staying power

I was delighted to see that Marc Maron finally interviewed Jerry Seinfeld for his podcast. Like the other exemplars I regularly feature—Philip Glass, David Lynch, David Bowie, etc.—Seinfeld is a consummate producer. Disciplined, rigorous, relentless, I think he’d do what he does regardless of the money or acclaim. Rich as Croesus, he still schleps around the country doing stand-up, working different rooms in nowhere towns just to put together an hour of comedy. Whether you like his work or not (Maron doesn’t), Seinfeld’s work ethic is famous enough to inspire its own mythology. It inspires me, too. Listening to the episode, I was surprised to learn that Jerry’s own inspiration came from George Burns. 

When Seinfeld was just starting out, he observed talented comics struggling to stay in the game after their initial success. They’d kill in their first appearance on The Tonight Show and then underdeliver a subsequent appearance and lose the opportunity to return. In his view, they failed to accept that new material is hard. Doesn’t matter if you’re famous. Doesn’t matter if you’re rich. Like Janet Jackson, the audience wants to know: What have you done for me lately? You have to put in the work in to create new work—and new work is always more work than you think.

Experts who become authors do this too. Typically, the first book represents years, even decades, of professional training, career experience, study, thought, and experiment. In their eagerness to impress the reader, they pack their book with their most original and compelling insights. They put all their cards on the table.

If book one succeeds, they’re rewarded with an even bigger deal for the follow-up. But now they have to develop and execute a new book that somehow matches the accomplishment of the first one in a fraction of the time. Worse, what time they do have is eaten up by the fruits of their success: speaking opportunities, networking, and sheer, simple luxury.

Who can blame successful authors for enjoying themselves? A bare handful of books really take off. If lightning strikes for you, are you really going to turn your back on fame? Go back into a quiet room and spend another year grinding away in solitude? Of course not. Yet that new deadline approaches. So something gets hacked together of the appropriate word length. Maybe it’s not all that original. Maybe it’s not even particularly interesting. But it sort of kind of feels like the first book, and for your devoted fans, that’ll have to do. But of course it won’t compare and of course it will underperform. By the time book three underdelivers more severely and even your devoted fans start complaining on Amazon, your editor isn’t taking your calls anymore. (I always took my authors’ calls, but I was in the minority.)

It’s all perfectly understandable when that happens. But that doesn’t stop authors from being totally surprised when it does. Regardless, I’m always most fascinated by creators of any kind who keep making work not through failure but through success.

At a time when his peers were spending the bulk of their free time “bullshitting with other comics,” Jerry realized he needed a better system if he was going to stick around for the long haul. That’s when a friend gave him a copy of Burns’s 1976 memoir, Living It Up. When it comes to staying power, nobody has a leg up on Burns, who was cranking out Oh, God! movies well into his eighties. For Seinfeld, the book was a revelation. In it, Burns talks about his start in vaudeville and his struggles to succeed in show business. Like Seinfeld, Burns realized he needed to approach his creative work like a job. So he came up with a system:

Seinfeld: He sat and worked every day for at least two hours.

Maron: On jokes. 

S: On jokes. Which I had never heard of, or done.

M: And you didn’t know anybody who was doing that.

S: Didn’t know anybody that did that.

M: But everybody had a notebook, no?

S: Yeah, they had notebooks. But nobody sat down and said, “I want to do something on dogs.”

Jerry realized that it wasn’t enough to write down funny ideas. He needed to systematically work out his new material, day after day. He had to produce new work methodically, with no ego attached, if he was going to generate enough to keep his act fresh. Like any other comic, he’d start with an idea, but, unlike his peers, he didn’t stop there. In his mind, if you had an idea worth using in front of an audience, it was worth the effort of sustained development:

Let’s really explore this on a piece of paper. And then explore it on stage. Let’s do both. Everybody was just kind of doing it on stage. And I think, to this day, most people do. They just catch hold of an idea, they take it on stage, and that works for a lot of people…It wasn’t enough for me.

Clearly, that discipline paid off for Seinfeld. He was one of the only comics to appear regularly on both Late Night with David Letterman and The Tonight Show. When it came time to write scripts for Seinfeld, the blank page held no terror for him. He’d trained himself well, not only to work but to work things out.

If you’re brimming with good ideas, I’m happy for you. But a good idea isn’t enough. Go further. Explore it on a piece of paper. Work it out. Explore its ramifications. Be systematic. Develop that idea to its fullest. Two hours. More. Then do it again tomorrow. And the next day. That idea will lead to others. Your ideas will start to connect. As days become weeks and weeks become months, you’ll develop a cohesive body of work from what had been a scattering of insights. And when that work culminates in a book of profound value to readers, you’ll already be driving forward toward the next one.