter’s recent controversial stint hosting the White House Correspondents Dinner, Letterman expressed his respect for Wolf’s performance.
“It took me a couple of days to consider what this had been, because you heard from certain elements just outrage — ‘Oh my God, she’s set [a] fire, it’s a grassfire and we’ll never put it out,’” he told Seinfeld. “And the more I got to thinking about it, it’s like ‘Wow — that was great.’ Because whatever the reaction, there’s no damage, and she had the guts to stand up there and didn’t apologize, where everybody is now apologizing for everything. So whether you liked it or not, I really have great admiration for the fact that she was able to walk into that room and decimate the place.”
“What I love about comedy is that no one has to talk about what happened — we all saw it,” said Seinfeld, stating that his opinion about Wolf’s act was irrelevant. “We don’t need the critics. I love when a critic reviews a comedian. You go, ‘I’ve left town already — with the money.’ I don’t care what you think. It’s the ultimate democracy. The laugh is the vote.”
Much like the use of profanity, Seinfeld assiduously bypasses political humor in his stand-up even in this contentious moment in time. Trump material, he said, “doesn’t interest me. I do a lot of raisin stuff.”
While hitting topics that included their children, baseball, infomercials, old bits about Martinizing Dry Cleaning and their shared passion for automobiles, Seinfeld posed a provocative notion: “Do you envision yourself ever not being in show business at all?”
“I’m kinda there now,” quipped Letterman of his series, which has featured long-form interviews with the likes of Barack Obama, George Clooney, Jay-Z, Tina Fey and Malala Yousafzai, prompting laughs from the audience that included Netflix execs and his old bandleader/current theme composer Paul Shaffer.
“You’re kind of the opposite now,” countered Seinfeld, who also recently relocated his own series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” to the streaming colossus. “You’re on the biggest show business platform that’s ever been.”
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