Danny Jacobson is a very specific kind of New Yorker — the kind who lives in Los Angeles. The kind who was born in Brooklyn (Park Slope) and moved to Westchester (Larchmont) when he was nine. The kind who auditioned for “Grease” on a dare in his 20s, won the part of Kenickie and moved to the Upper West Side. The kind who follows the Yankees the way the Pope follows the ten commandments, which is to say religiously. The kind who, despite nearly 40 years in Southern California, retains the rasp of a cab driver and the determined un-mellowness of a true New Yorker.
Jacobson is also funny, in a very professional and successful kind of a way. He got his start in comedy writing sketches for Stiller & Meara, then worked with Billy Crystal on “Soap.” He was head writer and supervising producer on “Roseanne” for its first two seasons, and helped its star establish herself as a bold new voice in American comedy. He next created “Davis Rules,” which starred Jonathan Winters, who won his only Emmy for his role on the show. And he was the co-creator, with Paul Reiser, of “Mad About You,” the hit 1990s sitcom that starred Reiser and Helen Hunt as a young couple seeking success and satisfaction in Manhattan.
I’ve known Danny for years (he’s a lifelong friend of my wife and her family) and I called him recently to talk about New York and comedy. After a detailed description of a Yankees come-from-in-front loss to the White Sox the night before, he shared his thoughts.
What is it about New York that makes it such a rich source of, and setting for, comedy? For comedy to live, one of the things it requires is an audience, and New York is a city where you can have nine packed Broadway houses, a packed basketball arena and a Yankee game and a Met game going on and still have people outside in line waiting to get into comedy clubs.
And what is it about New Yorkers themselves?The people in New York, they’re more crowded, they’re more stressed, they’re more frantic, they’re more type A. And all that stuff adds up to one thing — conflict. There are more people, in a closer space, in conflict. Everyone’s experiencing that kind of misery, so if you write an episode about it, everyone gets it. We wrote an episode once where Paul and Helen wanted to go somewhere, but because of the crowds of people watching the Gay Pride parade, they couldn’t get out of their apartment. People from New York get it, and people in the middle of Michigan get it too. They get the idea, ‘Oh my god, I’m trapped inside with my wife or my husband all day.’
The list of sitcoms set in New York is long, as you know. “The Honeymooners” in the ‘50s, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” in the ‘60s, “The Jeffersons” in the ‘70s, “Taxi” in the ‘80s, “Seinfeld,” your show, “30 Rock,” “Broad City,” to name just a few. No other city comes close. Why is that?It’s so important for somebody that has a comedy point of view to be doing it comfortably. When the network told Lucille Ball, in the 1950s, ‘There’s no way we’re giving you a Cuban husband.’, she was like ‘Well, there’s no way I’m doing the show.’ It wasn’t about politics or race, it was about this is the man she feels funniest and most comfortable with. So to protect the comedy, that’s what they did.
If you look at every one of the shows that’s ever been developed for a comic voice — Paul Reiser, Jewish guy who grew up in New York; Jackie Gleason, blue-collar guy who grew up in Brooklyn, that’s what their shows were. Jerry Seinfeld, that’s what his show was, being observational, not trying to be the acting force, standing around with a trio of people in little stupid situations that likened themselves to his comedy.
Shows are in New York because that’s what the people know, that’s where they come from. Our show was set in New York because Paul and I, the creators, we grew up there and that’s what we wanted to do. And also, I wanted his character to be a struggling independent filmmaker, and that seemed right.
With Ralph Kramden, you had a guy who was a New York City bus driver who was ashamed of his upstairs neighbor who worked in the sewer, who lived better. So that’s pretty specific New York. And those two characters, like Laurel and Hardy, they would have been funny probably anywhere. But New York is where they were from.
And the networks, their belief is, it doesn’t matter. I’ve never had a network say to me, ‘We would love for this show to be set in New York.’ Just like no one ever said, ‘Oh. Let’s have Roseanne live in an apartment in Los Angeles.’ It comes down to doing what you know. When comedy gets too far from its roots, it fails. It’s like any other art.
And yet so many of these New York shows, including yours, were or are filmed in LA.The business that Hollywood is in is illusion. The production is saying to you ‘Imagine that they live in New York and this is what their world is.’ If someone wants to raise their hand and go ‘Listen, I’ve been laughing for 10 minutes but I’m not convinced that it’s actually New York.’ That doesn’t happen.
Time for some quick takes. “Seinfeld.”Who has an apartment in New York in the 1990s and every time someone buzzes they say ‘Come on up.’ I once said to Jerry at a party, ‘I’m waiting for the episode where you say ‘Come on up’ and two guys come in and rob your apartment.’
“Friends”I don’t know that show as well as I probably should, but if somebody said to me,’”Friends” took place in Philadelphia.’ I’d say ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ But, you know, a bunch of kids, single, in an apartment. Where else in this world would you want to be, especially in the 90s? New York!
George Carlin Totally a New York style. Because his main thing is complaining about stuff. He’s like a cab driver driving by and saying ‘What kind of sh** is that? What the f***?’
Final question. What’s so funny about New York?In New York City there is a greater concentration of people that are needing to laugh, wanting to laugh, willing to laugh and able to make you laugh.