“Soup Nazi”; “Sponge-worthy”; “Yadda, yadda, yadda”; if these catch phrases mean anything to you, you’re probably wondering what a certain funny-man is doing now. “Comedian,” a new documentary that follows Jerry Seinfeld over the course of 18 months, purports to have the answer.
After his 1998 HBO special, “I’m Telling You For the Last Time,” Seinfeld retired his old material. “Comedian” documents him as he breaks from the big time, opting for the smoky din of subterraneous comedy clubs. Though Seinfeld’s hilarious gigs figure largely in the film, “Comedian” also provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the comic’s life. It portrays Seinfeld waxing nostalgic, and even delving into his darker, critical side. Yet, though “Comedian” offers up a lot of Jerry, it shows more of his work than of the man himself.
Armed with digital cameras, director Christian Charles (Seinfeld’s American Express commercials) and producer Gary Steiner (“Seinfeld”), shadow Seinfeld upon his return to the comedy club circuit. The film has a home movie quality — complete with jerky hand-held shots and muffled sound — and captures Seinfeld’s new, uproarious routines that alone make the film worth seeing.
Like the comic featured in the film, “Comedian” floats nervously from moment to moment, often disjointedly. Nonetheless, there are moments of beautiful inter-cutting between the emotive music — an upbeat, jazzy score by Charlie Mingus and Al Green — and Seinfeld’s own monologues which seem to follow him down the New York streets, like inescapable voices in his head.
In fact, “Comedian” often verges into Seinfeld’s self-deprecating side. He describes his job as “going to work in your underwear — everyone’s nightmare.” By depicting the performer as a slave to his audience, analyzing every laugh for its meaning, the film hints at the insecurity and unhappiness that seems to both motivate and haunt many professional comics. “You looked like you were having fun,” a friend tells Seinfeld after a performance. Replies Seinfeld, “that’s my job.”
As a counterpoint to Seinfeld’s critical work ethic and established reputation, “Comedian” presents Orny Adams, a young, wannabe comedian. After being picked up by Seinfeld’s agent, George Shapiro, Adams is fuelled by a furious energy to make it big. Initially, the juxtaposition of the two comics seems to flatter Seinfeld’s image: Next to brash, insolent Adams, Seinfeld comes off glowing like an innocent child. But Adam’s presence in the film develops into more of a study of human despair. Adams vehemently nit-picks his own performance, agonizes over every word, and spirals into a manic depressive state.
In contrast to juvenile Adams, “Comedian” also includes a host of cameos by established comedians. Comics such as Jay Leno, Chris Rock, Gary Shandling, and Ray Romano appear in the film, and some of the movie’s highlights portray Jerry hanging out with his boys in the biz (sorry, no girls allowed). It is during these casual conversations that “Comedian” brilliantly captures fleeting moments of comedic genius. One scene portrays Jerry and Colin Quinn riffing over the meaning of the phrase “think tank”; the film then follows how that conversation appears in a Seinfeld set.
Seinfeld is a joy to watch, but his incessant, comedic facade prevents him from ever being truly knowable. Perhaps the one genuine moment where Seinfeld lets down his guard occurs during his visit with his childhood idol, Bill Cosby. As he listens to Cosby’s advice with quiet reverence, Seinfeld’s funny-man facade dissolves. He tries to communicate the significance of the meeting, but cannot, and his voice breaks with emotion.
“Comedian” is a hilarious film that will have you nudging the stranger next to you, as if you were watching Seinfeld live. But the film also observes that, on a bare stage, even Jerry Seinfeld is always one lame punch line away from bombing. Most of all, “Comedian” portrays the comic’s frantic compulsion to keep working. In one instance, Seinfeld claims, “I’m scared that I’m not gonna be able to do it anymore if I don’t keep doing it.” It is this compulsive need to perform that keeps him coming back for more. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.