Seinfeld on the Web, Portion Controlled
By DAVE ITZKOFF
Published: May 4, 2011
Over the course of a comedy career of 36 years and counting and 9 seasons of a singularly influential sitcom, Jerry Seinfeld has built a vast repository of stand-up material but was never truly master of his domain, in the online sense.
That will change on Friday with the debut of his Web site, JerrySeinfeld.com, an online home for video of nearly every recorded comedy performance given by its creator and namesake, who at 57 is hardly in his autumn years but is contemplating posterity.
“I really thought, ‘Where’s my stuff going to be when I’m dead?’ ” Mr. Seinfeld said Tuesday in an interview. “Is it just gone for all time? Who could sift through it? I thought, I should filter this out and be the judge of what I thought was good.”
For the site Mr. Seinfeld has opened his vault and come back with more than 1,000 clips of his stand-up act and comedic interviews. One segment dates to 1977, when Mr. Seinfeld, wearing glasses and wide lapels and speaking with a distinct Noo Yawk accent, made his television debut on “Celebrity Cabaret.” The others range from his first network television appearance, on a 1981 broadcast of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” (an occasion whose 30th anniversary coincides with the site’s opening day) to the present.
But each day the Web page will offer only three of these videos, chosen by Mr. Seinfeld, a strategy that reflects his theories about online content as well as his concerns about what he called “portion control.”
“I don’t want everything,” he said. “Burger King now has a burger where you decide how many patties. How disgusting is that? That’s the problem right there. That’s the cultural moment that I am repudiating here.”
Seated in a conference room at the Union Square offices of Ammirati, the advertising agency that designed the site for him, Mr. Seinfeld offered a demonstration of the project.
Beginning with a home page that features a simple black-and-white photograph of him in mid-performance and covered in the names of his characteristically quotidian routines (“The Pharmacist Is Two Feet Higher”; “The Ocean Doesn’t Want Us In It”) the site links to a mission statement and a roster of Mr. Seinfeld’s current tour dates.
Clicking on the titles of three routines at the top of the page — the only elements in color — brought up video of those performances, including a youthful Mr. Seinfeld in that momentous “Tonight Show” debut, riffing about the holder of the Guinness record for world’s fattest man. (“Fourteen hundred pounds, ladies and gentlemen, the man has let himself go.”) Mr. Seinfeld said the site had been inspired in part by his interactions with a young nephew and his 10-year-old daughter, Sascha, who have become interested in the personas and routines of stand-up comedians at about the same age he did.
Though much of Mr. Seinfeld’s material exists in unauthorized forms around the Web, he said: “Who can go through the ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ catacombs of YouTube? It’s completely random.”
Mr. Seinfeld spent several months gathering recordings from his personal archives and industry colleagues (one vintage tape was still lodged in a producer’s VCR, he said) and having them digitized. Meanwhile the Ammirati agency created a content-management system for the site that allowed Mr. Seinfeld to search the clips by title, source, running time or a one- to four-star rating that he assigned them. (Very few that he scrolled through appeared to have four stars.)
Matthew Ammirati, the agency’s president, said he and his team initially tried to talk Mr. Seinfeld into a flashier Web site with far more bells and whistles.
“We were saying, ‘We want you Twittering, we want to do apps for you, we’ll have a video camera on your head,’ ” Mr. Ammirati said, exaggerating somewhat.
But Mr. Seinfeld made clear that Twitter was not his thing (“That’s stand-up with a net,” he said) and that he had no interest in writing a blog of his thoughts and observations, as many other comedians do.
“Everybody’s doing that easy stuff because that’s easy,” he said. “I want to show something that I worked hard on, and was really hard for me to do.”
Though he acknowledged that he is a latecomer to having a full-fledged Internet presence, Mr. Seinfeld said he had often been approached about creating Web sites, usually envisioned as platforms for him and his comedian friends to produce original online content. He turned down those opportunities, he said, because “they just got out of control.”
At the same time, Mr. Seinfeld said, he is fascinated with the Web’s potential for delivering his ideas to an audience exactly as he envisions them.
“Why would I talk to a TV executive at this point, and ask them what they think?” he said. “If I have this idea for a TV show,” he noted, “I can just put it up on the Internet.”
He said video clips from the “Seinfeld” series might be used in another, unspecified Web project. (Only his stand-up segments from that show will appear on JerrySeinfeld.com).
For now if a visitor spends only five or six minutes per day at the site, Mr. Seinfeld said, that is about as much interaction as a user wants with an application on a tablet device or smart phone (a device he said he uses mostly for making appointments with friends and conversing with other car enthusiasts).
But Mr. Seinfeld has devoted far more time poring over the video archive, forgetting sometimes that the occasionally unpolished but deeply committed entertainer seen in its footage grew up to become him.
Reviewing some of his performances from the early 1980s, Mr. Seinfeld said he saw in them “a newborn fawn — the knees were very wobbly.”
But when he reached the end of that decade, just before he was offered the television series that changed his life, Mr. Seinfeld said: “I’m watching it and thinking: ‘Boy, he’s really got it together now. He knows how to write and how to perform. Something should happen to this guy at this point. I hope something breaks for him.’ ”