A book full of jokes is not nearly as funny as watching a comedian do his act. I bought this book because Seinfeld said in an interview, pressed on this exact point, that really it’s a book for writers. I’m probably the only writer who believed him and ordered the hard cover.
The book is divided by decade, beginning with the 70s. This is when Jerry began writing jokes. They were short.
Still, I persisted. Maybe, I thought, he would have a little commentary on how to write humor at the beginning of the 80s section. He did not. Just more jokes. The jokes got longer and more complex in the 90s and beyond, but I wasn’t reading them anymore. I was looking on every page for writing wisdom. Particularly, I wanted to amp up my humor.
My editor says my novels have a “subtle” humor. The trouble with being subtle is that quiet ironies may land a bit too softly for others to recognize. I looked at every page of Jerry’s book. Twice. There was no writing advice anywhere within. There were witticisms by the dozens, jokes on every page, and, although I laughed a lot, I received zero advise on how to prod others do so while turning my pages.
To give him credit, he never said it was advice he was giving the reader. It was jokes, specifically, every joke he’d ever written. I realized he was teaching by example. I prefer things spelled out. My stomach hurt from laughing; I almost stopped reading, but then I noticed how he set his jokes up. The early ones had three parts and as he got better the jokes became much more complex. Funnier. If Jerry was a bottle of wine, he’d age well.
The other thing I noticed was his page breaks. I am writing this post in block format. It’s what people are used to seeing when they read anything on the internet. Before the internet we had indentation, not a space between paragraphs. But Jerry chose neither of these forms. His jokes were, I finally noticed, printed like poems.
Most people, I assume, know what poems look like. The lines break in the middle of a sentence. Or anywhere. It can seem random if you are not a reader of contemporary poetry and/or do not have an MFA in English. But I finally recognized the poem pattern and it dawned on me. Jerry was writing in joke lines. The early ones from the 70s were the simplest. The first sentence or phrase would be the set up. The second bit was an elaboration. And the third was the punchline.
This was the lesson for writers. Genius, right? He was showing instead of telling. I tried using Jerry’s method in the first few paragraphs of this post and then threw in a few more. Trying to be funny is exhausting.
“Show don’t tell” is another thing writing teachers say to new writers. It’s not always true, because sometimes you need to tell. Everyone knows how to tell. Showing is harder, and I tried to do that, too. But I’m no Jerry Seinfeld.