Monday, December 10, 2012

Jerry Seinfeld's Tiny Masterpieces

One theme of this Slog is the joy of lavishing effort on small - or even publicly invisible - creations. For example, I wrote the following in my explanation of JD Salinger:
"What makes me writing well and playing music well. Period. "Full stop", as the British say.

My most cherished moments have been spent embroiled in the creative process. After that comes only problems. I detest having to find channels for my output; the touchy ritual of petitioning unhip, haughty gatekeepers. And then there's the issue of reaction. While I'm pleased when my work happens to be appreciated, I understand that the active pursuit of acclaim is a house of mirrors.

Creative people quickly learn to expect a zany mix of zealously wrongheaded admiration and flat out rejection in response to their work. And the killer is that success rarely correlates with quality. So one must labor within a madness-making, completely erratic feedback system (it's worth noting that lab animals become mortally stressed when reward and punishment are randomly meted out). There's no predicting or controlling how your work will be perceived - or whether it will be perceived at all. Those lucky few who attain some perspective on it all (usually via great success or failure) quickly realize that it's foolhardy to stake one's self worth on an uncontrollable, capricious system. Far better to just do the best work one can, and let chips fall where they will.

Of course that's not how you build a career. That's not how you get your playing heard and your writing read. That's not how you cultivate contacts and build a following. That's not how you "become somebody". And such things can hardly be disregarded if you aim to live off your creative work. That's why I deeply respect artists like Charles Ives, who plied a humdrum day job so he could compose in the spirit of pure creation."
As commenters pointed out, Salinger was far from the only person who reached the same conclusion. For example, there were John Hughes, Bill Whithers, Sam Shephard, and Irving Rosenthal. And we can now add, of all people, Jerry Seinfeld, who's created a superb series of heartfelt little web videos titled "Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee". This is about as small as things can get and still be visible: humble concept, tiny crew, minimal production values, short length, no marketing whatsoever, all playing out on a site nobody's ever heard of. They're just hovering out there - rhapsodies in small awaiting discovery.

There's nothing conspicuously impressive. These quietly personal little films are funny, but not guffaw-inducing. Yet they somehow stick with you - none more than the Carl Reiner episode, where it's revealed, over coffee, that Mel Brooks comes over Reiner's house each night to watch TV. Seinfeld asks if he can join in, and the result is as amusing as you'd expect, but also unforgettably touching - and it offers a glimpse of something rarely caught on film.

The sole dud is the Ricky Gervais episode, which never quite sparks. Aside from that, I'd strongly recommend them all, including the "spare parts". Jerry Seinfeld may not be the warmest guy in the world; any remnants of his heart were long ago dry cleaned from his sleeve. But he loves cars and he loves comedians, so he went from there, bravely resisting any impulse to biz it up, or to even need have people watching it. He just did it. And it's beautiful.


Dave said...

It doesn't diminish Seinfeld's achievement to note that it is loosely based on Robert Llewellyn's web series, "Carpool" (that later became a TV show), and that Seinfeld's series was developed and funded by the non-obscure, which is owned by a little company called Sony. This probably isn't a total coincidence: The production company behind "Seinfeld" was Castle Rock, a division of Columbia that was bought by Sony.

James Leff said...

But my point stands. He didn't enrich himself with this, not a ton of people are seeing it, and, creatively, I see not one picowatt of energy spent serving audience rather than art.

In other words, while this might be blue chip to you or I, it's Dubuque dinner theater to him. and he's clearly more than ok with that!

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