by David Cornelius
Shortly after finishing the final episodes for his sitcom, Jerry Seinfeld decided to do what few comics-turned-actors ever do: he returned to the stand-up circuit. Stranger yet, he chose to “retire” all the material he had used in his act over the previous few decades and start all over again, creating a new act from scratch. He would be, in essence, starting once again from the bottom.Granted, he had his fame to carry his along, and the audience would give him much more slack regarding choppy material than they would with a newcomer. But it’s still quite the challenge, getting back to his comic roots without using older, popular gags as a crutch.
"A clever peek behind the stand-up curtain."
All of this has been chronicled in “Comedian,” a documentary that tracks Seinfeld’s journey. The film follows the star as he tries out raw, unfocused material on unsuspecting crowds at New York’s low-key comedy clubs (Seinfeld often would not be listed as an attraction) to his eventual polishing of a full-blown, hour-plus act.
It’s not an easy road. One night, Seinfeld completely blanks out on stage, desperately shuffling though his note cards for his next punchline - with no success. All he can do is freeze, occasionally spurting out a “dammit.” The crowd is baffled as they watch one of the world’s most famous and successful comedians dying quite miserably. Another night, following another blunder, Seinfeld reveals to the crowd with unexpected candor, “This is how comedians develop their material, and as you can see, it’s quite painful.”
Seinfeld shares thoughts on the process with other stand-ups, like Colin Quinn and Jay Leno, both of whom keep returning to clubs despite television success. From them, we learn about the addiction-like need to go back on stage, the struggles behind growing an act, the troubles of being famous yet having no good jokes, and the importance of never opening with a new joke. (Start off with comfortable material you know will work, in order to avoid flopping right out of the gate. Save the new stuff for the middle; if it bombs, you can come back with older, surer goods.)
To balance all this, the filmmakers also follow young comic Orny Adams, a slightly cocky but quite hilarious up-and-comer trying to break into the business. He suffers he same problems as Seinfeld - hecklers, botched jokes, tough crowds, pre-show nerves, post-show second guessing - and yet he’s not given the same breaks given to the superstar. His story is actually the more interesting of the two; unlike Seinfeld, whom we know has his overflowing bank account to support him in case he flops on stage, Adams has nothing but his neuroses.
When we meet him, Adams is just on the verge of breaking through. He’s finally landed a manager, he’s been invited to Toronto for a comedy festival, and, most importantly, he’s going to be on “Late Show With David Letterman.”
While we also see Seinfeld’s own “Letterman” gig, Adams’ appearance tells us more about how struggling comics deal with such an important performance. (Adams, asked by the show’s producers to change some wording in his act, is so thrown off by the alteration that even though he kills, he’s unable to really enjoy it.)“Comedian” offers a rare look at both sides of the comedy fence, and it’s both endlessly intriguing and side-splittingly funny. But it’s also a film with horrible production values. Director Christian Charles shot everything on cheap camcorders, and the result is hazy, ugly video and a soundtrack that’s barely audible. The movie’s often a real struggle to watch, and as a result, the joy we should get from watching these two very funny men hone their craft becomes slightly diluted. Still, the story itself is thoroughly engaging, and it’s strong enough to overcome such shoddy production work.
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originally posted: 05/10/05 16:06:02