Lesson 19: Analysing Seinfeld's Cab Drivers routine
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."
Escalation. Escalating the joke of long shifts to the maximum extreme. Again a question. This is also an 'is like' joke. The smell in the cab 'is like' a dead body is in the car.
"You're in the back there and you're going "oh man!""
This is a shift to present tense, taking the audience into the present moment. Inner voice: “oh man!”. And note that it's “you're in the back” rather than “I'm”. Seinfeld goes on:
"And then they give you that... they have that cherry stuff... the cherry "pop-it" on the dash, you know, so you get the cherry B.O. which is supposed to be some sort of improvement I guess, I don't know."
The observation that cab drivers often have air freshener on the dash is given a kick by being specific. It's specifically a cherry “pop it”. And cherry is a good choice. “Cherry B.O.” is a good rhythm. And it's good that the cherry is something sweet that you eat. Something more toiletry-sounding, like “lemon B.O.” or “pine fresh B.O.”, wouldn't be as funny.
"I can't imagine even... fruit going that long without showering."
A touch of personification. As discussed in lesson 16 this is where something non-human takes on a human voice, attitudes or characteristics. It's essentially the juxtaposition of the human and the not human. Here fruit is demonstrating human behaviour, but it can also be anything non-human. This is a staple of more surreal comics like Bill Bailey but the 'real world' based Richard Pryor used it all the time too. For Pryor dogs, cars, even his heart attack take on human personalities. For example he anthropomorphised his picky dogs; when being given their dinner: “Can we have some wine with that?” Seinfeld continues...
"And the way they're driving, they're so insane, you could see they're upset! I don't know what it's like to drive a cab, it must be very difficult because they're very upset, these people."
Now he moves the subject onto their driving. In the writing asking the question, “Why do they drive like that” and answering it: “because they're upset”. “Upset” is a good word. Funnier than “angry” or “depressed”. It's an understatement. Quite a belittling word. A very British trait understatement.
"And sometimes you just wanna lean over that seat and go "what is happening in your life, in your mind, that is making you drive like this ?! Take it easy !""
Here we have dialogue. Stand-ups routinely get the people in their material talking, letting the audience hear them speak. This is also a hypothetical, or a proposed (rather than a reported), exchange. Hypotheticals are at the heart of a lot of stand-up. Imagining how things could be different.
It is also an example of fantasy behaviour where you imagine what you would love to do in a situation but are prevented from doing in real life because of morals, conscience or social norms etc. And there's also a juxtaposition going on. Juxtaposing a therapist/ patient or close friends relationship onto a passenger/ cab driver relationship. Juxtapositions are really key to comedy. "To me the really funny thing about New York cabs is that you never get that much scared... when you're in the cab. I don't know why, something about being in Manhattan. No matter how dangerous it seems... it's all quite amusing in the back of that cab, isn't it ?"
A touch of bathos here. Bathos is where you build something up and then knock it down. This is a classic comic rhythm, here going from “dangerous” to “quite amusing.” And the question at the end takes it from a personal experience to a shared one.
"He's flying around the road, he's... doing 90 up a one-way, and you're going... "I've never tried that in my car !""
This is another example of bathos here building something serious up, then shifting suddenly to something stupid.
"It's all a huge joke! It's your life. And somehow it's all happening on TV there, it's all not quite real."
Notice the switch here in the opposite direction from trivial to serious: It's all a huge joke! “It's all a huge joke! It's your life.” Comedy is often about sudden changes of this sort. He's also creating a caricature of a passenger and anchoring it to the audience's experience through the use of second person: “you” and “your”.
Let's now consider a different version of the same material. Referring to New York cab drivers' insane driving, Seinfeld says:
"The dumbest thing you can think in the back of a taxi cab is "well I'm sure the man knows what he's doing."
Here he switches to giving us the inner-voice of "you" as the passenger.
"Have you ever thought that ?"
Asking a question to get the audience reflecting on their own experience. They will laugh harder if the (unspoken) answer is "yes".
"He is driving fast. And quite recklessly. On bald tyres. But after all he's a professional. I guess he does this all the time. He's got a license, I can see it right there".
Seguing straight back to the inner-voice. Here we see the rule of three: Driving fast/ recklessly/ on bald tyres. There's an escalation through the three, with the peak in the third. Then bathos. The three build up the seriousness of the danger, then it's burst with the stupid thought: “but he's a professional”. Note that this is all inner-voice as direct speech. And it's punchy and has rhythm. It's also gets the audience visualising the scene: “I can see it right there”
"I don't even know what it takes to get a cab driver's license. I think all you need is a face."
Again a question and answer here. “What do you need to get a cab license?”. Answer: “A face”. It's also a simple observation and exaggeration. Observation: it must be easy to get a cab license. Then an exaggeration on how easy it is. Nicely tied in with the visual appearance of the license. “A face” is funnier than: “I think all you need is to have a pulse” say.
"This seems to be their big qualification. "That's the law now, no blank heads are allowed to drive cabs".
Direct speech. Again with an element of bathos. “That's the law now” (serious) “no blank heads allowed to drive cabs” (ludicrous)
"It also helps to have a name with like, eight consonants in a row."
Indirect statement: he's indirectly saying cabs are driven by immigrants. Notice how this is funny, whereas just saying “cabs are driven by immigrants” wouldn't be. He's also developing the theme of looking at their license, again something we all do. And there's an exaggeration – eight consonants in a row.
"What is that "o" with the line through it ? What letter is that ? I don't remember that letter in school. You need a chart of the elements if you wanna report the guy."
More questions. More inner-voice. And here he explores a what if...? He effectively asks what if you want to report him and answers: you need a chart of the elements to report the guy.
"Yes officer, his name was Ammal, and then the symbol for boron... I believe. I had the periodic chart with me at the time, I'm quite certain it was not manganese".
An “act out”. He acts out the pay-off “you need a chart of elements”. Note direct speech and how economically he takes us into the scene. All it takes is “Yes officer”. And he superimposes the periodic table onto the rhythms and structure of a normal witness statement, where instead of elements it'd be hair colour or something physical.
Think about what angle you're talking from. Is it first/ second/ or third person? First person: “I”. Second person: “You”/ “We”. Third person: “Them” / “It”. Applied to this cab drivers routine, here are the different versions:
(1) I'm in the back: Your own specific cab ride. (2) You're in the back: As Seinfeld does it, putting the audience member into the situation and implicitly including himself in the behaviour. (3) We're in the back. Where 'we' is referring to the comic and the audience. This would do the same job as the above but doesn't sound as natural. It could also, of course, be referring to an occasion where you were in the cab with someone else. (4) They're in the back. This is a detached perspective. It refers to those people who get cabs—which is implying that neither the speaker nor the audience do. Here it wouldn't make sense but it does for other topics. E.g.: “They hit a home run” or “they develop nuclear weapons”.
Take a routine you are working on and try changing the person you are speaking in and see what effect that has. Working with newer comics I find they often go for the observational second person "you" but unless the observation is absolutely spot-on it can be more effective to change it to first person "I". That way you make it about your own experience and if others recognise it too then great. If not, it becomes about your own idiosyncratic experience.