Nothing easy about it

Who knew it hurt this much to be a stand-up comic?

Jerry Seinfeld's 'Comedian' makes clear being funny is hard to do.

October 31, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITC

Finally: Proof that Jerry Seinfeld is not all about nothing. Turns out he's about practicing hard and working the room and sweating the details and making it look a hundred times easier than it really is.

Nothing, you'll recall, was the mantra of Seinfeld's eponymous NBC sitcom, a nine-year celebration of the off-kilter that was, in the oft-repeated words of its creator, all about nothing.

But nothing was so funny. And Seinfeld - the comic and the series - made it look effortless. Nothing, it appeared, was easy.

Now comes Comedian, a documentary (opening in Baltimore theaters tomorrow) that follows Seinfeld through the process of developing new material. And what do you know? Humor is hard. There's a lot of something behind being the world's most popular stand-up comic, and much of it involves pain.

The 48-year-old comic sounds delighted to dispel the notion that being funny in front of a roomful of strangers is easy. "People are having fun with this movie, and they're learning a little bit about a profession that they've been aware of but didn't know much about," he said by telephone from New York. "They're learning about the kind of painstaking nature of it. Any good comedian performs with a little bit of casual ease, but to get to that, what you have to go through ..."

He doesn't bother finishing the thought. And for anyone who goes to see Comedian he doesn't have to: pain, anguish, potential for humiliation when cracking wise in front of people you've never met infuse nearly every frame of the film. There's Jerry forgetting what he wanted to say; Jerry telling a joke that falls flatter than the proverbial pancake; Jerry going into an almost Zen-like, self-induced trance before hitting the stage; Jerry talking to his pals - guys like Jay Leno, Colin Quinn, Garry Shandling and Chris Rock - about the insecurity of the comic lifestyle, about the need to prove yourself each and every time you walk out on that stage.

But surprisingly, the documentary also captures Seinfeld thriving on the adrenaline rush that comes with performing. "I like the simplicity of it. I like the harshness of it, too. I like the fact that when you win, you win. And when you lose, you lose. There's no gray area about it," he said.

Here's a guy who agonizes over whether anyone will laugh at material about how much people like to look at themselves in the mirror, yet allowed a camera crew to record every second of his creative process, preserving his successes and failures on film for everyone to see.

"You know, you're more concerned about being embarrassed in front of those 60 people in the audience than you are the camera. You know that 99 percent of what they shoot is not going to be in the film anyway, so you can't be thinking about it."

Seinfeld has made a career out of poking fun at the mundane, cracking jokes about cheese pizzas and comfortable chairs. His brand of humor depends as much on the observed as the observer. Years ago, the old comics, the guys who rose up through vaudeville, had jokes to fall back on. Nowadays, the story's the thing; people are laughing not at the punch lines, but at themselves, the absurdities in their own lives that comics like Seinfeld use as fodder.

"If you're cut out for it, if you're meant to do it, it's not that hard," Seinfeld insisted. "It's like football players getting hit - if you or I got hit by one of those guys, we'd be in the hospital for four weeks. But those guys, they grew up that way, they live that way. You just absorb those hits, and it rolls off you."

Not that it's always been easy; here's betting those football players suffered more than a few broken bones in their younger days. So it was for a budding Jerry Seinfeld.

"I was about 22 when I had my first paying gig," he said, "and the first time, it didn't work at all. But the second time, it did. And that was it.

"I was so determined, I was so in love with it, as soon as I told people I was going to do this. That was the hardest part for me, actually, to say to your friends and your family, `I think that I should be up onstage, spouting off on what I think, and that everyone should quietly listen.'

"Think of the arrogance and the ego of that statement," he said, pausing for a moment to allow for just that. "That was something that made me uncomfortable, but once I got over that, I was fine."

Comedian backs that self-assessment - yeah, Seinfeld's fine. But he works hard to stay fine. And the documentary that allows us to witness that labor of love as he shows up unannounced to work the crowds at tiny, hole-in-the-wall New York comedy clubs, gives rise to a whole new level of appreciation for the man's work.

"I didn't realize it, but people do have quite a bit of curiosity about this profession," he said. "I thought, `Who wants to watch pain?' But you know what? People like pain. Just look at Fear Factor."

Still, Seinfeld's a rich man, with little left to prove. If comedy is pain, why keep on enduring it? Why struggle with new material, when it would be a simple matter to coast on the old stuff? All he'd have to do is show up, talk about big salads and struggling to master one's domain, and crowds would applaud themselves silly.

"Yeah, but it wouldn't be the kind of applause and laughter that I'm after, which is the real high-octane stuff," he said. "If I were a drug addict, I would tell you that, over the years, I've had some pretty pure stuff. Doing that [TV] show, that was some pretty high adrenaline.

"I don't want to go back to just coasting," he said, sounding like a guy trying out a new mantra. "Never coast."

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