Tuesday, October 22, 2002


Last March, Jerry Seinfeld appeared on Letterman’s Late Show to deliver one of his singsong monologues. “The question is this,” he said: “What have I been doing?” The answer, he added, was: “Nothing.”

Like most of Seinfeld’s material, the joke worked because it seemed true. After all, it had been more than two years since the comedian had pulled the plug on his sitcom. He’d done no other TV shows and no movies, and how hard could it have been for him to cook up a comedy routine? You could picture him knocking it out in a day from his house in the Hamptons. But you’d be wrong.

That monologue was part of a routine Seinfeld had been developing for more than a year. During that time, director Christian Charles and producer Gary Streiner, the team behind Seinfeld’s American Express ads, followed him in and out of comedy clubs as he tested his new material and schmoozed other comedians. The result is Comedian, an entertaining tribute to the work that goes into making comedy look easy.

Charles and Streiner alternate Seinfeld’s story with that of a rising young comic named Orny Adams. Arrogant, starved for fame, and perpetually frustrated, Adams is pure id to Seinfeld’s superego. While Seinfeld seems as unflappable offstage as on, Adams rails against everything, including his gently supportive manager, his audiences, and any comedian who gets more laughs than he does.

But, as this movie shows, the two have a lot in common with one another -- and with the rest of their fellow comedians, all of whom love nothing more than being onstage, yet rarely feel at ease while they’re performing. “You’re never really comfortable [onstage],” Seinfeld tells Adams. “Even when you think you are, you never really are.” The comedians in Comedian are almost never satisfied with their work, obsessing about the jokes before a performance and about the weak spots afterward. You wonder whether all share every ignoble emotion that Adams blurts out (“the jealousy in this business is ridiculous,” he says), but most have just learned to keep their neuroses more or less hidden.

Practically the whole country is on a first-name basis with Seinfeld (that’s Jerry to you). On his show and in his stand-up routines, he portrays the sane center, a regular Joe dedicated to the pursuit of stimulation and comfort in precisely the right proportions. The only difference between him and us, it would seem, is that he’s neater, richer, and better at locating the humor in everyday life.

Seinfeld drops that pretense in Comedian. When Adams regrets having become a comedian while some of his friends got rich on Wall Street, Seinfeld wrinkles his nose at the thought of aspiring to a conventional career. Instead, he offers what he describes as his favorite story about show business. One winter, he says, Glenn Miller’s orchestra got stranded in the middle of nowhere. Trudging through the snow, carrying their instruments and luggage, they came upon a cozy little house. The musicians, says Seinfeld, looked in the window to see a family gathered by a fire, talking and laughing. “And one guy turns to the other guy and says: ‘How can people live like that?’”

Comedian's tagline is “Where does comedy come from?” It makes a few feints at that question, but it never gets far. When one of the filmmakers asks Seinfeld if he was funny as a kid, for instance, he says no, not particularly. “When you were growing up,” he muses, “everybody was funny. And then at some point, everyone grew up and got jobs.” Ba-dum-dum: hearty laugh; end of discussion.

The movie often makes the point that Seinfeld’s schlep through the comedy club circuit, where most comedians start out, is a reverse career move for the star. (“I’m flying in from LA to work in West Orange, New Jersey,” he faux-marvels.) But returning to his roots was a smart move. Like Jay Leno, Bill Cosby, and other established comics, Seinfeld keeps doing stand-up because he’s gifted at it and he loves doing it. And, though he may not need any more money or fame, he still needs a challenge.

Seinfeld never displays any serious doubts in Comedian—he never even seems to be in a bad mood—but his onstage energy increases as his routine grows longer and stronger. By the time he appears on Late Show, he strides out like an athlete. And when Leno claims that he’s still motivated by fear of failure and boasts that he’s “never touched a dime of [his] Tonight Show money,” Seinfeld snorts. It’s absurd, he says, for Leno to think he still might “wind up as a garbage man.”

At times like that, Comedian reminds you why Seinfeld won those acting Emmys. He may play a regular guy on TV, but he’s not one. Not really. He’s out there in the snow with the other performers, peering through our windows, marveling at what he sees.