Comedian is alternately breezy and prickly - a likable, brainy documentary with a neat retractable edge. Director Christian Charles chronicles Jerry Seinfeld's struggle to build a whole new comedy routine and uses it to encompass the plight of all stand-ups facing an open mike, a bare stage and a packed club. The comic's version of the writer's blank page lies somewhere between his ego and the audience, and inspiration can wilt at any point in-between.
Subtle changes in the Zeitgeist and in audience awareness may affect whether a riff on, say, "think tanks" will soar; after all, listeners at some clubs may be far more familiar with drunk tanks. This movie demonstrates that for a comedian as perfectionist as Seinfeld, nonstop performing is a must for refining material, for "reading" an audience - and also for reading how it is reading you.
Of course, as the co-creator and pivot of a sitcom that is still a phenomenon in syndication, Seinfeld would seem to be in a unique position. But Seinfeld's fame doesn't save him from hecklers or win him dispensation when his concentration lapses and he breaks his game face.
Seinfeld is the perfect figure to center a documentary called, generically, Comedian. His comedy is based on locating the universal in the generic and on finding punch lines in a culture with few fixed values beyond consumerism. Some of his funniest riffs have to do with motorcycle riders wearing Nazi-like helmets - a hated-Hitler, loved-the-apparel situation - and on fast-food chains deciding there isn't enough cheese in pizza unless they inject more into the crust.
And as counterpoint to the sane, observant Seinfeld, director Charles and producer Gary Streiner also home in on Orny Adams, a standup struggling to keep body and soul together as he scrambles for the spotlight. Adams is maniacally competitive and self-critical - as volatile as a cartoon cat that gets its tail caught in an electric plug.
Adams embodies in extremis the insecurity of a comic in his youth. But it's unclear whether he'll ever evolve into the firm professionalism Seinfeld represents or whether he is masochistically in love with his own self-imposed born-loser image. Adams both amuses and appalls Seinfeld when he talks about missing out on the financial and emotional rewards that other guys Adams' age are starting to accumulate; Seinfeld responds with his favorite joke of the "What? and leave show biz?" variety. Will Adams' love-hate for performing see him past his frustration over not yet being rich and famous?
Only time will tell; this movie doesn't. It abruptly drops him halfway through. And not even Seinfeld's development of his new act can compensate for the loss in tension, since the filmmakers don't nail every pitfall and breakthrough en route. Filming every performance he gave for more than a year, they do catch some key moments - notably when Seinfeld loses the thread of a joke and must face the comedy-club equivalent of "dead air."
But most of the movie's insights come from watching Seinfeld kibitz off-stage or in bars with peers ranging from elder-statesman Robert Klein (who gets off the film's freshest and juiciest gag) and good-natured crony Colin Quinn to Chris Rock, Garry Shandling and the astute Jay Leno. The movie's strength lies in these "shop talk" scenes. But these scenes are notorious for taking over a picture (as they did memorably in Woody Allen's Broadway Danny Rose); maybe that's why so few filmmakers even try to incorporate them into a story. Comedian actually climaxes when Seinfeld gets together with Bill Cosby. A legendary standup before he became the center of a groundbreaking series (I Spy) and his own epochal sitcom (The Cosby Show), Cosby in 2000 pulled off the feat of performing 2 hour, 20 minute sets in sold-out concert halls, twice a day. Comedian makes you understand how awesome this achievement is - and how it relates to Seinfeld's own ambition.
Poet-novelist-critic James Agee was dead-on when he wrote, "Most good comedians, probably all the great ones, require a very broad audience; Groucho Marx, working with extremely sophisticated wit rather than with comedy, has always been slowed and burdened by his audience, even on the stage." But Seinfeld made wit-based comedy accessible first to a very broad audience and then, with an inspired company and the toughening collaboration of Larry David, to a huge viewership on TV. Although Comedian has its share of inadequacies, it captures in a scary-funny way all the blood, sweat and tears that go into creating Seinfeld's cool kind of laughs.
Starring Jerry Seinfeld
Directed by Christian Charles
Released by Miramax
Time 81 minutes
SUN SCORE * * *