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Jerry Seinfeld’s Closed Door

The Price of Funny

A reader recently pointed me toward a 2014 interview with Jerry Seinfeld on Alec Baldwin’s Here’s The Thing. Around 34 minutes into the conversation, Seinfeld provides a fascinating insight into the success of his eponymous television show:

“Let me tell you why my tv series in the 90s was so good, besides just an inordinate amount of just pure good fortune. In most tv series, 50 percent of the time is spent working on the show, 50 percent of the time is spent dealing with personality, political, and hierarchical issues of making something. We spent 99 percent of our time writing. Me and Larry [David]. The two of us. The door was closed. It’s closed. Somebody calls. We’re not taking the call. We were gonna make this thing funny. That’s why the show was good.”

Lurking in this quote is a lesson that applies well beyond the world of entertainment.

Convenience versus Funny

For Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David to close their door and ignore the non-creative aspects of creating a television show was almost certainly massively inconvenient for most of the people involved in the series.

Some of those calls they ignored were urgent and some of the “personality, political, and hierarchical issues” they refused to engage were important.

Opportunities were missed. Bad things happened. Executives were frustrated. Everyone would have been much happier if Seinfeld and David would just pick up the phone and take the meeting.

But they didn’t.

And this thing they obsessively polished ended up producing over $3.1 billion in revenue.

A key idea in attention capital theory is that knowledge work organizations implicitly prioritize convenience over value production. It makes everyones’ life easier in the moment if you’re quick to reply to email, willing to hop on a call, attend one more planning meeting and join that internal committee.

But as Seinfeld’s example hints, it’s possible that many of these organizations might end up producing massively more value in the long run if they set things up so their cognitive talent could shut the metaphorical door, disengage from the logistical tangle, and decide, “we’re going to make this thing funny.”


(Hat tip: Jacob)

41 thoughts on “Jerry Seinfeld’s Closed Door”

  1. Great post (love Seinfeld!). Since we talk about TV, you probably know David Lynch and how meticulous he is. He just finished what most observers think was the best work in TV and Cinema history,Twin Peaks: The Return, an 18-hour long movie. During a podcast, Debbie Zoller (the makeup artist) said that “They didn’t want phones on set (…) because if you’re working on a set with David [Lynch] the last thing you want is for people sitting there to look at their Facebook accounts or Twitter, you should be relishing in the moment of being on set with him and experiencing that. I was happy about the no phones situation.”

  2. The idea that solitude nurtures deep insight stretches back to ancient times. Most world religions were created after the founder spent long stretches in solitude; Mohammed in his mountain cave after a long night of prayer, Buddha after a long period of meditation beneath a tree, and Jesus in the desert after a forty day fast.

  3. By the way Seinfeld is a Transcendental meditator for more than 40-45 years! A deliberate practice to improve your focus muscles. Thanks cal for another informative article!

  4. Unrelated to this post, but I just saw that Apple announced last week a new functionality (on iOS12) to monitor smartphone use and time. It’ll include the ability to limit time spend on specific apps, as well as (and this relates to this post) a more refined Do Not Disturb.

    Lastly, after being late to your No Social Media month, I decided to do mine in now in June. The start of summer is a great opportunity, with the weather warming up and more opportunities to stay outdoors.

  5. Thanks for another great post Cal. I especially like your point that, “knowledge work organizations implicitly prioritize convenience over value production.” –Organizations aside, I’d say this generalizes into many areas we express ourselves.

  6. Hi Cal
    I think I’ve come up with a way to train my concentration:
    In a public place, try and do active recall on flashcards (Anki) under a set time limit. Note: These flashcards include questions containing stuff from the previous lessons. I wanted to run this by you to see if this could work, as it seems (in my experience) that doing this provides a lot of strain in my head (I’ve done this in only two occasions, one of them where I was actually trying to put my readings in a way I could understand it whilst sitting in a crowded cafe with only 30-50 minutes til swim training, and I felt tired after). If you don’t happen to respond, would anyone else provide feedback as to whether this fits the criteria for concentration training or not?

    • I’ve tried a similar approach since I have to use the bus several times per week; I also review some of my Anki Decks almost all the way.

      However, having tried this, I noticed that the work that I do on the bus could be done on half of the time and with better results at my prefered study place. I mean, the strain is pointless as the benefit from it isn’t worthwhile. Sometimes there were kids crying, annoying music from the driver, etc. Things out of your hands.

      Long story short, today I still work with my Decks on “shallow-mode”, but only the easy ones, those who don’t requiere cognitive effort.

      So, in regard to your question, the only benefit that I’ve seen is that I appreciate more my time and space when avaliable for my deep work.

    • As Daniel mentioned, I don’t think it would work efficiently for highly cognitive tasks. I would either do the easy stuff or some other useful activity for which you’re not working hard (read the paper newspaper to know and *understand* what is happening, read/re-read a book, play online chess, just plainly relax/meditate, or work on the amazing art of people watching – just don’t be creepy!). If you only have 30 to 50 minutes and most of them are in a distraction prone place you won’t be able to do much.

  7. Thanks for sharing another case study proff. Your work has been very influential in guiding and prioritizing my work.

    Look forward to your next book!
    One of the topics I’d like to get your thoughts on is entrepreneurial success. Based on the metrics I studied so far, it seems most probably an irrational to pursue the startup path. Maybe you can shed some light here with your research.

  8. While it is in a movie, it is a good example. Maybe the Ocean’s are reading your book? In Ocean’s Eight Sandra Bullock complains it is impossible to plan a good heist while sharing a cell with five other people so she gets herself locked in Solitary for three years! And came up with a good heist.

  9. There are times, as a family person, that that door just HAS to open. Have you given some thought on how to re-establish the Deep Work focus, after it has been broken by legitimate issues that must be dealt with in the moment?

    I am exploring the “back to focus” rituals I can take.

    • As the parent of an autistic 5 year old boy with ADHD, I feel this at a deep and personal level.

      I also have ADHD, which makes refocusing a real challenge.

      One thing that’s helped me has been having a “work persona” of sorts that I can slip into. I have a certain coffee cup, items at my desk I set up in a certain way, and so on that I sit down with and look at. Then I close my eyes, take a couple of deep breaths, and mentally picture myself in “work mode.”

      I do a longer visualization/meditation early in the morning, before my son wakes up, that helps me set the tone for the whole day. Then throughout the day I’m able to re-center myself in my “work persona” after those things that must be dealt with in the moment come up.

      It’s not foolproof, but it definitely helps.

  10. I once had a meeting with a customer where there were 8 people on the other side of the table and one of them got up and was leaving as the conversation got sidetracked. He happened to be the smartest guy in the room and his boss asked him where he was going. He said “I gave my input and I don’t think you need me anymore, if I didn’t want to get work done I can find meetings to be in all day long too, but I have work to do”

  11. Good to finally come back to this site, which always teaches or inspires me.

    Another similarity between Jerry Seinfeld’s art and “regular knowledge work” is how long it takes to make it great. Check out a documentary on Seinfeld’s return to standup where he throws out all his old material to see if he can still develop an act from scratch. Six months into doing that, he just starts to feel like the act is shaping up. That is after practicing about 3-4 nights per week for six months!

    Think about that the next time you are getting an important presentation ready or planning the completion of a large project.

    This goes back to the deliberate practice concept also, from the academic literature.


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