In 1998 comedian Jerry Seinfeld committed what some called career suicide by pulling the plug on both his wildly popular TV show and the stand-up act he had been cultivating for 20 years. Fans speculated on what would be next for the man who had become one of the biggest pop icons of the nineties. Would he take his millions and fade from view à la Johnny Carson, or would he attempt a second TV show, like fellow comics-turned-turned-sitcom-stars Bill Cosby and Bob Newhart? Even as his Seinfeld costars crashed and burned in their solo sitcoms, Seinfeld himself remained curiously low-key, only popping up in the occasional American Express commercial.
But in early 2000, Seinfeld decided to build a whole new act of stand-up material, which meant a return to the comedy dives where he started in the mid-’70s. Comedian, released recently on DVD from Miramax, shows this process. This engaging and entertaining documentary was shot during a 14-month period starting in February 2000, following Seinfeld as he travels across the country building his new act. Those expecting to see a rollicking comedy may be disappointed, as Comedian is a serious look at the business of being funny. A film about the art of comedy and Seinfeld’s own quest, it reveals working comics as they strive to make it in a business that Seinfeld calls “like going to work in your underwear.”
Directed by Christian Charles and produced by Gary Streiner (the creative team behind those credit card commercials), Comedian presents stand-up comics as working stiffs. Despite his enormous wealth and success, Seinfeld works the Manhattan comedy clubs much like he did 20 years ago, racing after hours from one dreary joke hall to another in hopes of getting a few minutes onstage. Rebuilding his act from scratch, he seems as vulnerable as any comic just starting out. But he’s also energized by the pressure of performing live, even when the going gets rough, which it does occasionally.
To his credit, Seinfeld, who also produced the film, doesn’t sugarcoat the process, allowing Charles to film his pursuit even as he fumbles with his new routine. When Seinfeld completely blanks during an onstage monologue, his discomfort is painful to watch: he paces the stage, trying to regain his focus. “Is this your first gig?” comes a question from the audience, and he can only look frustrated. “Yes, as a matter of fact, it is,” he replies.
Fans who know Seinfeld only through his sitcom will see a very different Jerry as he curses, is plagued by self-doubt, and questions his return to on-stage performance. When Seinfeld discusses his craft in greenrooms and after-show dinners with the likes of fellow comedians Colin Quinn, Ray Romano, and Chris Rock, the talk is always of how hard the life is, how terrifying the process of performing can actually be. “You looked like you were having fun out there,” one club owner tells Seinfeld after a rough set. “That’s my job,” Seinfeld replies wearily, as if being onstage is anything but fun.
So why do they do it? The film makes clear that for successful (and some not-so-successful) comics, comedy is a demanding compulsion. The documentary argues that comics have an addictive need to perform, and that they only feel truly alive during the one hour they are onstage. It’s this compulsive urge to entertain that validates them. Getting the laugh is not the objective, it’s only a verification of success.
For Seinfeld, whose comedy combines the minutiae of everyday life with his own anxieties, his need to return to stand-up is no great mystery. “I’m afraid I’ll lose it if I don’t do it,” he explains. Even when he takes the new act to Letterman’s show, self-doubt creeps through; as he looks out on the 3,000-seat Paramount Theater in Oakland, he asks himself, “How can I possibly make all these people happy?”
That question remains largely unanswered. In both his TV show and his stand-up act, Seinfeld has always been slightly aloof. A brilliant observer of common culture, he very rarely allows us into his own private world. Try as they might, the filmmakers can’t crack this nut, and the film suffers from Seinfeld’s efforts to keep his personal and professional lives separate.
As much as we see Seinfeld working to build his act, we never see the result, as the film ends with him going onstage at the Paramount. Fortunately, the DVD’s extras features Seinfeld’s Letterman appearance, where he is at the top of his game. His timing is flawless, his delivery relaxed and assured as he jokes about mad cow disease, Subway sandwiches, and the joys of fatherhood.
As a counterpoint Seinfeld’s rise, the filmmakers also trace the career of Orny Adams, a somewhat talented 29-year-old New York stand-up who is the yin to Seinfeld’s yang. Brash, crude, and deeply insecure, Adams yearns to be the next Jerry Seinfeld. He makes no secret of the fact that he is only in the comedy game for the fame, displaying a raw egoism as he puts down industry insiders, colleagues, and Seinfeld himself in his single-minded sprint for success.
Despite mounting successes, such as an important gig at the Montreal Comedy Festival and a shot on Letterman, one gets the feeling that Adams’ 15 minutes are already up, and he knows it. In a chance backstage meeting, Seinfeld seems perplexed by Adams’ desire to “make it” rather than adopt the full-on comedy “lifestyle.” “This is a special thing,” Seinfeld tells him. “This has nothing to do with making it.” Adams looks blank.
Steve Martin once said, “Comedy is not pretty” and Comedian suggests that it’s a comic’s fate to suffer humiliating failure before tasting hard-earned success. Adams constantly seems on the verge of mental breakdown. Jerry Seinfeld, on the other hand, continues to kneel before the altar of comedy; perhaps that is why he is still master of his domain.