Sunday, March 03, 2013

Seinfeld, Coffee, and a Show About Nothing

By Pauly
Los Angeles, CA

I stumbled across an article in the NY Times from late in December... Jerry Seinfeld Intends to Die Standing Up. I probably missed it because of the holidays or overlooked it or just didn't have time to read when I was in NYC visiting family. Anyway, the article was a profile on Jerry Seinfeld and the author hung out with Jerry before/after he performed an impromptu show at Gotham comedy club in NYC. Seinfeld announced the show on Twitter a half hour before it was supposed to begin and he worked out some new material. He then drove his Porsche from the Upper West Side downtown to the club and dropped a planned obsolesce reference into their conversation.

Seinfeld is back to doing stand up comedy, which is where he cut his teeth in the 80s before landed the funniest sitcom of my generation. He got a second wind when his kids were born, which gave him an entire new scope of material to work with... and for the audience to identify with. Real life experiences and their daily environment shape artists. They're sponges and soak up everything around them, so it's inevitable that Seinfeld would migrate his witty observations from the mundane aspects of every day life (which he had a deft skill and became one of the greatest observational humorists of the last half of the 20th Century) and incorporate the "pointlessness of life itself" but from the aspect of a married guy with kids.

The Times article was your typical profile of a mega-star... it was kind and endearing but didn't really give you too much. If anything I was reminded about his short video series Comedian in Cars getting Coffee, which is exactly as the title suggests as Seinfeld drives around L.A. meeting up with his old friends. The first episode is Seinfeld and Larry David grabbing coffee at John O'Groats (right down the street from where Nicky and I live). You can watch the first episode here...

From a writer's standpoint, initially you'd die to get an assignment in which you spend a night with Jerry Seinfeld, but then the reality sinks in that you really can't dish the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. If you don't get flagged by your editor or the publication's owner, then you're getting interference from the star's management and PR team, or from the star itself. It's a tough situation no matter what. The interview was probably a deal -- a symbiotic deal -- in which both parties have something to gain. The star gets plenty of PR and the publication gets to sell newspapers (or in this case, get a huge spike in web traffic).

In those high-profile interviews, you cannot ambush the subject or try to fire fastballs right by them. Sadly, you have to toss softballs. And by chance you get some juicy material, the more salacious stuff most likely will get edited out. At the same time, you really cannot get to know someone in a short period, especially if they are used to putting on an act. If the subject is an actor, then you're screwed because you can never tell when the acting begins and real life ends.

I vaguely recall a story Chuck Klosterman told about an interview he conducted with Bono for Spin Magazine. Klosterman flew to Dublin and hung out with Bono. At one point, Bono picked up a couple of fans and gave them a lift. The entire time Klosterman's mind was racing... did Bono always do these things, or did he do that because he was being watched by a journalist and wanted to give the impression that he truly loved his fans?

I was always uncomfortable doing big-profile interviews with poker pros mainly because poker media was propped up by online poker sites and the pros I were supposed to interview were sponsored players of those same online poker rooms. Yeah, I couldn't stomach a PR fluff piece. I'm a much better observational reporter... send me somewhere... anywhere... and I'll tell you what happens through my lens as a fly on the wall. But those types of celebrity profile interviews are important and essential to keeping the wheels of the billion dollar poker machine moving. Besides, poker pros are world-class liars. They rake in tons of dough because they can manipulate your perception of the truth. Even someone who has been around the scene a couple of years can still not match up against poker's elite.

Early on in my poker career, it was evident that I was terrible with interviews because I couldn't write up everything as it happened without the so-called stars looking either like... 1) a self-absorbed degenerates out of touch with the day-to-day reality of the real world, or 2) seeming rather normal, just like you and me, which goes against the sole reason to do the interview, which is to keep them high up on a pedestal as we worship them. Most of the time, poker pros fell into the second category. These are people, just like you and me, but they have an uncanny ability to play cards and/or read people. There's nothing sensational about the banality of every day life, so you have to magnify some super-human aspect of their life.

Bottom line... you can't make stars look bad or seem normal.... which is why I never liked conducting those interviews in the first place. I was handcuffed by the rules (both written and unwritten) and I couldn't ask the real questions that I wanted answers to. Even if they gave me the raw truth, there was a very slim chance it could be revealed.

I knew before even reading the Seinfeld piece that it was going to be breezy and fluffy. After all, it's the NY Times, but it was entertaining and the profile was well written and kept me engaged while I ate breakfast at the coffeeshop. The ending was a little rushed, but I liked how Seinfeld was watching a baseball game and pointed at Ichiro (who had been traded to the Yankees), and Seinfeld felt as though he could identify with the aging Ichiro... one of the greatest hitters in the twilight of his career, but still doing what he can to stay in the game.

By the way, here's the episode of Jerry and Michael Richards (aka Cosmo Kramer) driving around LA in a converted VW bus before they go get coffee. Jerry asks Richards about losing his mud when he tried to call out hecklers, but an N-word tirade ensued...

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