Review by Jason Woloski
Posted on 05 May 2005
Source Miramax DVD
Like many a great documentary before it, Comedian succeeds by never realizing its intended goal. What begins as a movie about craft – the craft of building and refining an original stand-up comedy routine – more interestingly becomes a movie about celebrity, and the ways in which celebrity can create multiplying layers of denial in those who have it, as well in those who want it. Christian Charles is credited with directing the film, but it is Jerry Seinfeld who imagines Comedian to be his version of Inside the Actor’s Studio, in which the professional world of stand-up performance is finally given its proper due, through an exploration of the craftsmanship and suffering involved in creating an original act of comedy entirely from scratch.
As the film opens, Seinfeld has decided to return to the world of stand-up performance, despite a total absence of financial motivation and an already solidified reputation as a comedy legend. While he never explicitly says so, he seems afraid that his complacent lifestyle as a privileged family man has already caused him to lose touch with the realities of everyday pop culture that his previous acts have relied so heavily upon. As the film progresses and he finds himself back in the groove of performing in front of live crowds, Seinfeld seems subtly agitated with himself, and not only because his act is not coming together as quickly or as smoothly as he would like it to. He relies on high profile comedian friends (Chris Rock, Colin Quinn, manager George Shapiro) for inspiration and encouragement, and yet some key element of the writing/performing process eludes him.
When Comedian was released in theatres in the fall of 2002, several critics expressed annoyance at the fact that Jerry Seinfeld’s desire to return to the roots of stand-up comedy was being realized by his flying from city to city in a privately-owned jet, showing up at venues unannounced to bump lesser-known comics, and flexing his privilege whenever a potential inconvenience arose. It all seemed unfitting of the traditional idea of the unknown, up-and-coming comic who has to struggle for laughs in a tense, smoke-filled environment. No one could deny that Seinfeld had earned his success the hard way, and yet his return to stand-up comedy was feeling all too, for a lack of a better term, “corporate.” These same critics may have curtailed their complaints if, in the end, Seinfeld had been able to reclaim his past glory and deliver an A-grade routine. Unfortunately, he could not. Regardless, the points raised about privilege are valid ones, especially when considering Seinfeld’s agitation with himself throughout the film.
In an age when political, autobiographical, and socially relevant stand-up comedy has become the norm, Jerry Seinfeld’s style of observational comedy is a throwback to another, some would say dated, era of humor. Seinfeld’s talent for speaking compellingly about the most superficial, irrelevant aspects of popular Western culture, from cereals to superheroes to answering machines, has been made that much more intriguing in that doing so, he has always managed to avoid revealing any meaningful aspects of his personal life. In Comedian, however, the strain of separating the private from the public slowly leads to one contradiction after another for Seinfeld, until in the end (and without even realizing it), it is his routine which suffers. The strangeness of seeing a man fly around on a private jet, only to appear in a small club in Cleveland is striking not because Seinfeld has the means for doing so, but because the act that he is trying to so desperately to hone has nothing to do with what his life has become. Speaking of cheese-infused pizza dough and the “Jared Diet” from Subway fame is amusing, but what audience members and fans of Seinfeld want to hear about is his take on how it feels to own a plane, how it feels to never have to worry about money again, or even what it’s like to struggle with a comedy routine after having accomplished so much. Seinfeld’s decision to keep the private separated from the public is made that much more confusing when he reveals an apparent desire to be humanized through short scenes of singing to his baby and frolicking with his family on a beach. One is left wondering, if Seinfeld wanted to reveal a more human side of himself, wouldn’t a more natural choice be to include elements of his personal life within his newfound approach to stand-up comedy?
Seinfeld’s attempts at a “meta-stand-up” approach to performing could be interesting, if they were not so obviously and repeatedly misplaced. In adopting a Zen-like approach to stand-up performance, in which he hopes to transcend the relevance of his fame, wealth, and even the audience in front of him (which plays out in an awkward scene in which he stops his act to find his place, while the audience sits and waits for him), Seinfeld comes across as a comedian who has become far too aware of his fame, wealth, and the audience in front of him. As a result, he does manage to transcend all that makes a struggling comedian desperate in the first place, and yet in refusing to acknowledge the privilege that now dominates his life, his relationship to popular culture feels flat and inappropriate. Like many an artist who has past their prime, Seinfeld eventually adopts an approach to his work that allows him to avoid the more difficult questions of where the magic has gone, by instead obsessing over the technical elements of his trade. Rather than focus upon improving the actual content of his act, he discusses at length the importance of word play and selecting the exactly correct adjective for any given description. In a sense, because Seinfeld has been doing this for so long, he realizes that by getting back to basics and focusing upon the rudimentary elements of stand-up comedy, he is more than capable of utilizing his experience to mask the amount of slippage contained in the quality of his act.
A trope of the aging artist that Seinfeld rejects in Comedian is the notion of the mentor. Because Orny Adams, the up-and-coming comic meant to balance out Seinfeld’s tale within the overall structure of Comedian, is so relentlessly obnoxious and unlikable, Seinfeld can hardly be blamed for never approaching Adams in any meaningful way, other than to pass on a story about Glenn Miller’s bus breaking down and a few other parables about life on the road. That said, I am left wondering to what degree Seinfeld campaigned for Adams’ inclusion in the film. Seinfeld is good friends with Christian Charles (they met when Charles directed Seinfeld in the famous American Express ads of the late 1990s), and because Seinfeld seems to have a good deal of control over how he is perceived in the film, could it be possible that he wanted an unlikable comedian cast opposite him, in order to reduce the possibility that his own foray into the personal would not come across as disingenuous? Adams is also unthreatening in that he too works only in observational comedy. Placing Seinfeld opposite a comedian who speaks of socially or politically relevant material could have been disastrous, in that the contrast might have made Seinfeld’s own brand of humor seem superficial. If a comedian who works in highly autobiographical material had been cast, Seinfeld’s project of personalizing himself within the film could have also become all too apparent. Adams complements Seinfeld perfectly. As unsure, difficult, and removed Seinfeld comes across as in his personal project of humanizing himself, Adams emerges as necessary to Seinfeld’s goals within Comedian, if only to become the impossibly neurotic doppelganger to Seinfeld’s own struggling comic persona. Or, to use a metaphor more apt to Seinfeld’s brand of observation, Adams functions as Bizarro to Seinfeld’s Superman.