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Book review: Decades of Seinfeld’s jokes chart his growth

By Donald Liebenson Special To The Washington Post

“Seinfeld” proudly proclaimed to be a show about nothing. Jerry Seinfeld’s first book in almost three decades, “Is This Anything?” is about everything. It’s about childhood, teenhood, adulthood and parenthood. It’s about bumper cars and dry cleaning, magicians and supermarket check-out rubber dividers, marriage and the zip line.

“Is This Anything?” is a decade-by-decade collection of ideas Seinfeld initially wrote out longhand on yellow legal pads, anythings he meticulously and doggedly crafted, worked and honed in front of audiences until they became somethings, and those somethings became his act.

“These pages,” he writes, “are the map of the forty-five-year-long road I’ve been on to become this odd, unusual thing that is the only thing I ever really wanted to be.”He became one of those people “who killed themselves to keep coming up with great new material who were able to keep rising through the many levels.”

But in the beginning is the idea. This book takes its title from the question, he says, that every comedian asks other comedians about the comic viability of a new bit. He notes that he has saved all his material and stored it in accordion files. One of George Carlin’s classic bits concerned finding a place for one’s stuff. This is Jerry’s stuff, and the place he found was this book.

His signature bits are here, including his musings on the life of a sock (“Laundry day is their only chance to escape”), plane travel (“They show you how to use a seat belt in case you haven’t been in a car since 1965”) and a commercial for improved Tide (“I think if you have a T-shirt with bloodstains all over it, maybe laundry isn’t your biggest problem right now”).

“Is This Anything?” is not a memoir along the lines of Steve Martin’s “Born Standing Up,” but it does serve as Seinfeld’s “This Is Your Life,” only with jokes instead of trotting out distant relatives and former teachers.

Bit by bit, we chart his growth as a master joke craftsman. Decade by decade, we follow his life journey, viewing the world through his perspective of what he found to be funny.

In the 1970s, he jokes about childhood, parents, his first wallet and Cub Scouts. In the 1980s, there are bits about airplanes and hotels, reflecting his rising star status following his breakthrough on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show.” (“Comedians talked about getting on Johnny Carson like Dorothy talked about going home,” he writes.)

By the 20-teens, he reflects: “You were a single, bachelor guy for 45 years. Then you turned on a dime. Marriage-wife-kids-family.”

The bits are presented in their polished form. It might have been instructive for aspiring comedians had Seinfeld illustrated how he took an idea and worked it until it was where he wanted it to be. But they will learn some lessons through the way Seinfeld finds fresh takes on well-trod topics.

For example, airline food has probably been fodder for comedians since the Wright brothers took off from Kitty Hawk. But Seinfeld focuses on less-considered flight experiences, even putting a positive spin on the airplane bathroom:

“I just like that little room. It’s like your own little apartment on the plane, isn’t it? You go in, close the door, the light comes on after a second. It’s like a little surprise party.”

Seinfeld’s keen-eyed encapsulations of the minutiae of daily life are testament to the old saw about how in the specific there is the universal. We’ve all been to the pharmacist but perhaps never thought, “Why does the pharmacist always have to be 2½ feet higher than everybody else?” That is Seinfeld’s job.

Readers of a certain age will get a nostalgic kick out of references to “The Ed Sullivan Show” and the children’s puppet show of the 1940s and ’50s, “Kukla, Fran and Ollie.” With the exception of jokes about now-outmoded technology (the BlackBerry), this material doesn’t feel dated.

Seinfeld famously works clean. Although some jokes date back decades, there is scant material that is cringeworthy in terms of gay, ethnic and gender stereotypes. And nowhere in the book will you read the phrase so often associated with Seinfeld: “What’s the deal with … ?”

“Is This Anything?” captures the output of one of our great comic minds, still in thrall to the process of working “tiny clubs with flimsy stuff, night after night, month after month. And it takes however long it takes.”

And that’s a big deal.

Liebenson is an entertainment writer. His work has been published in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and New York Magazine’s Vulture website.

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