Following his sitcom
's curtain call, Jerry Seinfeld
had an HBO
special, made a few American Express commercials, and then disappeared from the public eye for a while. Since then, he's gone back to the trenches, doing standup comedy
alongside fresh-faced kids half his age in small venues, and rewriting his act from scratch. This is the subject of Comedian
), a documentary that follows Seinfeld from club to club as he plies his trade.
Although there's a fair amount of standup in the film, what's interesting is not so much Seinfeld's material, which will be familiar territory for most, but the conversations that occur offstage and in between performances, in semi-dark booths or backstage. Seinfeld chats it up with several other well-known comedians, among them Chris Rock, Colin Quinn, Jay Leno and Gary Shandling. In these exchanges we hear them interacting as normal, albeit famous people; it's here that the performer's carefully constructed mask comes off and we learn, if we didn't know already, that standup comedy is all blood, sweat, and tears, with only fleeting moments of comfort and self-confidence.
After one show he declares that he "hates it," but clearly something is driving him to do it, night after night. What exactly he gets out of this love/hate relationship is unclear, especially to Seinfeld himself, but his vague expository monologues seem to hint at a desire to prove himself, to achieve something irrefutable.
As Jerry Seinfeld continues his quest for a lasting legacy (or whatever it is he's after), the film simultaneously follows the story of Orny Adams, a young up-and-comer working some of the same clubs as Seinfeld. Adams is the perfect counterpoint to Seinfeld's laid-back, established, older comedian: brash, insecure, and thoroughly obnoxious. He obsesses over every last detail of his act, and is thrown off by the slightest modifications to it (as when The Tonight Show requests that he substitute "psoriasis" for "lupus" in one bit. He afterwards complains that he had to tell a "joke [he] had never told before.") He also obsesses over what others think of him, and whines constantly about how unhappy he is and how much time he's wasted on this, even though his career is starting to take off. Others, including Seinfeld, try to dissuade him of this approach, telling him to just settle down and enjoy the ride, and his response is typically hostile. After one well-meaning associate delivers a variation on this message and leaves the room, Adams, grinning with incredulous outrage, declares, "What a cocksucker!"
Adams' neurosis thankfully doesn't come through much onstage; in fact he's quite funny at times, but it's clear that in the consuming effort to be funny he has made himself a miserable, indeed humorless man. By the time he gets on The Tonight Show, which for any young comedian should constitute a huge break, Adams seems on the brink of despair, and perhaps insanity.
The last portion of the film is devoted to Seinfeld, who is on a pilgrimage to see Bill Cosby, whom Chris Rock has informed him does "two and a half hours of killer material." Seinfeld himself is currently working up to doing 45 minute sets, and is amazed and probably a little awed by this information. Seinfeld's interview with Cosby is somewhat of a letdown (I was actually hoping to see some of Cosby's "killer material") but it's still a fitting note to end on.
There are so many priceless little scenes in this film which illuminate the strange world standup comedians live in, a world somehow more primal, less tame and forgiving, than those of other performance arts. Every time you take the mic it's do-or-die; no amount of fame can conceal the odor of a poor act. The audience is a ruthless, wild beast, and it can smell your fear.
One scene in particular struck me as almost defining the film. In it, Seinfeld flounders on stage, losing his train of thought. He halts abruptly mid-anecdote, consults first the floor and then his notes with a sort of unhurried detachment, all while the audience squirms in near-silence. He murmurs that he's "forgotten where [he] was going with that," and gets a respectful little chuckle. After a few more seconds of futile rumination, a woman calls out, "Is this your first gig?" and everyone laughs and begins to applaud. Seinfeld sort of wakes up, realizing the bomb has exploded whether he likes it or not, no amount of calm can put out these flames, and he just has to start talking again. Speaking over the applause that is not for him, he manages a clumsy rebuttle, segues into the next joke, and the show goes on.
All quotes should be taken as paraphrase, as they were reconstructed from memory.