Updated: Dec 3, 2021
In this bumper blog we’ll see pretty much everything we’ve discussed about stand-up writing in a two-and-a-half minute Jerry Seinfeld routine. Yes almost everything we have discussed can be found in under three minutes of Seinfeld. And I'll introduce a new subject - speaking in first, second, or third person.
The routine in question is 'Cab Drivers'. Here it is in the HBO TV version of "I'm Telling You For The Last Time". There is a lot that makes it effective. There are all the technical touches we are to unpack and also his persona, the shared references, the rightness of his observations, his skill as a performer, his timing, his persona, his rapport with his audience... But underlying all of that is the simplest and most natural comic technique: exaggeration.
He has noticed the absurdities of New York cab drivers and their passengers and then exaggerated them. Noticing the absurdities and then exaggerating them is quite a good description of what an observational comedian does. The version of this routine from the HBO TV special “I'm Telling You For The Last Time” has him starting with a response to the standing ovation he gets at the start:
“Thank you very much. Thank you. I know it's not easy for an audience to give a standing ovation. There's always a few people that don't really wanna do it. I've seen those people. They're always like… ‘Are we doing this now?’”
Here he is reflecting back what’s happening in the room and commenting on the situation he is in. This is a tried-and-tested way of starting a stand-up set, used by comics at all levels and in all contexts. He goes on:
“So, anyway, I'm thrilled to be back here in New York. I love how certain things about New York never change. They're always constant. They're always there for you. The cabbies and the BO.”
Firstly notice the 'So anyway'. He has been talking to the audience prior to this, interacting with the room, commenting on the situation and now he's getting down to it. That opening interaction and acknowledgement of the situation, that being in the moment, is all part of the 'live-ness' of stand-up. It's conversational. The 'so anyway' is a very conversational phrase too.
This version of the opening has the clear set-up/ payoff rhythm (and there are at least two very different openings to this material online). It works by the opening sentences giving you expectations of what the “constant” might be. Note how his positive attitude “I'm thrilled” and “I love” create the expectation that it's going to be a positive unchanging thing. This is misdirection as we discussed in the first blog. So there is a sudden change when we hit the payoff. It would be much less effective if it were:
“So, anyway, I'm stressed out to be back here in New York. I hate how certain things about New York never change. They're always constant, they're always bringing you down. The cabbies and the B.O.”
This could still get a laugh of recognition, and it is still structured as a set-up/ payoff, but the set-up is telegraphing where it's going and it wouldn't get as big a laugh as the actual version. And it would be much less funny as it has lost the misdirection. The point here is that there are several ways of expressing the same idea not all of which are effective in terms of getting the laugh. And your first draft may well not fall naturally or instinctively into the right rhythm and structure. This is where re-writing comes in—the tinkering, honing and crafting that really make stand-up work. Here is a bit more of the routine:
“What is with the B.O. and these guys? How long are these shifts? Can't we get this man a ten minute break for a shower?”
Here we have set-up/ payoff/ payoff! A second payoff is sometimes called a topper. You might even achieve set-up/ payoff/ payoff/ payoff. You'd be unlikely to go beyond the three payoffs, though, as rhythmically there is a rightness to the three. This rightness of course is rule-of-three, as we discussed, appropriately, in part 3.
Note here how he continues with the questions. There is something funnier about him posing the questions and struggling to work it all out rather than just making statements: “These guys have terrible BO. They must do such long shifts. What they need is a ten minute break for a shower.” This is quite a small change but it now all seems rather flat. What has been lost is the attitude that the questioning brings to it.
Let's now go through Seinfeld's two-and-a-half minutes line-by-line. This transcript comes from the CD version which is slightly different in places from the HBO TV version. This suggests that, even for a comic as precise and polished as Seinfeld, there is still wriggle room for small changes from show to show. And notice how this one starts with a funny set-up in the shape of this question.
"So what's with the cab drivers and the B.O.?"
The observation “cab drivers smell of B.O.” is here framed as a question. It's a caricature of cab drivers. The question gets a laugh (of recognition) and opens up the topic, setting up what's to come. Seinfeld’s attitude here is also part of the laugh.
Questions really are key to stand-up, both in the writing and the performing. Starting this routine with a question gets us engaged with it in a different way than if he had said: “Cab drivers often smell of B.O.”. It gets us thinking about it and paves the way for answers to that question. He is also working with a caricature, an exaggerated version of the type of character he is talking about. Stand-up often involves working with caricatures. The key being that the audience recognise the type and believe in the portrayal.
"How long are these shifts?"
In effect the answer to the question “why do cab drivers have B.O.” (they do long, long shifts) but framed as another question.
"Do they ever stop or do they just get in the cab and just drive 'till they're dead? That's what it's starting to smell like in some of these cars."