Dad Jokes With Mr Jerry Seinfeld
The legendary comedian on how to be a better parent and why his kids are his toughest audience
In Seinfeld, the show that made his name and his fortune, Mr Jerry Seinfeld played a character infamous for his commitment issues. He didn’t want to settle down, didn’t want to get married, never thought about kids. This, it turns out, wasn’t too far off reality. Throughout his thirties and early forties, Mr Seinfeld was solely focused on co-creating and starring in the most successful, most syndicated sitcom series of all time. (Now 63, he is the world’s wealthiest comedian with an estimated net worth in excess of $900m, according to Forbes.)
Enough, eventually, was enough, though. Mr Seinfeld reportedly turned down an offer of $100m, or $5m an episode, to make a 10th series, in order finally to concentrate on his personal life. Within a few months of the show wrapping in 1998, he met and fell in love with Ms Jessica Sklar. They married the following year and now have three children – a 16-year-old daughter Sascha, and two sons, Julian, 14, and Shepherd, 12.
When his first child was born, Mr Seinfeld was 46, and soon found babies come with lots of stuff. Ms Seinfeld had the bright idea of setting up an organisation called Baby Buggy to re-distribute essentials such as cribs, strollers/prams and high chairs to support struggling families. The charity has evolved over the years and is now called GOOD+ Foundation. “I have always been involved in Jessica’s work but it wasn’t until the organisation started focusing on the importance of fathers a few years ago that this work became very personal to me,” he says. Of the families they support across the US, 63 per cent live in a home with no father. Mr Seinfeld now leads the GOOD+ Foundation’s Fatherhood Leadership Council, made up of nearly 60 fathers, to help raise awareness and funds on initiatives that focus on engaging fathers with their children.
But it isn’t just parenthood and the charity that have kept Mr Seinfeld active since the end of his eponymous sitcom: following a much-hyped return to stand up in the late 1990s, he has kept his toe in, with semi-regular tours. He’s also made numerous special appearances and cameos, including with Seinfeld co-creator Mr Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm and a lead role in the 2007 animation Bee Movie (you could say he’s been a busy bee). In 2012, he began the web series Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, which has seen Mr Seinfeld chat with the likes of Mr Steve Martin in a 1966 Ford Mustang, Mr Jim Carrey in a 1976 Lamborghini Countach and President Barack Obama (a US president rather than a comedian, although the lines are increasingly blurry) in a 1963 Corvette Sting Ray. This award-winning show has just been snapped up by Netflix in a reported $100m deal that also includes two stand-up specials.
We’re sitting having coffee, inevitably, overlooking the Hudson River in New York on the roof terrace above Vanity Fair photographer Mr Mark Seliger’s studio. Mr Seinfeld has changed back into his civvies of a New York Mets tracksuit top, blue jeans and white Nike Shox. But you’ll note that in the portraits that accompany this interview, Mr Seinfeld is wearing a simple white shirt. MR PORTER is proud to support GOOD+ Foundation this year by launching our “White Shirt Campaign” to donate the profits from a curated selection of white shirts sold on the site between now and Father’s Day on 18 June – shop the collection here. To make a direct donation, visit goodplusfoundation.org.
What kind of father would you say you are?
I’m not that involved in their school stuff. I’m not involved in their social stuff. I am just always around them and I’m very good at drawing them out, you know? I think some fathers struggle with, “My kid doesn’t want to talk to me,” or, “I can’t get them to engage with me in conversations,” especially as they get into the teen years. I’m always able to get that conversation going. If you start asking them: “What’s going on? What’d you do today?” Nothing – they’re not going to give you anything from that. You need to get in there and I’m good at that. You know, “Did you laugh today? What did you laugh at today?” I’ll ask them a better question than, “What happened at school today?”
What kind of father would your children say you are?
I never lose it around them. The one time I really, really got upset was when my daughter was watching the Kardashians on her phone in her bed and I could not take that scene. For someone who for their whole life, television was the Olympics of being a comedian. It was only for the very best. You had to have everything. You had to go through all the different hierarchies of your career to get to television. I’m offended by reality television on many levels and that show of course is the premier example of reality television. These people are not doing anything interesting. I lost my temper with that one.
How naturally did parenting come to you?
Not naturally. There really needs to be better instructions. For relationships and for parenting. There’s a lot of very basic things that you could tell any guy who’s getting married. I would say it wasn’t until I was married 10 years that I really could put out a nice short manual that I would clip to your sleeve. Here’s what you do, here’s what you don’t do. Wifeology needs to be taught. And Dadism needs to be taught.
What advice would you offer, then?
Number one, as often as you can, say to your wife, “What can I help you with?” Until she tells you that you’re saying it too much. This is a good father and a good husband. Because you don’t know what needs doing, but there’s something. So ask. A second tip? Anything she’s holding, grab it. Take it. Obviously [if it’s] heavy. Not a phone or her glass of wine. “Right, give me that!” And don’t look for fairness.
What do you think makes a great dad?
It’s about: “I’m going to take care of you in a way you’re not even going to understand till I’m probably dead.” That to me is what being a great dad is. Just dealing with everything you have to deal with, to hang in there. You’re not going to understand your father till way, way deep in your life. You’re not going to understand what he did, the value of what he did.
As a father now, what piece of advice would you like to have given yourself as a child?
I’m big on: “You figure it out.”
What’s Father’s Day like for you? Do you have any Festivus-like (that’s a Seinfeld reference, for the unintiated) traditions?
I don’t need any special days. I mean they’re all special. We spend a lot of time together and I enjoy every second of it. Again, I’m a believer in the ordinary and the mundane. These guys that talk about “quality time” – I always find that a little sad when they say, “We have quality time.” I don’t want quality time. I want the garbage time. That’s what I like. You just see them in their room reading a comic book and you get to kind of watch that for a minute, or [having] a bowl of Cheerios at 11 o’clock at night when they’re not even supposed to be up. The garbage, that’s what I love.
And what’s the deal with fathers and “dad jokes”?
There’s this freedom of fatherhood. Somehow the more annoying I am or the more disturbing I am to my child, they’re still my child and I’m still their dad. You’re not going to sever this relationship over a bad joke. Whereas you can with a friend or a partner. If you show that you have a horrible sense of humour, that relationship is suddenly in jeopardy. But not with your kid. There’s something fun about the resilience of that relationship. It’s going to survive this.
You keep your act clean. As a father, is that important to you – to keep the tone elevated?
Yes, very much. I know everybody’s going to learn the words and everyone’s going to use the words, but in this house around your parents, there’s going to be a respect – for yourself and your comportment and your manner.
Is that something you learnt from your father growing up?
No, I did not. My parents did not emphasise that. But it was kind of normal growing up in the 1960s. Nobody cursed in the house in the 1960s unless you really had really crazy hippy parents.
I understand your father passed away more than 30 years ago. What are your memories of him?
He was a great appreciator of life, which I am as well. I absorbed that from him and that’s very annoying to my kids. “I know, Dad. This is the best bagel. I know, Dad. You love breakfast more than anything…” You know I’m always over-appreciating. [But] I don’t think you can really ever over-appreciate. I’m a big proponent of revelling in the mundane and the ordinary. This is my favourite area to revel in.
How was your relationship with your dad?
It was good, it was fun. In those days when I grew up, your dad wouldn’t ever take you anywhere or do anything that was for you. That just suited me so well. My parents were not focused on me at all. I was so comfortable with that and I wouldn’t have wanted to be focused on. Now it’s the other way around.
What characteristics did you inherit from your father?
Humour and joy of life. He was very funny.
Is it true he used to transcribe jokes?
He had a joke file, yes. As do I.
What did he say when you told him that you were going to do that for a living?
Loved it. He said, “I wish I could have done that. I never had the opportunity.”
Do your kids find you funny?
Yes, although they can be a tough audience. I had this joke the other day that I tried on them that I thought was really funny which was: “Here’s a statement never heard in the history of New York City: ‘Hey why don’t we get a new awning?’” They just looked at me and they went, “Dad, that’s not funny at all.” They were wrong. I tried it at a nightclub and it got a huge laugh.
Do they ever watch Seinfeld?
My daughter did and I’d watch her watching it, but I don’t know what she thought of it. And I don’t know if my sons have watched it. I’m really trying to give them just a little bit of the privacy that I had as a child. My parents had no idea what I was up to, ever. I think that’s good. They should have their own life that I don’t know anything about.
You famously collect vintage Porsches, but what’s the family car?
The family car is a Mercedes G-Class, which is used by 75 different militaries around the globe because it’s the most indestructible automobile. So it’s perfect for New York.
Does what you’re wearing for when you’re performing stand-up affect your delivery?
Yes. I think it affects everything. The structure of a good suit kind of structures the attention of the audience. When your mission is to control a large group of people at your whim and will, the suit is the ultimate tool that you must have in your arsenal. You can’t think that you’re going to talk and people are going to listen. It’s like, “We better listen to this guy – his jackets and pants match.”
Who makes a good shirt, in your view?
Prada white shirts for suits, and I like a Ralph Lauren button-down with a sports jacket, because I don’t like wondering, “Where is that collar now?” The button-down: I really like the way it stands up against the lapel of a sports jacket.
You’ve said: “A man is judged by his wife, his car and his shoes.” What do yours say about you?
“Nothing but the best!”
How can you spot a father by what he’s wearing? What is it about “dad style”?
Well, they think they’re off the market and it doesn’t matter anymore, and they couldn’t be more wrong. It always matters. Flip-flops and tank tops on planes, for example, are just so offensive. I always wear a sports jacket on a plane. Always. And I cannot walk into a hotel lobby without a sports jacket. I just don’t feel good.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about fatherhood?
How completely worldview-changing some of these small moments can be. Like, my son is learning to play the Superman theme song on the piano as a present for my birthday. Catching him doing that, that completely changes your life. He knows I love Superman so he decided he’s going to do that as a present. Tonight I think is the performance. We’re celebrating my birthday tonight.
Support Good+ Foundation
Between now and Father’s Day on 18 June, all profits from a curated selection of white shirts go to GOOD+ Foundation. Shop the White Shirt Campaign here