Jerry Seinfeld on Louis C.K., Roseanne and tense times in comedy

In some ways, the world of Jerry Seinfeld is the same as it ever was. He's still the singularly recognizable stand-up, the star and co-creator of his eponymous TV sitcom and the host of a Netflix talk show, "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee." At 64, he is still playing dozens of live dates a year and, on Friday, announced the return of his residency at the Beacon Theater with 20 new shows in 2019.

But the comedy world that Seinfeld inhabits is in a tumultuous period. While some performers feel uneasy about what they can or can't say onstage, several prominent stars have been disgraced by scandals of their own making. Bill Cosby, once one of Seinfeld's creative heroes, was convicted of sexual assault in April and sentenced to prison in September. Roseanne Barr had her resuscitated ABC sitcom canceled in May after she posted a racist tweet. Louis C.K., who last year admitted to several acts of sexual misconduct, has resumed performing in clubs again, prompting an outcry from some audience members and rebukes from fellow comics.

Jerry Seinfeld at the Beacon Theater, where he will perform 20 new stand-up shows in 2019.

Jerry Seinfeld at the Beacon Theater, where he will perform 20 new stand-up shows in 2019.Credit:LANDON NORDEMAN

These are complicated and uncomfortable issues that Seinfeld knows he can't avoid, given his standing in the industry, and that he is still thinking through and processing in real time. On Wednesday, over lunch at Barney Greengrass on the Upper West Side, he spoke about the current cultural moment, which he said felt necessary. "We're figuring it out as we go along," Seinfeld said. "And there's something very stimulating and empowering about that. We don't really know what the rules are."

Seinfeld also spoke about his approach to stand-up in this anxious period, the performers who have transgressed and the artists he still admires. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: Your Beacon Theater residency ran in 2016 and 2017, but not in 2018. What made you want to return to it in 2019?

A: When we decided to try it out, I just loved playing there. Then it just seemed like we had done it a lot, and you never want to overstay your welcome anywhere. And then I missed it. It's my vision of what I consider to be the ideal stand-up experience, which is a beautiful old theater in someone's hometown, where they know every inch of the neighborhood. You see someone at Madison Square Garden, or Radio City or Carnegie Hall, each one is a totally different experience. You're not getting the same interaction with that performer.

Q: Is it still important for you to work out new material in smaller clubs?

A: I went out to Long Island yesterday, got home at 7, and then grabbed a sport jacket to run out of the house. My wife says, "Where are you going?" I go, "I got to go to a club." She says, "Why?" We're married 18 years, you still have to answer these questions. I go, "I need to try out some stuff." Real comedians want to go on every single night.

Q: There's a lot of tension in comedy right now, for many reasons.

A: Sure. I was saying to an audience recently, "Why do you even come out here for this? I guess you just like to see somebody sweat." Chris Rock gave me a theory that in the old days, when you'd go see Neil Young or Jimi Hendrix, you saw the whole artist. Now, most music artists, that person's talent is just a component of what they're making. But with a comedian, you're still getting the whole artist: the writer, the director, the presenter. All their talent is on display in one package and that's intense. It's why stand-up is still so popular.

Q: So you feel that anxiety, too?

A: Of course. With Cosby and Louis and Roseanne. The thing about being in comedy is, "We hate you, get off the stage" is what we're used to. Every comedian has that as part of their life. Getting booed, yelled at, hated. So you almost don't notice it. You either have the skin for it or you don't.

Q: There are the people who were punished for their behavior offstage we'll come back to them. For those people who believe they've been penalized for things they've said onstage, are they entitled to a sphere of protection in their performances?

A: No, I don't agree with that. Because the audience automatically filters what you're saying. You know how many people are around from when I started? I started with hundreds of guys and women, 99 percent are gone. And some of them were great. Why are they gone? Every reason you can name. Every human frailty there is. Every hairline crack in your personality gets pulled on let's see if we can make it a gash and then push you into it. That's what happens in stand-up.

Q: How do you think you avoided these pitfalls?

A: I was pretty lucky. In the '70s, I was surrounded by cocaine and alcoholism. But because I had no interest in it, I never saw it. I have never seen cocaine in my life. Seriously. I knew it was going on, but I was on another track. I would just go, "Nah, that's not for me." I think I was lucky to have a natural aversion to things I saw as toxic. And that covers a wide range. A wide range.

Q: And now having a family helps?

A: Oh, yeah. Once someone's else life depends on you keeping it together, it's easier to keep it together.

Q: Do you feel you now have to be more careful about what you say in your own act?

A: No. I don't really go into areas that cause problems. I have a #MeToo bit about weather girls: "I think the weather girls need to calm down a little bit on TV. We're trying to adapt to new guidelines just handed down, in a very fluid situation. You could pitch in a little bit with the insane cocktail outfits on local TV at 9:30 in the morning."

Q: And you feel your audiences approve of that bit?

A: Oh, yeah. But if you make a mistake, which we all do, they tell you and you go away from it and you don't do it. Or, if you want to do it, you do it anyway. The rodeo aspect of stand-up is what I missed the most when I was doing the TV series. I loved the raw, rough-and-tumble, sweaty, tense moments of it. You're so coddled in these other realms of show business. And stand-up is the opposite of being coddled. You're just flung into a mob.

Q: Do you think comedians learned the wrong lessons in that earlier era, and came away believing they could do whatever they wanted?

A: You can't do whatever you want. You can only do what works if you want to have a career. What I do onstage is what the past 300 audiences decided worked. That's good, that's not good. You have to make the audience laugh a certain amount or they don't come back. That's why I wear a suit. It's a signal: I'm not loafing here. I'm about this.

Q: Are you grateful these days that your comedic muse didn't lead you down a more political path?

A: I like to pursue my own idiosyncratic avenues. If I thought I could do something there that the average comedian can't do but I watch Bill Maher or Seth Meyers and I go, I can't do that well with that; they're great at it. But I can talk about raisins in ways other people can't.

Q: That's important too.

A: I hate the presumption of importance. I don't like when comedians think what they're doing is important. That's not a comedic perspective, for me. I was watching some W.C. Fields with a friend the other day. We could not believe the timing, the material, the performances. Perfect. We wouldn't change a thing. That's how eternal comedy is. What political material from 15, 20 years ago do you want to hear? None of it, really. The content of it isn't, largely, comedic. It's rhetoric.

Q: Do you have a distaste for college crowds?

A: I've never experienced that.

Q: In the new season of "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee," you say, "It's so weird that colleges have become places of restricted thought, as opposed to thought freedom."

A: No. I said, "I heard someone say "That's what I said. It got changed to, "I said."

Q: So you don't object to playing colleges?

A: No! I play colleges all the time. I would never say there's any place I don't like these audiences. My job is the opposite of that. I want to make them like what I do. I don't always succeed but that's my job. And never blame them, never. The worst possible situation the deadest, most hostile crowd I don't care. It's still my puzzle. That's a professional attitude that I'd never ever compromise.

Q: Is it too soon for Louis C.K. to be performing again?

A: No. It's the way he did it that I think people didn't like. Some people didn't like that he's doing it at all. We know the routine: The person does something wrong. The person's humiliated. They're exiled. They suffer, we want them to suffer. We love the tumble, we love the crash and bang of the fall. And then we love the crawl-back. The grovel. Are you going to grovel? How long are you going to grovel? Are you going to cry? Are you going to Jimmy Swaggart? And people, I think, figured they had that coming with Louie he owes us that. We, the court of public opinion, decided if he's going to come back, he'd better show a lot of pain. Because he denied them that.

Q: You don't think he should stay away from the stage right now?

A: I can't say what he should do. You do whatever you want. If he does it wrong, he's going to suffer. And that's his deal.

Q: So you don't have any objection to his coming back?

A: If there's a crime here, and the law gets involved, that's what the law is for. The laws of comedy, we kind of make them up as we go. Part of entertainment, sometimes, is the life of the person. We want that to entertain us, too, as part of the act. We like your show, and then we like your messed-up life. That entertains us as well. When you saw Richard Pryor, it was more than just the act. You're in the room with this guy who lived this crazy life. Somebody said it's the first time that someone has misbehaved where all people ask about is, "How's the perpetrator? How's he doing?" They don't ask, "How's the victim?" Didn't Sarah Silverman say the other day that she was doing this stuff with him?

Q: In her case, it was consensual.

A: [Deeply sarcastic] That's fantastic.

Q: Before the revelations of his crimes, was Bill Cosby someone you had admired?

A: I totally did. But when that happens, that's too big a safe falling out of a window to ignore. The crash is too loud. The thing I think that's new for people let's take Roseanne and Cosby is the suddenness and the precipitous fall. So much work, gone so fast. We're upset at the speed of it, because it's new. I would say about Roseanne, I never saw anything that bad happen from a finger-tap on a screen. A whole career: gone. That's an aspect of this unease we feel, that you just wake up "Oh, by the way, the Lincoln Memorial's gone.""What?""Yeah, they took it down. They found out Lincoln was fooling around and they took it down.""Oh, my God. All right, I guess I have to adjust to that. I really liked the Lincoln Memorial."

Q: There were previous, less noticed instances of her offensive behavior on social media. Did her firing seem sudden to you?

A: Of course it did. Not unjustified, but that is just how it played. They just went: You're done. That is a new kind of moment. Usually, there's a crumbling, a crack someone tries to get in there with some Spackle. Maybe we can rebar this, maybe we can scaffold it. That's what's more typical.

Q: In the case of Cosby, have you had to reassess why you idolized him in the first place?

A: Obviously I didn't know anything (about his crimes). Do I rethink idolatry? No, I will not give up on having heroes. I know you can get hurt, but I am a hopeful person. I like to believe in people. I said to Ellen DeGeneres, humans we have an abusive relationship with each other. We hate other people. We despise them. And then we see somebody play a beautiful piano concerto and we go, "Oh, people are the best." They get us right back for more abuse.

Q: One of the best-received stand-up specials of this year is Hannah Gadsby's "Nanette," but it's also polarized viewers. Have you seen it?

A: Yes, loved it. Loved it. She did a beautiful job, and the way she braided it with the art history she studied in school, that made it fascinating and fantastic.

Q: Is it surprising that it has set off a debate about what constitutes a stand-up set versus a one-person show, and whether it is comedy at all?

A: But isn't that great, that she stretched the form of stand-up to encompass that? This is why people are excited about stand-up now. And how valuable is that, for other people that are going through or have gone through what she has? To see, here's a person that's thrived despite it. An incredible contribution. That's the thing that's quite powerful about what we're going through. We're figuring it out as we go along. And there's something very stimulating and empowering about that. We don't really know what the rules are. We're trying to make them up, other people make up rules and want everybody else to go by their rules.

Q: Is that also where some of the current tension comes from?

A: If you say a wrong thing, or do a wrong thing? It's amazing, that this [social media and the internet] has become a portal for so much pain. But I do think, in the larger perspective, if you zoom out, this is all very positive. I think, mostly, about the victims of these things, they've got so much more of a platform now than, say, five years ago. That's all great.

Q: What other comedians are you into now?

A: The person I idolize the most these days is Bernie Mac. I was talking with Cedric the Entertainer, and we were talking about Robin Harris, who I missed. I loved Robin Harris and I started watching some Robin Harris, and some Bernie started popping up. I started watching these videos, and then I started watching them multiple times. The same bit, over and over and over. And each time I'd watch it, I'd see more things that amazed me. I was trying to explain this to somebody: What you want from a comedian is the material that fits their personality, which fits their face, fits their body and fits the way they move. If all those things are in concert material, face, body and personality it knocks you out. Sam Kinison, too, I love to watch, if you want to look at those four things.

Q: Is it bittersweet to discover an artist, knowing that that's all they will ever produce?

A: I would take a more positive view: At least I got that. I could've gotten nothing.

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