Those of you wondering what Jerry Seinfeld's been up to since walking away from one of the most successful shows in television history may want to check out Comedian, which purports to answer that question. A behind-the-scenes look at Seinfeld putting together a new standup act, Comedian suggests that the TV gig was a bit of a sideline for this inveterate joke-teller. Apparently, he's happiest up there by himself, with only a microphone to soothe the savage beasts in the audience. Well, "happy" may not be the right word. If this little documentary proves anything, it's that old saw about how dying's easy, comedy's hard. And Seinfeld ought to know, because early on in Comedian he dies a thousand deaths when the bit he's trying out at a comedy club trails off like cigarette smoke. The guy's hopelessly lost, and you can almost hear the crowd thinking, "Choke! Choke! Choke! Choke!"
"What am I doing here?" are the first words out of Seinfeld's mouth, and although we're all wondering the same thing (was another TV show out of the question?), Comedian comes up with a pretty satisfying answer. To wit: Standup is a noble calling, as pure as entertainment gets. There's just you and the audience and the possibility of a connection between you. If it works, it's like sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll all rolled into one. If it doesn't work, it's like a bad dream ' that one about school and your underwear ' from which you're unable to wake up. And Seinfeld has upped the ante considerably by throwing out all his old bits and starting from scratch. That it takes him three months to put together 20 minutes of material should convince anyone that "A Night at the Improv" has very little to do with improv. Like Eminem in 8 Mile, Seinfeld is constantly jotting down ideas on slips of paper. And their professions turn out to have a lot in common. Live by the word....
Maybe it was director Christian Charles who had the somewhat lame idea of juxtaposing Seinfeld with a young comic named Orny Adams, who's desperate to catch a rising star. Considering that he's not likely to be the next Lenny Bruce ' or, for that matter, the next Jerry Seinfeld ' we see altogether too much of Orny. It's not that he's not funny. It's that he's so starving for success that you want to feed him some just to get him to shut up. Seinfeld has consumed enough stardom for an army of Ornys, of course, and we're supposed to recognize that, for him, standup's a labor of love, not a stepping-stone to $250 million and enough Porsches to open your own dealership. What impresses us is the sheer number of Seinfeld's friends ' guys like Robert Klein and Chris Rock and Jay Leno ' who are still hanging out at the clubs long after their careers have been firmly established.
It's fun to watch Seinfeld, who was near the top of the standup heap when the boob-tube came calling, put his act together and take it on the road. We don't get to see him refine individual bits, which would have been even more fun. But we're left with the unmistakable impression that, although the whole thing takes place in smoky clubs full of drunken hecklers, refinement is what it's all about.