Pryor, Seinfeld, and Rivers: Great stories about funny people.

Great Stories about Richard Pryor, Jerry Seinfeld, and Joan Rivers

Great Stories about Richard Pryor, Jerry Seinfeld, and Joan Rivers's guide to the greatest long articles ever written.
Oct. 26 2013 7:00 AM

Very Good Stories About Very Funny People

The Longform guide to stand-up comedians.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld visits Late Night With Jimmy Fallon in 2012.

Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images.

Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s app to read the latest picks, plus features from 70 of the world’s best magazines, including Slate.

Jerry Seinfeld Intends to Die Standing Up
Jonah Weiner • New York Times Magazine • December 2012

Why the richest comedian in history keeps working.

 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.”

A Pryor Love
Hilton Als • The New Yorker • September 1999

A look at the life and career of Richard Pryor as he reached the end.

Although he reprised the history of black American comedy—picking what he wanted from the work of great storytellers like Bert Williams, Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley, Nipsey Russell, LaWanda Page, and Flip Wilson—he also pushed everything one step further. Instead of adapting to the white perspective, he forced white audiences to follow him into his own experience. Pryor didn't manipulate his audiences' white guilt or their black moral outrage. If he played the race card, it was only to show how funny he looked when he tried to shuffle the deck. And as he made blackness an acknowledged part of the American atmosphere he also brought the issue of interracial love into the country's discourse. In a culture whose successful male Negro authors wrote about interracial sex with a combination of reverence and disgust, Pryor's gleeful, "fuck it" attitude had an effect on the general population which Wright's "Native Son" or Baldwin's "Another Country" had not had. His best work showed us that black men like him and the white women they loved were united in their disenfranchisement; in his life and onstage, he performed the great, largely unspoken story of America.

Playboy Interview: George Carlin
Sam Merrill • Playboy • January 1982


Carlin on his start, his work, and his addictions.

Playboy: It’s comforting to hear you talk about that breathing spell in the past tense.
Carlin: My wife, Brenda, and I are both clean and sober now. I’ve been doing a lot of writing. By the time this interview appears, my first album in seven years will be out. I’m also working on a series of Home Box Office specials, a book and a motion picture. It’s the American view that everything has to keep climbing: productivity, profits, even comedy. No time for reflection. No time to contract before another expansion. No time to grow up. No time to fuck up. No time to learn from your mistakes. But that notion goes against nature, which is cyclical. And I hope I’m now beginning a new cycle of energy and creativity. If so, it’ll really be my third career. The first was as a straight comic in the Sixties. The second was as a counterculture performer in the Seventies. The third will be…well, that’s for others to judge.

Jonathan Van Meter • New York • May 2010

The rise and fall, and rise and fall, of a legend.

Even at this late stage in her 40-year career, Rivers is nowhere near ready to cede the stage to a younger generation. (As her former manager Billy Sammeth says in the film, “Right now they see her as a plastic-surgery freak who’s past her sell-by date … But God help the next queen of comedy, because this one’s not abdicating. Never will.”) I am reminded of an e-mail she sent me a couple of years ago, when she was at yet another low point in her career. I asked her what she thought of Kathy Griffin. “I am her friend but also furious,” she wrote. “She is the big one now. My club dates have simply vanished and gone to her. She will last as she is very driven. Like me, she wants it. But every time a gay man tells me, ‘Oh, she is just like you! I love her!’ I fucking want to strangle them. But, please God let someone give me credit. I feel so totally forgotten. The fucking New Yorker did this big piece on the genius of Rickles, who is brilliant but who hasn’t changed a line in fifteen years. Meanwhile, I am totally ‘old hat’ and ignored while in reality I could still wipe the floor with both Kathy and Sarah. Anyhow, fuck them all. Age sucks. It’s the final mountain.”

If He Hollers Let Him Go
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah •  Believer • Oct 2013


Searching for Dave Chappelle 10 years after he left his show.

Chappelle did such a good job of truth-telling, on every subject, that nobody knew what to do when he just stopped talking. In no way did his quitting conform to our understanding of the comic’s one obligation: to be funny. To talk to us. To entertain us. To make us laugh. We aren’t used to taking no for an answer, to being rejected, especially not by the people who are supposed to make us smile. Especially not by black men who are supposed to make us smile. And yet Chappelle did just that. And so, like everyone, I wondered what had happened. What had happened, and, more so, what had brought Chappelle to—and kept him in—Yellow Springs? At a stand-up appearance in Sacramento in 2004, a frustrated Chappelle lashed out at his hecklers from the stage, yelling, “You people are stupid!” So what was it about this small college town—where hippies slipped me bags of Girl Scout cookies, where Tibetan jewelry stores and fair-trade coffee shops dotted the main street, and where kindly white ladies crossed the street to tell me my wild hair was giving them life—that made it more satisfying than celebrity or fame?

The Early Woody Allen 1952-1971
Kliph Nesteroff • WFMU Blog • February 2010

A young Allen writes jokes for supper club comedians, decides he will never succeed as a performer, does, idolizes and is snubbed by Mort Sahl, and develops the comic persona which will make him a star.

Woody Allen found himself writing for the clever comedian Herb Shriner. Shriner had a folksy radio program that featured The Raymond Scott Quintet. It made a smooth transition to television where Shriner hosted a prime time variety stint, for which Woody became a teenage writer. "The first week I had written [an episode of The Herb Shriner Show] ... I went ... and I got in the back of the line of the studio audience to go in. And I was waiting—you know, there were three hundred people ahead of me—and Herb's manager came walking by and said, 'Why are you waiting in line?' And I said, 'Well, you know, I want to see the show. I wrote, you know, the jokes.' And he said, 'You don't have to wait in line,' and he took me through the stage entrance. It was the first time that ever happened to me. And I was backstage watching it and of course, this whole world was amazing to me ... I was seventeen years old and I was earning more money than my parents put together had ever earned in their life." Despite pockets full of jokes, when Woody decided to take to the stage and do a short stand-up set at the Young Israel Social Club in 1953, he did so with material written by his friend Mike Merrick. Allen did not have confidence as a performer and this one-off stand-up gig did not make him fall in love with the idea. He continued to construct jokes behind the scenes. Of his Herb Shriner experience he gloats, "The kids in my neighborhood were earning I don't know what—the minimum wage was like fifty-five cents an hour or something and I was earning like sixteen hundred dollars a week."

The Comedian Comedians Were Afraid Of
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc • New York • May 2012

Remembering the unsparing Patrice O’Neal.

Even comedians—who rarely shut up—had to surrender whenever Patrice O’Neal began to talk. He’s the guy they would call on the long drive home from Magooby’s Joke House who loved to discuss—at length—whether Jay-Z would ever cheat on Beyoncé, or the various options for black reparations, or the best adjectives for different smells of pussy. He was a master at introducing subjects that you never even knew you had an opinion about—like whether you’d be willing to have sex with a girl who had no nose. Even though O’Neal was usually doing 90 percent of the talking, listening had the feel of conversation, in part because he was famously picky about whom he’d talk to, and in part because he always implicated you in his investigations. Whether the topic was crass or ridiculous, he demanded a response. The transformative power of the ugly truth was, for O’Neal, a form of grace.

Angry Middle-Aged Man
James Kaplan • The New Yorker • January 2004

A profile of Larry David, with a focus on his years as a struggling stand-up.

“A night club is a place where drinks and food are served,” Jerry Seinfeld says. “A comedian is not automatically the audience’s focal point. You have to fight for their attention, and it’s not easy to get. Larry had the material, but he never had what you would call the temperament for standup.”
One night at Catch a Rising Star, a comedy club on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, David stepped onto the stage, scanned the room from side to side, said, “Never mind,” and walked off.
Despite the bravado, he had no plan. “I was hoping that somehow I could get some kind of cult following, and get by with that,” he said. “And you know what? That would have been fine with me. I just wanted laughs—that’s really what I was after. I wanted to make a living, but I really was not interested in money at all. I was interested in being a great comedian. That was really what I wanted to be.”

The Comedian's Comedian's Comedian
Amy Wallace • GQ • August 2010

A profile of the reclusive Garry Shandling.

A great boxer makes his opponent fight his fight, on his terms. A great stand-up takes control of a room. There's a reason comics say their best shows "killed." Making people laugh is, at its simplest, an act of domination. And Shandling dominated Gervais. I tell Garry their interaction looks more hostile than he will admit. He offers me an organic-turkey sandwich. "A lot of funny people have a way of looking at life and commenting on it," he says. "Now, there's another leap to take, which is: Are those funny people actually integrating their life into their work? I still search for ways to put it. It's living art. I see it as living life as an art. And part of that's the comedy, and part of that's the acting, and part of that's the basketball, and part of that's the boxing."
And part of that is, of course, the Buddhism. Garry's been meditating and keeping journals that chronicle what he calls "my path and how I'm growing and where I'm at" since his twenties. The first time he was asked to guest-host The Tonight Show, he wrote in his journal. "I sat down—I have it in my book—and I said, 'This is about becoming one with The Tonight Show,'" he says.

Note: this guide really isn’t complete without Marc Maron’s 2-part episode of WTF with Louis C.K. from 2010. Their conversation is not freely available online, however. You can buy it on Maron’s site. For a low-budget alternative, here are Maron and C.K. on separate episodes of Fresh Air — imagine them talking to each other via Terry Gross.

Have a favorite piece that we missed? Leave the link in the comments or tweet it to @longform. For more great writing, check out Longform’s complete archive.