To be a “comedian’s comedian” usually means that regular people don’t think you’re funny. A happy exception is Jerry Seinfeld. He is recognized by comedians and non-comedians alike to be among the greatest funny men of all time.
Jonah Weiner from the New York Times Magazine just wrote a remarkable profile of Jerry Seinfeld. Weiner covers a number of Seinfeld’s practices that not only make him one of the funniest people alive, but also make him a role model for teachers.
First, a great quote from Seinfeld on why stand up comedy is important in this age of digital media: “We’re craving the nondigital even more these days, the authentically human interaction. We need to see some schmuck sweat.”
It’s true for in-person classes, too; students respond more to a teacher in the room than to a few lines of text on a screen. When someone literally puts themself out there, you pay attention.
Seinfeld structures his comedy routines carefully to make the whole one-hour set as funny as possible. “There’s different kinds of laughs… It’s like a baseball lineup: this guy’s your power hitter, this guy gets on base, this guy works out walks. If everybody does their job, we’re gonna win.”
This is a complex skill beginning teachers lack – the ability to meaningfully order activities to best help students learn. Too often, new teachers will cram a class with one “fun” activity after another. The problem is that you often need some boring activities up front to learn the new information or skills you will practice through the fun activities. In fact, for adult learners, an activity divorced from meaning is rarely fun at all – no matter how interactive or creative it is. The point isn’t to have your class be a series of awesome activities; it’s to for your class to have a series of thoughtfully chosen activities that will best help students learn what you’re teaching them.
You start with something interesting to get your students’ attention, you push them a little, let them breathe, surprise them, entice them and end on a high note – not unlike a good comedy show.
Seinfeld is above all else a craftsman. He’ll work on a joke for years, tweaking his wording and delivery at countless performances around the country until the bit is as funny as it can be or he has to let it go. I’ll quote him here at length:
“I had a joke: ‘Marriage is a bit of a chess game, except the board is made of flowing water and the pieces are made of smoke… This is a good joke, I love it, I’ve spent years on it. There’s a little hitch: ‘The board is made of flowing water.’ I’d always lose the audience there. Flowing water? What does he mean? And repeating ‘made of’ was hurting things. So how can I say ‘the board is made of flowing water’ without saying ‘made of’? A very small problem, but I could hear the confusion. A laugh to me is not a laugh. I see it, like at Caltech when they look at the tectonic plates. If I’m in the dark up there and I can just listen, I know exactly what’s going on. I know exactly when their attention has moved off me a little.
“So, I was obsessed with figuring that out. The way I figure it out is I try different things, night after night, and I’ll stumble into it at some point, or not. If I love the joke, I’ll wait. If it takes me three years, I’ll wait… The breakthrough was doing this” [Seinfeld traced a square in the air with his fingers, drawing the board.] “Now I can just say, ‘The board is flowing water,’ and do this, and they get it. A board that was made of flowing water was too much data. Here, I’m doing some of the work for you. So now I’m starting to get applause on it, after years of work. They don’t think about it. They just laugh.”
I’ll be honest; I don’t get exactly how Seinfeld’s drawing the board. Does he still say the pieces are made of smoke? In any case, I bet it’s hilarious when he delivers it onstage. More importantly, he recognized that audiences’ laughs were a bit thin, that the joke could be funnier, that it was the cognitive load keeping them from fully processing it, and finally, the slightly out-of-the-box thinking (drawing in the air with his hands) to allow his audiences to think less and laugh more.
Of course, our goal is to make students think more. But it’s also to make sure they’re thinking more about what they need to learn. How many times have I spent more time setting up an activity than students spent doing it? (Many.)
Almost every teacher can stand to do a little more of this: To carefully assess our activities – and that’s the most beautiful line in the whole story, “If I’m in the dark up there and I can just listen, I know exactly what’s going on” – and then systematically determine what’s gone wrong and how to fix it.
What I learned about teaching from Jerry Seinfeld is that we should treat any activity which doesn’t reach its full potential like a failure: We should think about it, tweak it, and do it again and again until the activity best helps students learn what we’re teaching.
Or, if all else fails and only then, we should let it go.