June 8th, 2018 · Be the first to comment

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.”

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(Hat tip: Jacob)