Lessons on Design from Jerry Seinfeld

 Quotes & Lessons from “Comedian”


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Garr Reynolds has a nice post about presentation lessons from Comedian (Slideshare from the post above, slide number 30 is a gem), the documentary that is (sort of) about Jerry Seinfeld getting back into stand-up after his TV show (you may have heard of it?) finished.

It’s been ages since I saw the movie, which was good but not great, and was a bit of a bait and switch as much of it focused on a young comedian trying to break into the big time, and Jerry himself is only in about 1/3 of it. But like Garr I took some lessons away from it, but in my case they were about design. There are some interesting parallels beteween putting together a stand up act and creating a new design:

  1. There is no right answer. There are better answers and worse answers, but no absolute right or wrong answers.
  2. You never know when you’re done (there’s no stopping rule - you stop when you run out of time) 
  3. Sometimes an idea just can’t be made to work and you have to have the discipline recognize the fact and drop it (Jerry has a great segment about trying to get a joke to work that he tried every which way, but just couldn’t get it to pan out despite what seemed like a nugget of an idea)
  4. There’s no way to cheat. If you rushed the prep, or it isn’t really your work, you will be exposed, usually ruthlessly 
  5. You don’t come up with the whole design/routine in one go, it takes many small pieces and iterations, steps forward and back again, prototyping, throwing stuff away, lots of crap to get to the good stuff.
  6. Comedians, like designers, tend to swing wildly between swaggering confidence and crushing insecurity, often in minute by minute increments
My favorite scene in the movie, though, has nothing to do with any of this. It’s of Jerry talking about how hard it is to get back into stand-up, just truly awful and painful, it’s a real effort to drag himself back into the clubs to try out the new material. He looks exhausted, drained. But while saying all this, he’s sitting in the leather chair of his private Gulfstream jet. Yeah, world’s tinniest sad violin. Right here.