J a n u a r y   2 0 0 3


Jerry Seinfeld's 'Comedian'
Good for nothing
by Mark Anderson

erry Seinfeld is good for nothing. And, as he says in his big-screen documentary, doing nothing isn't as easy as it looks.

Seinfeld would know. His namesake sitcom took the premise of nothing to the top. Then he quit to do nothing. Now, in "Comedian," the camera follows many months of Seinfeld's day-to-day as he struggles to birth 45 minutes of comedy by starting out ... with nothing.

When nothing is everything: Seinfeld seems to live like that. ["Jerry," by Mary Bergherr.]

Meanwhile, at the box office, "Comedian" is earning next to nothing. Divide less than $3 million since its October release by $7 a ticket, then compare to the 76 million who reportedly tuned in for the sitcom's finale.

But money isn't always the object. Sometimes keeping life interesting is the coin of the realm. Partway into the movie, Seinfeld tells a favorite show-biz yarn. It goes something like this:

A couple musicians drive into the ditch on their way to a cold-weather gig. They lug their instruments through the snow till they finally spot a well-lit house with smoke from the chimney. Tired, frozen, wet, they trudge up the steps, peek through a window and see a family, all keeping warm by the fire.

One musician turns to the other and says, "How do people live like that?"

"Comedian" examines both sides of that disparate equation. Seinfeld displays the inner workings of a natural performer attached to a nimble mind – and the writing and rewriting required before the final rewrites begin. Making every sentence sound like the obvious thing to say. No wasted words.

Stand-up reality: like a normal person going to work in their underwear.

He also shows what it's like to give judge-and-jury power to a crowd, not unlike that family around the fire: ma, pa, the kids, maybe a few friends, all a little bored with life but up for a night of comedy. They make or break the comedian simply by giving or withholding their laughter and applause.

Early on, the movie depicts a particularly grim night for Seinfeld. Things do not go well. And as he fumbles through recipe cards a heckler asks if it's his first gig – which betrays a stand-up's reality. Because whether with millions in the bank or holes in the shoes, the comedian must get through each and every set.

"This," says Seinfeld, "is like a normal person going to work in their underwear."

The meat of "Comedian" is Seinfeld and his stand-up friends (Gary Shandling, Colin Quinn, Ray Romano, Jay Leno, etc.) hanging out backstage and in the clubs. They kill time in an endless succession of dressing rooms and booths, conversing, commiserating and stuffing their faces before and after their shows ... essentially doing nothing.

These impromptu scenes are funny, and not unlike the diner in Seinfeld's sitcom.

What passes for plot in the movie is Seinfield's periodic path-crossings with a hardworking but way-too-in-love-with-himself comedian named Orny Adams – who seemingly wouldn't know happiness in the unlikely event it ever caught up with him.

Beyond, minor subplots unfold. Seinfeld frets over preparedness for a five-minute spot on the Letterman show, and he runs into Chris Rock, who amazes with an effusive tale of having recently seen Bill Cosby – Seinfeld's boyhood idol. Cosby, according to Rock, does two-hours-plus without taking a break.

"... and it's all killer shit," Rock raves. "Ooh, you have to see it!"

Nothing doing: six months of sweat.

Seinfeld finally finds Cosby in New Jersey and, in a mildly touching scene, is truly awed and inspired to learn that Cosby thinks nothing of doing two shows a day.

The movie's soundtrack oozes Coltrane, Mingus and Miles, which helps evoke a convincing nightclub air. And finally, after six months of sweat, Seinfeld's set starts coming together. End of story. So much of nothing.

Which makes it easy to forget that, long before those 76 million souls tuned in for Seinfeld's 1999 finale, lack of viewers (circa 1990) nearly got the sitcom canceled.

And all along, detractors have suggested that Seinfeld can't act. That Larry David's successful HBO show is proof of who really did what to make Seinfeld's sitcom sing. Or that Seinfeld is not worth the attention because a lot of everyday people make funny observations (which is like ignoring Michael Jordan because your high school had a decent basketball team).

"Everybody was funny when we were kids," Seinfeld says. "But they got jobs."

Comedy is Seinfeld's job, and the real proof is in the sitcom reruns: 180-some episodes of acute wordsmithing. It would be hard to believe that Seinfeld isn't at least a major player in all that. It would also be hard to find a better place for remedial lessons in clean, sharp writing.

Unemployment check: Seinfeld heads back to work. Visit the "Comedian" site.

And despite the fact that the movie is clearly tilted in the star's direction, by the end of its 81 minutes, you get the impression that Seinfeld was terminally good-natured before he had a TV show, too.

Much the same as the sitcom about nothing, "Comedian" strings together endless and deceptively benign observations that make a shrewd point about the world of comedy and the world at-large: All the money and adulation can't replace the rush that comes from keeping life interesting.

"Comedian" has already found the second-run theaters – those big-screened places with living-room furniture, $3 tickets and plenty of beer. Home video, of course, is next. More millions will come. Like the old adage says, do what you love and the money will follow.

To which Seinfeld provides his unique corollary: Say enough about nothing and you end up saying something about darn near anything and everything.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and see more tripewriter.

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