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Book Review: Is This Anything?

By Ryland Johnson


Jerry Seinfeld’s Is This Anything? is a career-spanning retrospective of his joke writing, which is organized by decade. The book depends largely on Seinfeld’s mystique of self: the televisual success story and aloof arch-comic of the city, madly scratching jokes on notepads, offering us now his craft book of refined work, certifying his being a genius all along.

What works about the book is that it is very refined. It has a slick-but-light sans-serif typeface that feels modern and antiseptic. It has a heavy feel of authorial editorialization. It has no indentation. Everything is flush left, short lines, thoughts in block, economy of word.

Seinfeld lays out his retrospective as if it was a book of poetry. In this form, jokes about airline travel or marriage seem to be elevated to something approaching artfulness. It’s achingly almost-art with tiptoes of poignancy. The deliberate poeticization of the comedy bit begs a lot of interesting questions about the limits of craft. Is there art in stand-up? Or is it just a nice thing we enjoy because it’s funny, in the same way we enjoy food because it’s tasty?

Fans of Seinfeld’s comedy get the tasty, funny bits. They’re all there, and, thankfully, the work’s heavily circumspect editorial voice spares us from cringey and distracting wrong notes. The work feels agonized over – it’s so clean. There’s a meticulousness in expression that is very respectable. I don’t think this was an easy book to produce. The easy book would have been the same lazy, uninspired comic celebrity memoir we’ve all read a hundred times.

It is the comedian’s job to observe and catalog all the humorous ways in which life and art fall short, but I can’t help thinking that this book might be the closest thing to poetry a casual reader might get in a span of years.