Two hundred and fifty years from now, Americans will probably not be watching a television series about Jerry Seinfeld, the way some of us are following Michael Douglas’s starring turn in Apple TV’s Franklin. No matter how profound Seinfeld’s comedy about ordinary life in the city may be, he will never approach Franklin’s significance; he’ll never be one of the Founders of a country that became a superpower.

Disparities between comedians and Founding Fathers notwithstanding, Seinfeld did swerve into Franklin’s lane with his recent commencement address at Duke University. Seinfeld proved himself worthy of comparisons to Franklin for three reasons. First, the comedian did not run from but embraced being 70—roughly Franklin’s age when he started his Autobiography. Second, Seinfeld did not merely play for laughs but took a page out of Franklin’s “Advice to a Young Tradesman” and imparted advice, learned through experience, about how to succeed in life. And third, Seinfeld exhibited the same kind of twinkle-in-his-eye manner that characterized Franklin’s contributions to America’s canon of self-help literature.

That Seinfeld did not hesitate to acknowledge his age was striking when considering how, in reruns, “Jerry” is preserved in a time capsule, perpetually thirtysomething with his loud ties and shirts, modest mullet, and antics with friends, all navigating the inconveniences of city life. Unlike celebrities who achieve fame in their twenties and refuse to accept getting old, Seinfeld came right out with it: “I am 70. I am done.” His speech contained some stand-up-worthy material. But it primarily consisted of an old man telling young adults what he thinks they might need to hear.

At a similar stage in life, Franklin set out to advise his son, William, and reproduced his quirky scheme for moral improvement. He listed 13 virtues, ranging from temperance, silence, and order to tranquility, chastity, and humility. Smack in the middle—number six—was industry: “Lose no time; be always employed in something useful, cut off all unnecessary actions.” Franklin also recounted his daily routine. He rose at 5:00 each morning to wash, pray (“address Powerful Goodness”), plan the day, and eat breakfast. He worked from 8:00 to 6:00, with two hours at noon for lunch, reading, and examining accounts. At night, he read or listened to music, took stock of the day, and retired to bed at 10. Cleanliness may be next to godliness. For Franklin, work was.

Seinfeld did not reveal his habits, though he did mention a young-adult meal plan of peanut butter and white bread. He was just as positive as Franklin about work. “You know how they always say, ‘Nobody ever looks back on their life and wishes they spent more time at the office,’” Seinfeld said. That premise, he suggested, was all wrong because spending more time on the job depended on what one was doing. “If you took a stupid job that you find out you hate and you don’t leave, that’s your fault. Don’t blame work.” He followed with a line that approached Franklin’s wisdom: “Work is wonderful. I definitely will not be looking back on my life wishing I worked less. If that’s not how you feel at work, quit.” Seinfeld continued: “The only two things you ever need to pay attention to in life are work and love.” 

Seinfeld sounded more postmodern than Franklin when he recommended working without regard to outcome. Franklin taught that the “the way to wealth . . . depends chiefly on two words, industry and frugality.” Seinfeld countered with an alternative to cause and effect, namely, a song and a prayer. “Whatever you’re doing—I don’t care if it’s your job, your hobby, your relationship, . . . just make an effort.” “Pure, stupid, no-real-idea-what-I’m-doing-here effort always yields a positive value, even if the outcome of the effort is absolute failure.” Seinfeld’s advice? “Just swing the bat and pray is not a bad approach to a lot of things.”

The reason for Seinfeld’s departure from Franklin may owe to a different faith. Unlike Franklin’s Protestant work ethic, Seinfeld matured learning the rules and rhythms of Jewish humor. “I grew up a Jewish boy from New York,” he said, which, he admitted, is “a privilege if you want to be a comedian.” “If I messed up a funny story around my relatives, they would go, ‘That’s not how you tell that joke! The prostitute has to be behind the drapes when the wife comes in!’” Even without such an upbringing, graduates should cultivate a sense of humor, if only to counter the excessive idealism of social justice. “It’s lovely to want to fix those things,” Seinfeld said, alluding to the causes of the day, but “You can have no idea at this point in your life how much you are going to need [a sense of humor] to get through.” The world might be a better place “when you are done, as I am now,” but “it will still not make a whole hell of a lot of sense.” Seinfeld concluded that humor is the “most survival-essential quality you will ever have or need to navigate. . . . the brutal long hike of life” and the “silliness of all humans and all existence.”

In recommending humor, Seinfeld was channeling the Hebrew Scriptures more than Franklin’s Puritanism. The writer of Ecclesiastes claimed, “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.” Seinfeld’s brand of comedy, according to students of standup, taps roughly four millennia of a divinely elect people and their God putting one another to the test. Joseph Epstein, no slouch at humor himself, observes that such comedy emerges from the incongruity of Jewish experience: “God submits the Jews to tests and trials of a kind that no other religion, so far as I know, puts its adherents through.”

Epstein’s observation might help explain Seinfeld’s praise of work, love, and humor. It could also be the reason that in his commencement speech, Seinfeld went Ben Franklin one better. In a year when Jews on American university campuses have been under siege, it is fitting that at Duke, at least, Jerry Seinfeld got the last word.

Photo by Noam Galai/GC Images


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