The Rise of the Attention Economy

Esther Dyson

21 December 2012

MOSCOWI was recently posed the following question: “The most important way in which the Internet and online social media are changing our world is [fill in the blank].” My standard answer is that it changes the balance of power between individuals and institutions. But this was a sophisticated audience of economists and students, gathered for the 20th anniversary of Moscow’s New Economic School. I needed new material.

So I challenged the audience to consider the following: For much of human history, there was no economy based on trade and fungible goods. People operated in small groups and fended for themselves. Scarcity was self-limiting: If you could not grow or catch your own food, you died (or moved). Specialization, trade, and pricing not to mention religions and (economically) unproductive religious institutions, mass production, mass media, and big government – are all recent developments.

Our current world is a mix of people still subsisting with almost no external income, people generating (and consuming) surpluses, and other people consuming surpluses generated by others. Commodity prices spread worldwide, though influenced by local conditions and constraints (including tariffs and other protectionist measures in China, Russia, America, and elsewhere).

Many activities that were previously performed “for free” (often within a household), such as sex, home maintenance, and care for the sick and elderly, are now frequently outsourced and counted as economic output. In general, it is fair to say that these activities are performed more efficiently as a result: People whose skills are worth, say, $50 per hour spend more of their time earning $50, rather than performing choresworth$10 or $20 per hour.

But the Internet is changing that as well, in a way that may befuddle the many companies who view it primarily as an economic platform, where they can market or sell things, or even charge for content. Those companies go online to earn money. Google is perhaps the purest example of a company that transforms purchase intentions into income; most otherInternetcompanies offer something of independent value on the other side of those searches.

But many individuals, most of the time, go online without any interest in buying something. They are there to find out about the world, catch up with friends, play games, listen to music, chat, or just hang out – and, increasingly, to get the attention of other people. Thanks to highly productive surplus economies, they can spend a lot more time being economically inactive.

This is not the familiar question of whether our machines will put us all out of work. In fact, the question is whether we will start doing more and more intellectual work for free or for barter, becoming more like our ancestors.

Instead of producing food or housing for ourselves or for barter, we will be producing content and amusement for one another, without engaging in explicit (taxable) financial exchange. Yes, there is a so-called gift economy, but there is also an attention market that may not be fungible or priced – a distributed, many-to-many economy that harks back to the old days.

The economic and psychological implications of this are profound. It seems pretty clear that most people gain self-esteem and mental health from doing something useful, whether raising children or earning a salary. I am not predicting a utopian world in which everyone is equally valued. But it may be a world in which people use their Klout Score (a measure of one’s online influence), their Twitter following, or a similar measure to justify their existence, assign value to their activities, and measure their self-worth.

The trouble (for economists and traditional businesses, at least) is that this future disturbs traditional notions of economic growth. Companies that provide content will increasingly find themselves competing with individuals who offer entertainment for free. This phenomenon is not visible yet, because analysts focus on popular bloggers and online media sites competing with traditional media.

But the real change is the rise of the “long tail” – millions of additional units of contentemail, Facebook posts, test messagesbeing read by only a few people each. That is possible only on the Internet, with its vanishingly small distribution costs. This will not be the unmeasured economy of yesteryear, but rather one where we quantify our efforts in other ways.

How do we tell if this is happening, economically? If we generate our own economic surplus without accounting for itwhat the American writer Clay Shirky callscognitive surplus” – how does that influence reported economic statistics and, ultimately, shape incentives and activities? Do we spend more on “communications,” meaning the hardware and infrastructure, even as the real value is unaccounted for? Can we apply that surplus to somethinguseful”?

Right now, fashion (let alone clothing) is becoming cheaper and cheaper. But you candofashion for free by designing an avatar for yourself. Will the world of cognitive surplus make it easier for us to be environmentally responsible, guided also by the inclusion of externalities in the prices of physical goods, so that we end upconsumingfewer physical things and spend more on virtual value?

This attention economy is not the intention economy beloved of vendors, who grab consumers’ attention in order to sell them something. Rather, attention here has its own intrinsic, non-monetizable value. The attention economy is one in which people spend their personal time attracting others’ attention, whether by designing creative avatars, posting pithy comments, or accumulatinglikes” for their cat photos.

Just as we are driven to spread our physical DNA, so apparently do we have an urge to spread our virtual identities, so that we cannot be erased. Instead of physical descendants, we are offering our own virtual selves to posterity.

Esther Dyson, an entrepreneur concentrating on emerging digital technologies, is Chairwoman of EDventure Holdings. She has served as a board member or early investor in numerous start-ups, including Cygnus Solutions, Flickr,, ZEDO, Medstory, and Medspace, and currently focuses on issues related to medical technology, aviation, and space travel.

Copyright Project Syndicate -

December 23, 2012 5:21 pm
Obama’s coming leap of faith on Europe
By acting now, the two regions still have the leverage to set standards, writes Edward Luce
Matt Kenyon illustration

Twenty years ago, Ross Perot predicted the giant sucking sound of US jobs going to Mexico. No such gloom will greet the announcement of a new US-EU trade initiative, which is expected – though not yet assured – in early 2013. Some economists will blow raspberries and talk of the limited upside to a transatlantic deal because of the existing openness between the two partners, or else outright failure given how many culturally sensitive non-tariff barriers remain. Yet economists are habitually prone to misreading the price of a thing for its value.

Fortunately, the geostrategic benefits to what is likely to be called the “transatlantic partnership” are now increasingly recognised on both sides. By 2030, Asia’s economy will be larger than that of the US and EU combined according to the US National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends report. By then the world might lookmore like Hobbes than Kant”, it says. By acting now when they still account for half the world’s economy, the US and EU still possess the leverage to set the global standards that others, including China, are likely to follow. Five years on, it may be too late. In the words of a senior EU official, the round would be “strategic not tactical, global not bilateral”.

Such talk might sound utopian at a time of sluggish growth on both sides of the Atlantic note Washington’s continued aversion even to the use of the wordtrade” in such deals. Yet 2013 presents the best moment for a serious US trade initiative since Mr Obama was first elected. Most European governments, including the French and particularly the Germans and British, are also enthusiastic.

There are three grounds to believe this will be announced in early 2013possibly as soon as Mr Obama’s State of the Union address in late January. First, Mr Obama could sell it politically at home.

Europe may attract derision but no one in the US associates it with a giant sucking sound. Wage rates are broadly similar across the Atlantic and labour and environmental standards are generally higher in the EU than the US. Thus Mr Obama would be spared the kind of union and environmentalist hostility that accompanies trade negotiations with countries such as Colombia. Given the free-trade tilt of the Republicans, this would be a rare issue that would attract bipartisan support.

Second, both the EU and the US are desperate for new sources of growth. The only realistic route is via higher productivity. Since there is little low-hanging fruit left to cut on tariffs, they would need to justify it by promising an ambitious agenda for transatlantic market integration. This would mean aiming for “equivalence”, or mutual recognition, of regulatory and product standards. For example, if a drug were approved by the European Medicines Agency, the Food and Drug Administration would accept it too. The same would apply to financial regulation, audio-visual standards and the notorious SPSsanitary and phyto-sanitary standards that keep most of America’s biggest agricultural exports out of the EU.

It is easy to see why such an agenda would invoke scepticism - think of how Europeans would react to a deal that permitted genetically modified US food imports or hormone-pumped beef. Yet the EU has bent over backwards to show it is in earnest. Last month, the EU removed one running sore when it dropped its objections to imports of US meat from abattoirs decontaminated with lactic acid, which raised (as it happens) unjustified concerns of side effects. The EU has also suspended for a year its imposition of carbon tariffs on foreign airlines, a particular bugbear in Washington.

Given the complexities of EU decision-makingBrussels’ dreaded system of “comitology” – America worries whether Europe could deliver on its side of the bargain. But the same concern applies to Washington. Mr Obama has not sought, and would be unlikely to receive, fast-track negotiating authority from Congress. Both sides would need to start with recognition of their nightmarish political systems – a mutual leap of faith. And on the neuralgic subject of agricultural protection, the climate of austerity ought to work in their favour. The time to cut subsidies is now.

Third, EU-US relations have been adrift for many years. As America’s first genuinely Pacific president, it is little surprise Mr Obama’s signature foreign policy goal is the “pivot to Asia”. But progress on the economic dimension is likely to be halting. Mr Obama’s Asia trade initiative, the Trans Pacific Partnership, is running into growing difficulties. It is clear China is not welcome in the clubBeijing sees the TPP as a form of US encirclement. But even Japan, which asked to join the TPP in May, was given a lukewarm response by the Obama administration. Selling Asian trade deals to the US public will never be easy. However frustrating dealing with the Europeans can be, they do share US values.

At a summit with EU leaders in Prague in 2009, Mr Obama sat through one of the dullest afternoons of his presidency when, one by one, 27 leaders read out their prepared statements. It gave him an early lesson on the downside of how European governments do business. But on trade, the EU tends to act as one.

And as the recent EU-Canada deal shows, they also tend to meet deadlines. Mike Froman, Mr Obama’s senior international economic adviser, and probably his next trade chief, insists any US-EU trade round should be completed on one tank of gas”. In contrast to the ill-fated Doha Round, which took a decade of torturous failure before it died, there would be a hard and fast deadline for a US-EU dealmid-2014, the date of the next European parliamentary elections and the eve of the next US midterms. In spite of everything that has gone wrong in the past four years, Europe has been far more proactive on trade than the US.

Trade liberalisation was one of the pillars of the post-second world war US world order. Under Mr Obama the global trade agenda has been suffering from benign neglect. So too have EU-US relations. The time has come for him to rectify both.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012

December 20, 2012

Jerry Seinfeld Intends to Die Standing Up



Jerry Seinfeld began his commute after dinner, in no particular hurry. Around quarter to 8 on a drizzly Tuesday, he left his Manhattan home — a palatial duplex apartment with picture windows and a broad terrace overlooking Central Park — and made for a nearby garage. Due to tell jokes at a comedy club downtown, he decided to drive what he calls his “city car”: a 1998 Porsche 911 Carrera 4S. Stepping into the garage, he tugged a thick fabric cover from the car. The interior was a pristine matte black, and the paint job was a startlingly luminous azure. “It’s called Mexico blue — a very traditional Porsche color,” Seinfeld said. “In the ’70s it looked normal, but now it looks insane.”
His hair, flecked with gray, was buzzed almost to the scalp, and he was dressed in light-blue Levi’s, a navy knit polo and a dark wool blazer. Seinfeld, who once said he wore sneakers long into adulthood “because it reminds me I don’t have a job,” has lately grown partial to Nike Shox, which he likes for their extravagant cushioning, but tonight he opted for tan suede desert boots. When he’s in the workplace — on a stage, microphone in hand, trying to make a crowd erupt — the feel of a harder sole helps him get into the right mind-set.
“I just tried a little Twitter experiment,” Seinfeld said. His appearance, at Gotham Comedy Club, had so far been kept secret, but just before leaving home, he’d announced the gig online on a whim.
“They’ve only got a half-hour to get there, so I’m not expecting a flash mob,” he said. Gotham was an opportunity for Seinfeld to audition brand-new material and fine-tune older bits in a relatively low-stakes context. In two days, he would perform for nearly 3,000 people at Manhattan’s Beacon Theater, and that show loomed large. It would be Seinfeld’s first performance in New York City since 1998, not counting impromptu club appearances and the odd private event, and it would kick off a citywide tour, with performances in each of the other boroughs.

Born in Brooklyn, educated in Queens and famous for a fictional Manhattan apartment, Seinfeld called the tour “a valentine,” but he was, on one level, ambivalent about it. “ ‘The Hometown Hero Returns’ is not my narrative of being a stand-up,” he said. “For me, it’s the hotel. It’s ‘I Don’t Belong Here.’ It’s ‘The Stranger Rides Into Town.’ That’s the proper form of this craft.”
Seinfeld wondered if hordes would see his tweet and hustle over to Gotham, but sparse attendance would be fine, too. Several weeks earlier he materialized, unannounced, at the Creek and the Cave, a club in Long Island City, and performed for “14 people.”

Most comedians dislike telling jokes to empty seats, but at this point Seinfeld enjoys a room that offers some resistance. “I miss opening for Frankie Valli and Ben Vereen, walking out as an unknown and there’s no applause: let’s get it on,” he said. “I once opened for Vic Damone at a nooner on a basketball court in Brooklyn.

They’re going, Who is this kid? Oh, god! They’re sure you’re not worth the trouble. But I’d win over some of those rooms.” After you’ve helped create and starred in one of television’s best-rated, best-loved sitcoms — a show that, thanks to rampant syndication, is still bursting Kramer-style into people’s living rooms 14 years after its finaletough crowds are tougher to come by. “I would love it if there were only two people there tonight,” he said.
To get the Porsche out of the garage, Seinfeld had to execute something like a 12-point turn, somehow managing, as he nudged the car back and forth, not to leave chips of Mexico blue all over an unnervingly close concrete column. Seinfeld is 58, and his face is rounder and more deeply lined than it once was, but it has retained the bright-eyed boyishness of his sitcom days. He smiles readily, either at something someone else has said or — since he is frequently the funniest person within earshot — at something he came up with. His default display of amusement is to squint hard and scrunch up his nose till his front teeth protrude from a rictus grin: a groundhog tickled by the sight of his own shadow.
Tonight he was feeling out of sorts. “My head’s spinning a little bit from the travel,” he said. He had returned only yesterday from France, where he spent a three-day vacation sightseeing with his family, attending a birthday party and examining a vintage Meyers Manx dune buggy he was thinking about buying. Ever since he began working comedy clubs, in 1975, Seinfeld has considered himself a stand-up above all else, and the other roles he has taken onsitcom icon, husband, father of three — can come into conflict with the calling. “We did a lot of moving, and we had a lot of fun,” he explained, “but I get thrown off easily. If I have one weekend off from stand-up, and I do something weird, I completely forget who I am and what I do for a living.”
Because Seinfeld’s big post-“Seinfeldprojects have been few and far between — the stand-up documentaryComedian” (2002), the animated children’s filmBee Movie” (2007), the reality-show misfireThe Marriage Ref” (2010), which he produced and appeared on as a judge — you might assume that he whiled away the last decade on a private island somewhere, racing Spyders and fanning himself with royalty checks. Instead, since 2000, Seinfeld has spent a portion of nearly every week doing stand-up. He is on track to do 89 shows this year, plus private appearances, which shakes out to about two performances a week. He’s living the life of a road comic, albeit one who sells out 20,000-seat London arenas and schleps to gigs via chartered planes rather than rented subcompacts.

Earlier this year, Seinfeld started a 10-episode online series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” in which he wheels around in gorgeous old Triumphs and Karmann Ghias and cracks wise over mugs of coffee with friends like Larry David, Alec Baldwin and Carl Reiner. The show’s intended audience, Seinfeld says, is “this bubble world of people who love funny and want to get into it a little closer.”
 But while he acknowledges the Internet’s usefulness in keeping comedy relevantpodcasts, video channels and Web sites devoted to comedy are booming — he sees stand-up as, at bottom, an antidote to technological alienation. “We’re craving the nondigital even more these days, the authentically human interaction,” he says. “We need to see some schmuck sweat.”
For Seinfeld, whose worth Forbes estimated in 2010 to be $800 million, his touring regimen is a function not of financial necessity but rather of borderline monomania — a creative itch he can’t scratch. “I like money,” he says, “but it’s never been about the money.” Seinfeld will nurse a single joke for years, amending, abridging and reworking it incrementally, to get the thing just so. “It’s similar to calligraphy or samurai,” he says.

“I want to make cricket cages. You know those Japanese cricket cages? Tiny, with the doors? That’s it for me: solitude and precision, refining a tiny thing for the sake of it.”
When he can’t tinker, he grows anxious. “If I don’t do a set in two weeks, I feel it,” he said. “I read an article a few years ago that said when you practice a sport a lot, you literally become a broadband: the nerve pathway in your brain contains a lot more information. As soon as you stop practicing, the pathway begins shrinking back down. Reading that changed my life. I used to wonder, Why am I doing these sets, getting on a stage? Don’t I know how to do this already? The answer is no. You must keep doing it. The broadband starts to narrow the moment you stop.”
Gotham Comedy Club was a 15-minute drive downtown. Passing the Museum of Natural History, Seinfeld tuned the car radio to WFAN, where a baseball game was under way. “Do you know this player Adam Greenberg?” he asked. “Seven years ago, he was a rookie, and in his very first at-bat he got hit in the head with the ballknocked out, concussed, out of the league.” Seinfeld raised an index finger from the wheel: “One pitch.” The Marlins had agreed to sign Greenberg for a single day after fans petitioned on his behalf. “It might seem a bit Jewy if I get too excited about it — I wish he wasn’t Jewish,” Seinfeld said. “But it’s a fascinating story. One at-bat after seven years. Think of the pressure on this guy!”
Seinfeld likes pressure. He describes doing live comedy as “standing against a wall blindfolded, with a cigarette in your mouth, and they’re about to fire.” His objective at Gotham was piecework. “A lot of what I’ll be doing tonight are tiny things in my bits where I’m looking for a little fix, where something isn’t quite smooth,” he said. “A lot of stuff I do out of pure obsessiveness.” One bit began with the observation that “tuxedos are the universal symbol for pulling a fast one.” “That line works,” he said. “But I want to get from there to a point about how the places where you see tuxedos are not honest placescasinos, award shows, beauty pageants, the maitre d’ — all these things feel shady.” He added: “But I’ve been having trouble getting the audience to that. I’m trying to bring that to a punchline.”
Seinfeld likens his fine-bore interest in jokes to his longstanding infatuation with Porsches, of which he owns “a few dozen.” People ask me, Why Porsches? A lot of it is the size, same as with bits. The smaller something is, the harder it is to make, because there’s less room for error.” In high school he took shop classes, even after a counselor told him that collegebound kids didn’t need to, because he wanted to know how machines fit together. “I have this old ’57 Porsche Speedster, and the way the door closes, I’ll just sit there and listen to the sound of the latch going, cluh-CLICK-click,” Seinfeld said. “That door! I live for that door.

Whatever the opposite of planned obsolescence is, that’s what I’m into.” Mark Schiff, a veteran club comic and one of Seinfeld’s oldest friends, told me: “He’s a scientist. When you watch him, he’s in the lab, concocting. I feel that way, too, to a degree, but with him every little nuance is so valuable.” Sarah Silverman, who has shared bills with Seinfeld and long admired him, agrees: “Whereas most comedians are lazy bastards, he’s the ultimate craftsman.” 

In front of Gotham, six orange traffic cones marked “Con Edison” were arranged in the street.
Spotting us, a bouncer built like a bank safe emerged to remove them: when Seinfeld appears here, he calls the owner, who reserves a space. Seinfeld got out, eliciting happy stares and excited murmurs from passers-by. His posture was excellent; his gait leisurely. In Gotham’s packed main room, the comic Jim Gaffigan was onstage.

Seinfeld remained in the hallway, studying a sheet of yellow paper scribbled with lines he wanted to improve. In the car, he’d warned me, “When I get to the club I’m not going to want to chat until after; I’m in my own world.” He made some small talk with the bouncer and the owner about baseball, but he was plainly preoccupied. The bouncer said, apropos of Greenberg’s head injury, “My daughter got a concussion, and she still gets headaches.” Seinfeld was staring at his notes. “Huh,” he replied, no longer listening.
After a few minutes, Gotham’s host asked the 300-strong crowd to welcome “a special guestJerry Seinfeld!” and if they’d been tipped off on Twitter, it didn’t diminish their enthusiasm. Yes! Yes!” a burly guy shrieked, grasping frantically for his phone to take a picture. Seinfeld’s set lasted 20 minutes and he seemed at ease. The tuxedo bit got medium-size laughs; one of the biggest explosions came when Seinfeld, mulling the topic of goofy outfits that dads wear on weekends, concluded, “All fathers essentially dress in the clothing style of the last good year of their lives” — a joke about aging-male despair couched in a joke about fashion. When Seinfeld recited it, a man in khakis did an actual spit take into his beer bottle. At one point, Seinfeld lost his thread and sighed as he checked his notes; even the sigh got a laugh. He closed to a standing ovation.
Seinfeld retired to a dressing room, plopping down beside a bucket of bottled water. I congratulated him on the performance. “I’d say two-thirds of that set was garbage,” he said, matter-of-factly.
Whether it was lines coming out wrong or the rhythm being off.” He said he’d counted probably eightjokes that failed to get the kinds of laughs he desired. “There’s different kinds of laughs,” he explained. “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.” I told him about the khaki guy’s spit take, and Seinfeld cracked up, calling this “a rare butterfly.” Nevertheless, “there wasn’t one moment where I was where I wanted to be. That was just a workout. I had to get it going again.”
Over nine seasons, “Seinfeldenjoyed an omnipresent, epochal success: you can draw a line from “Seinfeld” to Larry David’sCurb Your Enthusiasm” to Ricky Gervais’sOffice,” “Arrested Development,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” the AmericanOffice” and out from there to maybe half the sitcoms currently on the air. In stand-up circles, Seinfeld is a towering figure, revered for the sharpness of his eye as he scrutinizes subjects large (marriage, death) and small (answering-machine protocol, 5-Hour Energy drink). In 2001, George Carlin spoke admiringly of “the little world, the kind of world Jerry Seinfeld investigated to a great, high level.” When “Seinfeldwent off the air and Seinfeld began rededicating himself to stand-up, he told Time that he didn’t consider himself great. When I asked him how he evaluates his talent today, Seinfeld demurred before allowing, “I think it’s there now.” He says he plans to do stand-up “into my 80s, and beyond.”
One afternoon not long after the Gotham gig, Seinfeld invited me to his Upper West Side work space, where he spends most days, writing jokes. Clean, modern and cozy, it resembled some hip therapist’s office: a high-ceilinged, poured-concrete box with a long plushy couch, a little balcony and a kitchenette. Framed pictures covered a wall: a production still from the George ReevesSupermanserial; an original cartoon of Seinfeld and Alfred E. Neuman that ran on the cover of Mad Magazine in 1997; a photo of Steve McQueen with a Porsche 917 that the actor owned in the ’70s and that today belongs to Seinfeld. A sleek Pinarello racing bicycle, which Seinfeld rides around town, stood against a wall. “It’s very addictive, that feeling of gliding through the city,” he said. Some Emmys huddled in a corner beside a ventriloquist’s dummy, which Seinfeld cherishes more than the awards: “I did a comedy show with that in third grade.”
Seinfeld sat in an armchair in a sweater and jeans, resting gray Shox on a footstool. On a typical weekday, after getting the kids (his daughter Sascha, 12, son Julian, 9, son Shepherd, 7, to school and exercising in his building’s gym, Seinfeld walks here, grabs a legal pad and a Bic pen and sits at his desk. No street noise penetrates. The pages of the pad are destined for either a wastebasket or a master file containing Seinfeld’s entire act, handwritten. The other day, perusing this file, he found a joke in which, discussing touch-screen phones, he likens the act of scrolling through a contact list and deleting names to the effete, disdainful gesture of a “gay French kingdeciding whom to behead. Seinfeld wrote the joke a year ago and forgot it; having rediscovered it, he’d be telling it onstage that weekend.
Seinfeld’s shows last a little over an hour, but he has about two hours of material in active rotation, so he’s able to swap in different bits on different nights. 
There is a contemporary vogue for turning over an entire act rapidly: tossing out jokes wholesale, starting again from zero to avoid creative stasis.
Louis C.K. has made this practice nearly synonymous with black-belt stand-up. Seinfeld wants no part of it. “This ‘new hour nonsense — I can’t do it,” he said. “I wanna see your best work. I’m not interested in your new work.”

C.K., who used to open for Seinfeld, has called him “a virtuoso — he plays it like a violin,” and the two are friendly. I asked Seinfeld if he thought C.K.’s stand-up hours, widely praised, would improve if he spent more than a year honing each one.

“It’s not really fair for me to judge the way somebody else approaches it,” Seinfeld replied. “I care about a certain level of detail, but it’s personal. He would get bored of it. It’s not his way. It’s a different sensibility.” There was another big difference between the two, Seinfeld noted: “Working clean.”

Almost from the beginning, Seinfeld has forsworn graphic language in his bits, dismissing it as a crutch. Guys that can use any word they want — if I had that weapon, I’ll give you a new hour in a week,” he said.
Developing jokes as glacially as he does, Seinfeld says, allows for breakthroughs he wouldn’t reach otherwise. He gave me an example. “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,’ ” he said. “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 sayingmade 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,” he continued, “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.” Finally, in late August, during a performance, the cricket cage snapped into place. “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.”
Seinfeld believes funniness is genetic. When his father, Kalman, was stationed in the Pacific during World War II, he’d transcribe jokes he heard and store them in a box for safekeeping. “In the army, that’s kind of how you got through it,” Seinfeld says. “People would tell jokes by the score, because what else are you going to do to maintain sanity? The recognizing of jokes as precious material: that’s where it starts. If you’ve got the gene, a joke is an amazing thing. It’s something you save in a box in a war.”
Born in 1954 and raised on Long Island, in Massapequa, Seinfeld dreamed of growing up to be an advertising man, and he still appreciates commercials for their narrative economy. The Seinfelds were “pretty Jewish,” Seinfeld recalls: “Went to temple, kept kosher, two sets of dishes.” The younger of two siblings (his sister helps handle his business), he earned his first spit take, as a little kid, while snacking with a pal; Seinfeld told a joke, and the friend burst out laughing, spraying Seinfeld’s face with sodden crumbs. His love of comedy matured when he heard Jean Shepherd’s epic, askew radio monologues, and when he bought Bill Cosby’s 1965 album, “Why Is There Air? Seinfeld adored Shepherd’s knack for “taking something small and making it big,” and he marveled at Cosby’s vocal instrument: he can do this person, the sound of chewing gum, the corduroys rubbing together, the other kids — he was all over the keyboard.” But the comedian who made Seinfeld think he could actually become one was Robert Klein. “He was a New York, middle-class kid,” Seinfeld says, “and through that I could see a path for myself.”
Seinfeld’s work habits were stringent from the start. Studying communications and theater at Queens College, he arranged an independent study in stand-up, trying club sets, analyzing others’ sets and writing a 40-page paper. When he scored his first appearance on Johnny Carson’sTonight Show,” in 1981, he practiced his five-minute set200 timesbeforehand, jogging around Manhattan and listening to the “Superman theme on a Walkman to amp up.
We’re accustomed to the cliché of the stand-up as sad clown: a racked soul on a dim stage, salving psychic wounds, craving approval. When audiences yell, “I love you,” at Seinfeld, he likes to reply, “I love you, too, and this is my favorite type of intimate relationship.” He told me: “That’s the wiring of a stand-up. This is my best way of functioning.” But he sees himself more as exacting athlete than tortured artist. He compares himself to baseball playersputting spin on the ball as it leaves his fingers, trying to keep his batting average high — and to surfers: “What are they doing that for? It’s just pure. You’re alone.

That wave is so much bigger and stronger than you. You’re always outnumbered. They always can crush you. And yet you’re going to accept that and turn it into a little, brief, meaningless art form.” He said: “I’m not filling a deep emotional hole here. I’m playing a very difficult game, and if you’d like to see someone who’s very good at a difficult game, that’s what I do.”
For audiences, Seinfeld’s approach has its escapist comforts. In his jokes he often arranges life’s messy confusions, shrewdly and immaculately, into a bouquet of trivial irritants. Seinfeld’s comedic persona is unflappableannoyed plenty, but unmarked by extremes of emotion, much less tragedy.
“He’s the least neurotic Jew on earth,” Sarah Silverman says. In a joke Seinfeld told for decades, he called an overflowing toilet “the most frightening moment in the life of a human being,” and there’s a sense in which his clean, precise bits are marvels of plumbing, keeping abjection at bay. On “The Arsenio Hall Show,” in 1991, Hall told Seinfeld, “We got so much going on in the world; we got this war, the economy, crime.” Seinfeld replied, “It’s all going on, but it’s not happening right here, right now; it’s all going on out there.”

 This sensibility reached brilliant heights on the sitcom, which featured four gleefully mercenary protagonists for whom New York was a playground of silly social hurdles, warm diner booths and the odd totalitarian soup jointSeinfeld calls the showutopian.” Seinfeldfeels so emblematically ’90s largely because of its extreme moral disengagement, which rankled some viewers. In a column for The Times, Maureen Dowd quoted Leon Wieseltier, the New Republic’s literary editor, as saying that “Seinfeld” was “the worst, last gasp of Reaganite, grasping, materialistic, narcissistic, banal self-absorption.” She went on to say that the show was a product of “the what’s-in-it-for-me times that allowed Dick Morris and Bill Clinton to triumph.” (Fittingly, the series ended with the gang imprisoned on good Samaritan laws.)

Seinfeld disagrees that his show was, as the saying goes, about nothing. “I don’t think these things are trivial,” he says, pointing to how political commentators compared President Obama’s renewed bravado the day after his lackluster Colorado debate performance to the “Seinfeld” episode where George, insulted at work, devises a comeback too late. And Seinfeld says that as his act has grown to address marriage and fatherhood, the laughs have deepened. “It hits them in a totally different way,” he said. “Once you step into that area, you’re in their kitchen, in their bedroom, deep in their life. It’s a very intimate and potent comedic thing.”
His best jokes, concerned as they are with the ultra-quotidian, have an understated timelessness. Several younger comedians I spoke with described Seinfeld as an ongoing influence. Judd Apatow, who as a kid in the late ’70s became obsessed with Seinfeld’s stand-up, told me, “From the get-go he was the greatest observational comedian who ever livednobody was, or is, as funny as him.” In high school, Apatow persuaded Seinfeld to sit for a long interview during which he dissected his bits, methodically laying bare their musculature. Apatow says it was “a lesson in how to write jokes” that he has never forgotten. Kevin Hart, an arena-packing comic, told me that Seinfeld was generous with advice when Hart was starting out, adding that his analytical gift remains unequaled: “He can describe a bouncing ball in a way that changes the way you look at bouncing balls forever.”
Seinfeld doesn’t chase trends: he is fully content to woodshed up on Mount Olympus. He has only passing interest in topical humor and no time for winking meta-jokes or absurdist non sequiturs. He believes in showmanship, laying out his bits in heavily theatricalized tones and cadences rather than feigning extemporaneousness or a cool deadpan, and when he plays theaters, he wears Armani suits in blacks and grays. “I have old-school values,” he says.
This has obvious dangers. The defining comic of a bygone era, as Seinfeld is to the ’90s, risks becoming that era’s prisoner: out of touch, or worse, obsolete.

Seinfeld’s style was so distinctly realized so early on that it quickly lent itself to an immortal caricature: “What’s the deal with? . . .” Seinfeld himself poked fun at his association with this construction all the way back in a 1992Saturday Night Livesketch, playing a quiz-show host who began nearly every question with those four words.
But, in almost counterintuitive ways, Seinfeld has dodged self-parody in his act. Avoiding excessive topicality has allowed his jokes to feel evergreen; keeping them a bit square has forced him to keep them sharp; and skipping grand pronouncements for small, finely rendered epiphanies allows the material to seem universal. Aziz Ansari, another young comedian who admires Seinfeld, told me, “You could stick him on some alien planet and he’d have the same brilliant, precise observations about how silly everything they do is.”
Since Richard Pryor, at least, confession has been prized in stand-up, and this is as true today as ever. The biggest stand-up story of 2012 came this summer, when the comedian Tig Notaro took a Los Angeles stage and wrung laughs from a saga of personal misery that included the sudden death of her 65-year-old mother followed by a breast-cancer diagnosis. At Seinfeld’s office, I asked him what he’d do, onstage, if he had a month like that, and I appended a “God forbid” to the question. “Thank you for ‘God forbid,’ ” he said. “I love it. Hilarious. You have to say that.”

He clapped his hands with delight.If I had a month like that, I’d do a whole bit aboutGod forbid.’ ”

Seinfeld’s father died in 1985, while battling numerous cancers, “probably ultimately of heart failure,” Seinfeld says. (His mother, 98, lives in Florida.) He never told jokes about it, he said, because “it doesn’t make me funny. If it makes you funny, that’s what you talk about. That bit for Tig Notaro, it decided it wanted to be a bit. The bit is using her to get to the audience, and she’s lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

She’s the second baseman in the double play: You’ve just got to be there to catch it and throw it on. She’s a genius for recognizing it and making the move.” But he insisted that bloodletting was not requisite for greatness. “What does Don Rickles tell us about himself in his show? Probably not much. He’s not pouring his guts out to you, but his craft is so amazing, his skill is so amazing, there’s depth in that.”
Beneath the surface, Seinfeld says, much of his act concerns “the pointlessness of life itself. I’ve got jokes where I’m saying your life sucks, your possessions are garbage, you’re not important.” Larry David, to whom Seinfeld remains close, told me, “Jerry doesn’t get enough credit for his misanthropy — it’s why we get along so well.” In a new bit, Seinfeld likens a man to a balloon. At the outset of a romantic relationship, the balloon is buoyant and beautiful and “the woman holds on tight” for fear he’ll fly away. Flash forward, and the balloon’s doddering around, off in a corner somewhere, low to the floor, pathetically unable to “even lift up its own string.” It’s as elegantly crushing a joke about human decay and dashed hopes as has been told.
In conversation, Seinfeld describes an offstagetendency toward depression,” accompanied by a lifelong spiritual yearning. “There’s always something missing,” he said. He has dabbled in Zen Buddhism (“I love the word games, the koans”), Scientology (“I took a couple classes in 1976”) and transcendental meditation. He still identifies as Jewish. “I was very flattered recently to hear about a Nazi rally in Florida where they took DVDs of the show, sprayed swastikas on them and threw them through the windows of a synagogue,” he said. “That was nice.”
He alluded to romantic dissatisfaction as something that used to depress him. On the sitcom, Seinfeld’s life was a carousel of beautiful women. “Was that my actual life at the time?” he asks.

Probably.” He remained single until he was 45, and in his act today he notes that he clearly hadsome issues.” After having kids, he told me, he realizedthere was this whole other quadrant of my brain lying there dormant. Kids give you something. If it wasn’t for my kids, I’m pretty much done with living. I could kill myself. Now there’s something else to live for.”
One Friday in early October, Seinfeld took a private plane from New York to Kansas City, Mo., told jokes onstage for 75 minutes, then flew to Milwaukee, where he was booked at the Riverside Theater the next night. On Saturday morning he wanted to seeArgo,” so he rented an entire theater at the local movie palace, the Oriental, and watched it with his opening act, Mark Schiff, and his tour producer. “I liked it,” Seinfeld said later on, over coffee at his hotel, “but the ending was a little Hollywood.”
He had done two of his five planned performances in New York, one in Manhattan and one in the Bronx. Seinfeld thought they’d gone well, but he confided that the dates might double as a farewell tour of the city. “When Clark Kent turns into Superman, he needs a moment — a phone booth, a storage room!” Seinfeld said, describing the breathing room he relies on to get into show mode.

“If I’m at home, I don’t have the physical or mental space to don my costume. It’s horrible. There’s no closing of doors: I have little kids. As soon as you close the door someone’s banging on it. And when I’m home, I love that. I don’t want any personal space, I want them crawling all over me. But when I do this other thing? I can’t tell you I enjoyed it that much.”
When Seinfeld isn’t on the road, he stays in. He likesMad Men”; his wife, Jessica, a cookbook author, likes “Homeland”; the whole family enjoysThe Voice.”

Seinfeld does not watch any sitcom regularly, giving up on most after a few minutes. If he happens to catch a “Seinfeld rerun, he’ll watch until he sees himself, then change the channel. He regards his own ubiquity with nonchalance.
 After his performance at Brooklyn College, in November, when a fan asked him what programs he enjoys, Seinfeld replied: “I don’t watch that much television. I was television.”
Over coffee at his hotel in Milwaukee, Seinfeld talked about his home life, characterizing his children as the opposite of rich brats. His daughter grew upset, he said, upon receiving an iPhone 5 from Jessica, calling it a “mean-girl phone” and requesting something cheaper; his son Julian tells Jerry he’s “spoiled” and implores him to sell his cars. The kids have inherited the comedy gene. “I’ll say, ‘O.K., it’s time for dinner,’ ” Seinfeld said, “and they go, ‘Oh, like I didn’t already know that.’ I say, ‘That’s me, you can’t do me!’ ”
Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” is an experiment in “isolating the gene,” Seinfeld says. “I went out the other night with three comics and a noncomedian, and it was amazing: these are all Jack Russells, and this is a Collie.” He’s proud of the Web show’s finale, in which he and Michael Richards discussed the onstage tirade that Richards delivered in 2006, derailing his career.
Confronting black hecklers, Richards bellowed the word niggerseven times, an outpouring caught on camera. In the controversy that followed, it was hard not to see the rant as a moment of unfiltered ugliness, but Seinfeld says this interpretation reflects a category error. Speech on a stage, delivered in a performative context, is unique, he argues, and bits — even those that come off the cuff — are different from straight confessions. “It was a colossal comedic error,” Seinfeld said. “He was angry, and it was the wrong choice, but it was a comedic attempt that failed. In our culture, we don’t allow that, especially in the racial realm.

But as a comedian, I know what happened, he knows what happened and every other comedian knows what happened. And all the black comics know it, and a lot of them felt bad about it, because they know it’s rough to be judged that way in that context.
You’re leaping off a cliff and trying to land on the other side. It was just another missed leap.”
When we’d drained our cups, Seinfeld stood and, stopping for some photos in the lobby, went to his room for a nap. I met him later in his dressing room at the Riverside, where he was about to take the stage for a 10 p.m. performance. His jacket hung from a rack in the corner, and he was on a couch in shirt sleeves, dipping pretzels into a Skippy jar, watching the Yankees game, feeling good. Schiff, his opener, was there, too. A car commercial featuring Shaquille O’Neal came on. “Look at this horrible sweater they put him in,” Seinfeld said.

“You can see how his knees are hurting him when he comes down those stairs.” O’Neal called the car stylish. “ ‘Stylish?’ ” Seinfeld repeated. “With your sweater vest on?” The game resumed, and Ichiro Suzuki, the lean Yankees outfielder, approached the plate.
“This is the guy I relate to more than any athlete,” Seinfeld said. “His precision, incredible precision. Look at his body type — he’s made the most of what he has. He’s the hardest guy to get out. He’s fast. And he’s old.”
The camera panned across the dugout. “These are young guys, Mark,” Seinfeld said. “How could they have these nerves of steel?”
“They do 180 games,” Schiff said. “If you did 180 shows in a row, you’d have it.”

“But this is the postseason, this one counts,” Seinfeld said. “If a crowd doesn’t laugh, O.K. But this guy gives up the homer, and 60,000 people are weeping!”
Schiff soon disappeared to warm up the audience. Seinfeld fell silent, chewing pretzels and watching the game. In 20 minutes, he was up. He stood, brushed the crumbs from his pants, slid into his jacket and made for the stage, ready to play some ball.
Jonah Weiner is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. He last wrote for the magazine about the artist David Shrigley.

Editor: Sheila Glaser