It’s the birthday of the comedian whose television sitcom spawned such quirky pop culture catchphrases as “Yada yada yada” and “No soup for you!” That’s Jerry Seinfeld, born on this day in Brooklyn, New York (1954). Seinfeld is best known for his long-running television sitcom Seinfeld (1989–1998), in which he played a thinly veiled version of himself, a stand-up comedian living in New York City surrounded by anxious and conniving friends, like his pal George Costanza, who once made up a fake charity called “The Human Fund,” convinced his coworkers to donate, and kept the money for himself.
Jerry Seinfeld grew up loving the comedy of Robert Klein and the Abbott and Costello movies. His father was an aficionado of jokes: while he was stationed in the Pacific during World War II, he’d write down the best jokes he heard and store them in a box for safekeeping. Jerry Seinfeld started performing stand-up while still in college, honing his skills at clubs like Budd Friedman’s Improv and Catch A Rising Star. He wasn’t a fan of vulgar comedy, and his show was clean and popular, with his observational humor about everyday life catching the audience off guard. One popular joke was, “Why does moisture ruin leather? Aren’t cows outside a lot of the time?” Another was, “A two-year-old is like having a blender, but you don’t have a top for it.”
When Jerry Seinfeld was invited to perform on The Tonight Show in 1981, he was so nervous he jogged around Manhattan listening to his five-minute routine more than 200 times on his Walkman. His acting career began with a recurring bit part on the television sitcom Benson in 1979. He played a mail delivery boy. He was fired abruptly, but no one bothered to tell him; he just showed up for taping one day and learned he had no part in the script.
Seinfeld and his friend, comedian Larry David, were either in a grocery store or a diner, no one can quite get the story straight, joking about everyday things, when they came up with the idea for a show about a comedian and his everyday life. The show would be called The Seinfeld Chronicles and would feature humor based on real things that happened to David and Seinfeld. Seinfeld played himself, and the character of George Costanza was a loose version of Larry David, and when Seinfeld first hit the air, it took a few years to become a hit, but when it did, it became the most popular sitcom in America. The characters of Jerry and George even pitched a show, just like the one audiences were watching, to fictional television executives over the course of several episodes, in which George describes the show as “about nothing.” The phrase caught on, though Seinfeld wasn’t sure why. He said: “The pitch for the show, the real pitch, when Larry and I went to NBC in 1988, was we want to show how a comedian gets his material. The show about nothing was just a joke in an episode many years later, and Larry and I to this day are surprised that it caught on as a way that people describe the show, because to us, it’s the opposite of that.”
Seinfeld writes all his jokes longhand with a Bic pen on yellow legal pads, and says doing live comedy is like “standing against a wall blindfolded, with a cigarette in your mouth, and they’re about to fire.”