Discover more from SatPost by Trung Phan
Getting Out on a High Note
Jerry Seinfeld, Steve Martin and Quentin Tarantino show the psychological power of walking away at the top.
Thanks for subscribing to SatPost.
Some quick housekeeping: I'll be taking a short family break, so there will be no SatPost for the next two weekends (I will be back in your inbox on June 17th, 2023).
Today, we are talking about why Jerry Seinfeld and Steve Martin walked away from creative careers at the height of their powers.
Also this week:
How Nvidia won AI
Adobe’s AI Photoshop tool is wild
And them fire memes (including a cool password)
The series finale for the HBO TV show Succession airs this weekend.
For the uninitiated, Succession is a comedy-drama based on media tycoons such as Rupert Murdoch (News Corp.) and the late Sumner Redstone (Viacom). As the title implies, the show’s main theme is how a media empire is passed from one generation to the next.
I love this show. It’s hilarious. The acting is incredible. There is so much great meme material. Since its debut in 2018, the subject matter has always captured the zeitgeist.
In February, the show’s creator Jesse Armstrong announced that the upcoming fourth season would be its last. Based on my favourite shows from the Golden Age of TV — The Wire (5 seasons), Breaking Bad (5), The Sopranos (6), Mad Men (7), and Game of Thrones (8) — the decision to end Succession after four seasons felt abrupt.
I hope that no one ever thinks that we are outstaying our welcome—that we’re going to do a dud season, or be stretching it out. I hope those concerns never occur to people. I know they do when I’m watching other people’s shows, even ones I admire and like.
[…] We could do a couple [more] short seasons, or two more seasons. Or we could go on for ages and turn the show into something rather different, and be a more rangy, freewheeling kind of fun show, where there would be good weeks and bad weeks. Or we could do something a bit more muscular and complete, and go out sort of strong. And that was definitely always my preference.
Armstrong’s take instantly reminded me of Jerry Seinfeld, who worked on his eponymously-named sitcom Seinfeld for nine seasons. In 1998, Seinfeld walked away from the show while it was at the absolute zenith of American culture. The sitcom had become so valuable for NBC that the network offered Seinfeld $110m to make it for one more year.
Seinfeld said “no”.
During a chat with Howard Stern, Seinfeld gave a few reasons why he rejected the massive bag. One, the workload — especially with co-creator Larry David gone — was enormous. Two, Seinfeld really did not want the show to get stale.
As he explained:
The love affair between the people that were making the show and the audience was so intense. It was so white hot. I had to respect that and I could not go to that point where it starts to age and wither. And it doesn't take long [for something to age and wither].
For example, you go see a comedian and at 1 hour and 10 minutes and you love the guy. But at 1 hour and 30 minutes, [you are thinking] ‘eh, I thought he was never gonna finish.’ [That extra 20 minutes and] you walk out with a whole different feeling. It's a small amount of too much [that can negatively influence your perception]. Too much cake. Too much of anything.
There is even an episode of Seinfeld where the character George Constanza becomes obsessed with “getting out on a high note”. The fictional Seinfeld coaches Constanza about showmanship: “when you hit that high note, say ‘good night’ and walk off.”
Below is a chart from r/DataIsBeautiful that compares the peaks and troughs of long-running TV series. Seinfeld’s season-by-season IMDB ratings were consistently high and finished near the top. Most of the other shows had a decline in their latter seasons (notably, Game of Thrones really rushed its ending).
Another comedic legend who believed in walking away at the right time is Steve Martin. In his book Born Standing Up, Martin describes how he ended an 18-year stand-up comedy career (and went full-time into acting).
It was “10 years learning then 4 years refining and 4 years at the top” before he moved on. At the peak of Martin’s stand-up powers in the late 1970s — when he filled arenas and hosted Saturday Night Live (SNL) on multiple occasions — the comedian noticed a few changes that took the joy out of his act:
Fans were cheering him (rather than laughing at his material): He had become so famous that anything he did received applause regardless of its merit (“The act was shifting into automatic. The choreography was in place, and all I had to do was fulfill it. I was performing a litany of immediate old favorites, and the laughs, rather than being the result of spontaneous combustion, now seemed to roll in like waves created far out at sea.”)
There was no room for experimentation: Every show was the same because Martin wanted to give people what they had paid to see (“I felt a huge responsibility not to let people down. Arenas of twenty thousand and three-day gigs of forty-five thousand were no place to try out new material. I dabbled with changes, introducing a small addition or mutation here and there, but they were swallowed up by the echoing, cavernous venues.”)
If Martin’s 18-year journey had been a roller-coaster ride, he believed he had reached a creative peak. In the same way that Armstrong doesn’t want Succession to “overstay its welcome” and Seinfeld didn’t want to see his show “age and wither”, Martin didn’t want to be on the roller-coaster during the big descent.
A single incident convinced Martin it was the end:
“In 1981 my act was like an overly plumed bird whose next evolutionary step was extinction. One night in Las Vegas, I saw something so disturbing that I didn’t mention it to my friends, my agent, or my manager. It was received in my mind like grim, inevitable news. I was onstage at the Riviera showroom, and the house, as usual, was full. The floor tables were jammed, and the club was ringed with tiers of booths. There were soft lights around the interior wall, which silhouetted the patrons in halos of light. My eyes scanned the room as I worked, seeing heads bobbing and nodding; and then, in one booth in the back, I saw something I hadn’t seen in five years: empty seats. I had reached the top of the roller coaster.”
Martin never did stand-up comedy again.
The broader takeaway is that creative endeavours — like most things in life — often have an expiration date. It is actually quite liberating to know that a creative venture you embark on will come to an end. The realization provides both a sense of urgency (to get the job done) and the prospect of future closure (so you can move on to other adventures).
Director Quentin Tarantino began his career with the end in mind.
Prior to directing Reservoir Dogs in 1992, Tarantino was hired to work at a video rental store due to his encyclopedic film knowledge. In fact, he sold two scripts that became Hollywood films — True Romance and Natural Born Killers — while working at the store. He learned a major lesson from studying great filmmakers: many of them stayed too long.
Tarantino wanted his filmography to consist of 10 movies. Why? One of his favourite parts of working at the video store was discovering new directors and working through their back catalogues. He wanted future generations to be able to discover his catalogue and be impressed by each entry.
In 2010, Tarantino spoke to American Cinematheque and pinpointed a single movie from a director he admired that convinced him to stick to 10 films. The director was Howard Hawks, who created some of Hollywood’s most iconic pre-1950s films including Scarface (1932), The Big Sleep (1946), and Red River (1948). Hawks work influenced an entire generation of directors. However, his final film Rio Lobo (1970) was a dud.
"As far as an artist is concerned in this business, it’s about the filmography. That’s what it’s about. It’s about every one being of a piece. And that’s why I want to get out, at a certain part in the game. I want to live or die by that filmography. [And we all know the most cutting-edge artist and the coolest guys and the hippest dudes] are the ones that stay at the party too long.
They’re the ones that make those last two or three movies that are completely out of touch and do not realize the world has turned on them. And they have no idea how corny they are. And I’m really talking about the hippest film makers who ever existed in Hollywood. But you know, you can’t expect these guys to know that life has changed and they’re out of tune or that they’re corny. And I just don’t want to be corny.
So far, Tarantino has directed nine films — he counts the two Kill Bill movies as one project — and is set to complete his final one this fall. Similarly, I intend to make 578 perfect tweets before retiring forever.
Anyways, this is a good-looking filmography:
The concept of “getting out on a high note” has elements of the psychological phenomenon known as the peak-end rule.
According to this rule, people remember an experience based on how they felt at the peak and at the end (rather than how they felt on average throughout the entire experience). We form our memories around the most significant events — whether negative or positive — which is why the “peak” matters. We also form our memories around the most recent events, which is the “end” matters (this effect is known as the recency bias).
Behavioural psychologist Daniel Kahneman is often credited with finding evidence for the peak-end rule in a 1993 study:
Participants were subjected to two different versions of a single unpleasant experience.
The first trial had subjects submerge a hand in 14°C water for 60 seconds. The second trial had subjects submerge the other hand in 14°C water for 60 seconds, but then keep their hand submerged for an additional 30 seconds, during which the temperature was raised to 15°C [which is still cold but more pleasant than 14°C].
Subjects were then offered the option of which trial to repeat. [Against expectations] subjects were more willing to repeat the second trial, despite a prolonged exposure to uncomfortable temperatures. Kahneman et al. concluded that "subjects chose the long trial simply because they liked the memory of it better than the alternative (or disliked it less)."
A salient application of the peak-end rule is when your favourite musical artist finished a concert with an “encore”. By then, most audience members have gotten their “money’s worth” but the “encore” provides something extra at the end (my most memorable “encore” was in Vancouver 2011 when Jay-Z and Kanye repeated a popular song about Paris ten times in a row for 40 minutes…the crowd could have easily handled 10 more).
To be clear, the peak-end rule is a heuristic (a way too fancy way of saying “rule-of-thumb”). It doesn’t work at all times and in every situation. The intuition seems right, though. And anecdotally, if I’m at a restaurant and the host gives me a delicious mint candy with my bill, I’m leaving a fat tip regardless of the quality of the food or service.
For creative work, I want to distinguish between literal endings and the feeling of when it ends. Seinfeld’s final episode is often derided. Super fans believe it didn’t reach the show’s highest highs and that the premise of putting the four main characters on trial for “criminal indifference” was inconsistent with the show being “about nothing”. The criticism is valid but that’s very different than saying Jerry Seinfeld kept the show going for too long. He got off the roller coaster at the peak.
“Getting out on a high note” is related to “leave them wanting more”. Seinfeld has previously cited The Beatles — who were together for only nine years — as an inspiration (a key difference: the Seinfeld cast all agreed to end it while The Beatles were broken up). The comedian says he often finds himself wishing the British supergroup had more content.
People idealize potential outcomes. When people are left wanting more, their imaginations takeover and anything seems possible.
Back to Succession: I would love for Jesse Armstrong to keep doing the show. Based on the subject matter, I think there is enough material for one or two more seasons. But it is completely understandable why the Succession team wants to get out on a high note.
ADDENDUM: After publishing this piece, a reader sent me this excerpt from Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson that exactly echoes the theme of this article (via an interview with Cleveland Plain Dealer).
This isn't as hard to understand as people try to make it. By the end of 10 years, I'd said pretty much everything I had come there to say.
It's always better to leave the party early. If I had rolled along with the strip's popularity and repeated myself for another five, 10 or 20 years, the people now "grieving" for "Calvin and Hobbes" would be wishing me dead and cursing newspapers for running tedious, ancient strips like mine instead of acquiring fresher, livelier talent. And I'd be agreeing with them.
I think some of the reason "Calvin and Hobbes" still finds an audience today is because I chose not to run the wheels off it.
I've never regretted stopping when I did.
Today’s SatPost is brought to you by Bearly.AI
Why are you seeing this ad?
Because I co-founded an AI-powered research app called Bearly AI. And I really like putting blue buttons in this email. If you press this blue button below, you can try AI-powered tools for reading (instant summaries), writing (ChatGPT) and text-to-image art (literally type some text and get a wild image).
It’s all available in one keyboard shortcut (and an iPhone app).
Links and Memes
Nvidia is the semiconductor firm that designs the chips powering the AI revolution. After a strong earnings report on Wednesday, the company’s stock popped by 25%+ and is now worth $950B+ (it added $200B+ to its market cap, which is more than the entire value of Intel).
Still run by its co-founder Jensen Huang, Nvidia pioneered the graphics processing unit (GPU). At its founding in the 1990s, many (rightly) believed that the best way to run software was with a general purpose chip, like the central processing unit (CPU) that Intel sold to PC makers. However, there was a class of tasks that required narrow and energy-saving solutions. In 1995, Nvidia released its first GPU and the chip was very popular in the video game industry for creating graphics (a narrow and power-hungry task). Over the past decade, that same requirement — narrow and power-hungry — has applied to both crypto and AI. The latter industry is now providing a massive tailwind for Nvidia.
For more background on the company, check out:
As an aside, here is some business history from a16z investor Steven Sinofsky on how Intel whiffed on Nvidia:
In 2006, when AMD bought ATI they paid ~$5B for the #2 player (companies always seem to buy the #2). Intel could have probably gotten NVDA for $8-10B, a big deal, though probably not for peak Intel.
Adobe’s AI product is nuts: It is called generative fill and gives anyone with awful Photoshop skills — like me — the ability to edit images like an absolute pro. Here is a thread from Adobe’s chief strategy office Scott Belsky breaking down the product. You just outline a section of the photo, type what change you want and voila.
PS. Here is a very funny use of Adobe’s generative fill feature.
Some other ballers links:
Tesla Model Y was the best-selling car in Q1 2023. It’s the first time that title has gone to an electric vehicle, besting four Toyota models (Corolla, Hilux, Rav4, Camry). Side note: my parents rocked the Corolla hard in the 1990s and 2000s.
If you are watching Succession: Check out this 30-minute Recode interview with Merissa Marr, a former Wall Street Journal media reporter who has consulted on the show since 2018. Marr gives an interesting breakdown of how domain experts help show-runners like Jesse Armstrong craft their shows.
Jack Harlow x Rick Rubin: Two weeks ago, I wrote about super music producer Rick Rubin’s book The Creative Act. Rubin also has a podcast and he hosted artist Jack Harlow on the most recent episode. It is a great listen because Harlow’s team was all reading Rubin’s book while recording his newest album. There’s a great part where Harlow talks about success. As a teen, he was motivated to make music to get the girls and trappings of the good life. But now that Harlow has success — and is taking care of a lot of people — he is closely protecting it and doesn’t want to partake in the party life that partially motivated him to begin with.
Chinese shopping apps are dominating: Marketplace Pulse breaks down the numbers behind Shein and Temu, two Chinese fast-fashion shopping apps topping charts around the globe.
…and them fire tweets.
Finally, one of the best parts of Succession is people live-tweeting memes of the show. My personal favorites are ones using screenshot quotes from the characters. Here is a recent gem: