Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld Talk Oscars, Netflix, Staying Funny And The Importance Of Irritation At New Yorker Festival

Jerry Seinfeld gave a shout out to Netflix for helping shift perceptions of comedians — and their paydays — as he and Steve Martin trash talked the genre-snubbing Oscars.

“I think for a long time, and actually until Netflix, comedians were just not as important, not as valuable, not considered major artists or real artists. But when Netflix came along and they started doing these specials [including his] with people and paying them like movie-star money, was the first time people started to look at comedians like, ‘These people are as good as the actors, or as valuable,” said Seinfeld at a virtual session at the New Yorker Festival Wednesday night.

The iconic comedians recalled their first funny friends in grade school and their first funny bits in an hourlong chat with each other and moderator Susan Morrison, the magazine’s articles editor.

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Martin noted “the absence of a comedy presence at the Oscars, at awards. It’s a lifetime of dismissal of comedy. And we who make it know that we really work hard. You know, drama has an inherent weight and comedy has an inherent lightness. So, I mean I don’t worry about that, I don’t worry that comedians don’t get Oscars.”

Seinfeld, whose new book “Is This Anything?” out this month features his best work over the decades, agreed. “The audience is the ultimate judge of what has value. If they pay to see something that’s their way of saying this is important to us, we love this.”

“Comedians don’t need awards and acclaim to be taken seriously. If you have a life in comedy … that is the award you get to be in comedy.”

The really annoying thing is that comedians are sought after Oscar hosts and their bits are usually the highlights of the telecast. “Will Ferrell comes out and that’s the best part of the whole night!” said Seinfeld.

“I once wrote a piece for the New Yorker called Where Comedians are on Oscar Night. Chris Rock is at home and Eddie Murphy is doing this but nobody is there. They need comedians to host it. I say, why don’t you just get an actor to host it,” said Martin. He and Chris Rock have both hosted the telecast. Most recently, they helped kick off the host-less 2020 ceremony.

Martin, author, playwright, actor and ace on the banjo, has “A Wealth of Pigeons,” with New Yorker cartoonist Harry Bliss, coming out in November and an upcoming Hulu series Only Murders in the Building with Selena Gomez and Martin Short.  He’s also back at standup in a series of two-man shows with Short.

Martin said he got his start at 15 working at a magic shop in Disneyland. He parlayed that at 16 into a comedy act at the Kiwanis Club. “They love it when the tricks don’t work, and I felt like comedy is where it’s at.”

He honed his clean cut, smart-silly image as a reaction to the Vietnam War. “There was so much anger and every comedian did politics… and I just had this feeling, around 1971, I thought things are going to change. And I cut my hair, shaved my beard and I put on a suit rather than my  hippie clothes and I took out every – not every – curse work or extreme bits and I became like an accountant. And, I don’t know, I think the nation was just kind of waiting for something a little goofy.”

For years. Then he stopped and made movies instead. “Basically, I was tired and I was creatively dead for writing standup material and I saw this window of opportunity because I thought, ‘Gee, instead of going to do a show in Ohio, and I have to go there to do it, I said, I will make a movie and the movie will go there.’ And I had the idea that every night is a little bit different [with standup] but with a movie I can do the best job I can with a scene and make it exactly right… And it also had more longevity.”

Seinfeld said he finds inspiration in irritation, as in: “Everything is stupid, everyone is an idiot and everything that everyone does deserves to be made fun of.”

He dismissed the trope of the needy comic. “Neediness is not the ingredient. Irritability is an essential ingredient. If you are not easily irritated it is hard to be funny. There is a certain anger in it that makes it funny. We all have it, but the comedian gives it a candy shell that makes it fun.”

Even in a highly charged time — and on the eve of the vice presidential debate — neither is political, or seeks controversy.

“Marty and I think about it all the time. ‘Can we say that?’ Because what you don’t want in the middle of your comedy show is to be booed. It throws everything off… That’s a comedy killer,” said Martin.

Seinfeld, asked about comedians who won’t play college campuses because young people are so easily offended, said: “Sure. I had just heard some comedians tell me that they don’t want to play colleges. I never stopped playing colleges. I’ll play anywhere. And the rules are constantly changing. Culture is not a solid, it’s a liquid and that’s the excitement of comedy. It’s like jumping on the ocean surf and trying to swim…That’s what people come to see, can one person control this larger more powerful force that is facing them. That is the art and skill in comedy.”

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