The Netflix special Jerry Before Seinfeld is a casual look back at how the creator of the hit show Seinfeld became one of the world’s most influential — and highest-paid — comedians.
In the special, Jerry Seinfeld breezes through his New York City-themed set at The Comic Strip, the club that launched his career. His stand-up occupies the bulk of the hourlong memory trip, which is peppered with never-before-seen home movie footage of Seinfeld as a kid, alongside his honest reflections about why comedy is his true home.
With sure-footed command of the room, he even revisits his very first joke that killed: the discrimination faced by left-handed people. And he sounds off about more of life’s minor injustices in the signature style that made him the club’s most distinguished alumnus.
There might not be any earth-shattering revelations about his rise to fame, but there’s still enough to excite a comedy super-fan’s interest — particularly when it comes to the experiences that clarify his irreverent perspective on the mundanities of life.
Here’s what we learned from the special.
He got his start young
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Massaspequa, Long Island, Seinfeld played his first show when he was around 22 and living at home with his family. He aced his Monday night open-mic audition at The Comic Strip on New York City’s Upper East Side in the summer in 1976. After that, he played there seven nights a week, making friends with other comics. They were packing in audiences, but they all performed for free — unless you count burgers and T-shirts as payment. An appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson followed five years later, which Seinfeld says he only landed thanks to honing his craft at the Strip.
Seinfeld worked construction, sledgehammering walls for $25 a day. Before he broke out as a comedian, he believed the greatest life he could have if he continued pursuing his passion was affording a single loaf a bread each week. Forbes now reports he’s among America’s wealthiest celebrities.
He had a happy childhood
There is a popular assumption that comedians develop a sense of humor in response to a trying childhood. But Seinfeld refutes the dark clown myth right out of the gate. His family was pretty perfect, in his opinion. On his drama-free upbringing, he cracks, “Would I have been funnier in Peoria in a whorehouse raised by prostitutes? Absolutely, but this is what I had to work with.”
He’s saved all of his jokes
Seinfeld explains that a comic’s life is measured in minutes, and in the most bittersweet visual of the special, he illustrates that he’s held onto every one. He saved hard copies of all his hand-written jokes in an accordion folder. As he sits among the innumerable spread out pieces of paper filled with every single joke he’s written since 1975, it’s all enough to cover a long Manhattan side street.
He wasn’t universally adored by every crowd
He was heckled, he bombed, and once, someone even threw a glass onstage, but none of it could break him. “I was in comedy and it just felt like heaven,” he explains. His generation of young comics was rewriting the playbook: “Not like the guys on Ed Sullivan with tuxedos and cigars, just young crazy people.” For Seinfeld, it was all about rejecting the real world’s lessons. “You don’t have to buy it, you could say, ‘that’s stupid!'”
His newfound popularity was like a redo of high school
After never experiencing popularity in school, he says the comics at the Strip finally felt like “stars of the football team.” Being socially dysfunctional and desperate were requirements for rolling with the cool crowd there.
He got engaged when he was 29, but didn’t go through with the marriage
He doesn’t delve too deep into this tidbit, other than explaining that commitment scared him. (In the early ’80s, Seinfeld dated fellow comedian Carol Leifer, who was reportedly the inspiration for the Seinfeld character Elaine and who later worked as a writer on the show.) He adds that, to him, women are mysterious because of their dependence on cotton balls. He learned to deal with the mystery, however: Seinfeld has been married to wife Jessica Seinfeld since 1999.
When he touches on politics, he doesn’t take a side
When it comes to politics, the comedy monarch’s still skipping the big picture and sticking to the little things. He explains that he tries not to get “too upset” about politicians, “because you should know, or you do know, this is who they are, OK? I comprehend it.” What he doesn’t comprehend? How donkeys and elephants became the face of the two major political parties. “You got the whole animal kingdom you can pick from,” he jokes.
It’s not about being liked, it’s about the material
He wants people to like the ideas he thought of — “the bits, the stuff” — or as the legendary Rodney Dangerfield explained to him about the jokes that land: “the killers — they’re wanted in all 50 states.”
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