Film Reviews

COMEDIAN

By • Oct 25th, 2002 •

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Jerry Seinfeld is probably the most successful comic of his generation, but a weird thing happened after his eponymously named sitcom passed into syndication heaven: He stopped being funny.

That, of course, is oversimplifying matters a bit. Still, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat sorry for Seinfeld as I watched the first half of Christian Charles’ fast-paced and clever documentary COMEDIAN.

For all his success and smarminess, Seinfeld is a guy who clearly loves the craft of standup comedy and admires all those who do it well. Yet sometime during the nearly decade-long run of his TV show, Seinfeld lost the ability to go out and “kill” comedy club audiences like he could in his 20s and 30s. By all accounts, it was simply a lack of practice. As Jay Leno reminds Seinfeld in one memorable scene, “If you don’t do it, you don’t have it.”

And that’s what this film is about – Seinfeld’s attempt to regain his status as a consummate pro, a comedian’s comedian. It’s a goal that the filmmaker clearly respects. Charles simply turns on his camera and lets Seinfeld talk – to audiences, to other comics, to his wife and young child, to himself. Charles style is unobtrusive and reverential; this is a valentine of sorts to all the nameless comedians who sweat it out in comedy clubs across the country. At the same time, it is almost scientific in its attention to detail. Cooking up a solid comedy routine is like working in a lab – lots of trial and error and little glory.

When we first meet the film’s hero, he’s a bumbling bundle of nerves, the sort of open mic night minor leaguer who muffs punch lines and gets defensive with hecklers. In other words, he’s human and more likable than he ever was on television. His show always presented Seinfeld as a glib, facile jackass. In Charles’ film, Seinfeld is a sympathetic figure. His willingness to perform his still-evolving routine before boozed-up audiences – he refused to revisit any of the material from his pre-TV days – is admirable and at times downright brave.

Backed by a soundtrack that favors class soul and jazz (Al Green, Charles Mingus, etc.) Charles follows his subject everywhere. We see Seinfeld fret before shows and mope after them; we listen as he talks comedy with, among others, Chris Rock, Ray Romano and Bill Cosby; and we watch him work the kinks out of bits about answering machines, mad cow disease, sex and his own fame.

Seinfeld’s story runs parallel to that of a comedian named Orny Adams. Just 29, he is younger, hungrier and, at this point, funnier than the film’s star. Charles’ decision to spend time with the talented but insufferably cocky Adams was a wise move. Better than anyone else in the film, Adams demonstrates what a tortured lot comedians are. He videotapes all of his shows and analyzes them like an NFL coach breaking down game film. He keeps files containing every joke he’s ever written. He tells everyone he meets how funny he is. And, by his own admission, he is never happy. Which, you could say, is what makes him so funny.

One of the film’s finest moments comes when Charles captures Seinfeld and Adams in the same frame. There they are, backstage at some club, talking
comedy. Adams tells Seinfeld that he’s getting jealous of his friends who are “making it on Wall Street.” Seinfeld is incredulous. “Are you out of your mind?” he asks Adams. “This is a special thing. It has nothing to do with making it.” For all his money and fame, Seinfeld remains a comedy traditionalist. He always said he was a standup comic, not a TV star. After seeing COMEDIAN I finally believe him.

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