In the 16 years since his Emmy-winning sitcom went off the air, Jerry Seinfeld hasn't rested on his laurels. He's returned to his first love — stand-up — regularly working on his act in New York comedy clubs, and then taking it on the road, as with a current national tour. He has married and fathered three children. He co-wrote and starred in an animated film (2007's Bee Movie, in which he played a litigious honeybee). And he produced The Marriage Ref, a short-lived mashup of game show and reality television. We caught up with Seinfeld a phone chat about his new life, his old show and the surprise success of his most recent venture, the Web talk show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Seinfeld offered deep, and frequently funny, insights about what makes him — and his humor — tick.
Q. Tell me about your current tour. Is there much new material?
A. I'm always developing new stuff, and I'm always doing stuff that I still like, for whatever reason. It's just a big messy sandbox for me. I don't know what people are coming to see, or want to see, or don't want to see. It's so complicated, if you really stop to think about it.
Q. You're known as a meticulous technician.
A. Extremely meticulous, yes. I love the precision of a comedy bit that works.
Q. Such meticulousness implies that every joke is fixable. What if it's not the joke's fault, but the audience's?
A. That's never the case. There are jokes that can't be fixed, but it's never the audience's fault, because they're the ones that decide if it's a joke or not. If they don't approve it, it doesn't survive.
Q. In the 2002 documentary Comedian, you tell a story about musicians arriving at a gig by plane, in the middle of a snowstorm. As they trudge past a cozy cottage, one of them looks through the window on a scene of domestic bliss and says, "Ugh, how do people live like that?" Is it essential for a comedian to maintain that sense of the outsider?
A. Yes. When I'm at a party and somebody comes up to me and they're not a comedian, I still clench up inside and go, "What am I going to say?" They're going to say, "Boy, isn't the food great?" I'm like, "What would a normal person respond to that?" I try and do an impression of normal people that talk about food and traffic and the weather. I listen to what those people say, and I repeat what they say, but I don't understand any of it. If someone said to me, "Boy, the food here is great," I would just want to say, "But we're all going to die anyway, what's the difference?"
Q. How do you stay an outsider after success, marriage and kids?
A. I guess I just never wanted to be an insider. I've had the same old friends for, like, 35 years. I don't have a different life. I have a better life in terms of material things, but I don't really do anything different. My life, to me, in the important ways, has not changed. It's changed in a lot of other ways that are great, but me having kids, I have the same experiences that everybody else has that has kids.
Q. Is the world funnier or less funny from your Mount Olympus vantage point?
A. (Laughs.) Everything in life is funny to a comedian. Everything is absurd. You have to find a way to communicate what you're seeing.
Q. You've conquered the TV sitcom, you did a movie, you're reinventing the talk show for the Internet age. Why keep pushing yourself?
A. It's really fun to invent stuff. If I wasn't writing new material, I would not do stand-up anymore, because it's the new stuff that I can't wait to see if it's going to work or not. To me, to any artist, it's a science experiment. You make something, and you see if people like it. There's something about comedy — when you make someone laugh, it really feels like you've made the world just a tiny bit better. It just feels so worth the effort.
Q. So jokes matter?
A. To me they do. But it's kind of hard to say that. I am deadly serious about everything that I do in comedy. Deadly. Mostly because it's so unforgiving. This concept that I can go in front of any audience and do well is the funniest thing. Nobody automatically does well. That's why I wanted to be back in stand-up after the TV series. Because there's just no cheating, and there's no gimmes.
Q. Not even a five-minute grace period at the top of the show?
A. When I go out there and fumble the first joke, it's quiet. It's totally quiet. Any joke, if it's not timed right and said right and done right, dies.
Q. If you were making a sitcom about your life today, what would it be like?
A. That's probably why I haven't done it. The life I occupy now doesn't really have the charm of being a young and up-and-coming stand-up comedian. Once you're old — it would have to be something about marriage and family. I find marriage to be one of the funniest subjects. I'd probably start with the idea of a guy who gives seminars on wife-ology.
Q. Sounds a little like The Marriage Ref. Have you thought about why that show didn't work?
A. Yes, I have. It was pretty obvious, once we set about doing it, that the audience perverted the conversation. Things people say to each other at the dinner table, they don't feel comfortable saying in a TV studio. That's kind of what took me to Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, which lets me keep it private and see what I can discover about conversation.
Q. How about a marriage movie?
A. Yeah, if I had it in me. I don't really get movie ideas, those kinds of big ideas that only a movie can hold. I don't really even like the size of movies, really. I'd much rather watch Laurel and Hardy two-reelers than any of their features. I think they're much funnier. I like the size of stand-up bits. I like the size of a sitcom. I have never liked the size of movie comedies. It just feels unwieldy. It tends to crush a small, quirky idea, which is what makes a great comedy.
Q. What makes a great bit?
A. It's the way it stays with you. It's never the jokes you think. I love Brian Regan's "Donut Lady." I'm sure when he first wrote "Donut Lady," he didn't think this is going to really hit people hard. It's one of his famous bits, about going to this doughnut place and ordering 12 doughnuts, and the lady counts down as you pick them: "You have eight left . . . you have six left." It's become this legendary bit. That's not planned. It just happened.
Q. Is there a perfect joke?
A. No. There are jokes that are perfect for you. There's some study about how they can never get a group of people to agree that five jokes are funny, or five jokes are not funny. There's always someone that disagrees in the group. That's just the nature of comedy. It's very, very personal.
Q. Do you have a comedic Spidey-sense?
A. I do have a Spidey-sense. I could do a set, and we could play it on a monitor, and I could show you the number that it reaches on the level meter, like, "Oh, that's a laugh, that's something that will stay in the set," and "This one will have to go." I could show you numerically. I don't know what that number is, but I could figure it out. It's like baseball. There's a batting average that keeps you in the majors, and there's a batting average that does not. It's the same with jokes. Like everything else, there are rules. You have to figure out the rules.
Q. Are you still figuring them out?
A. No, I figured them out a long time ago. I was trying to work on this bit about those stickers — the family member stickers on the back windows of minivans where people show their family members as little stick figures. I have a whole bit about that, and then it goes into this other bit about fatness. A lot of comedians do bits about the weight problem, and it's always a thing of trying to figure out "How much can I insult these people and get away with it?" If you call the audience fat, they might not like that. But if you tell them in a funny way, they might like it. These are things that are not known.