Friday, March 6, 2015

Comedian

Been workin' in nightclubs so long
Can hardly stand the break of day

Run down rooms and bad pianos
But it's still the only way


- Mose Allison


By the early oughts, Jerry Seinfeld had little left to prove.  Lean years of hitting the stand up circuit and occasional acting gigs paid off enormously in the early '90s when he got his own network show, an oddball comedy about "nothing" that nonetheless became one of the most successful sitcoms ever.  A cultural legacy that continues to show no signs of flagging.  Since Seinfeld ceased production in 1998, the reruns have never gone away.  No one could blame Jerry for resting on his laurels.  But tortured individuals are rarely satisfied to just toil around Central Park or polish their collection of Porsches.

Is it about money? Jay Leno is one of the many celebs who turns up during the 2002 documentary COMEDIAN.  Jerry asks him why he keeps working, when surely his grandchildren's children are set for life.  Both joke about their fears of going broke, of becoming garbage men.  Leno admits he hasn't yet touched his Tonight Show earnings.  How much money does one need to feel secure?  Imagine the residuals Jerry receives.

Or, is it just that driven personality that can never be contented?  Always has to prove something? Maybe even fail awesomely so as to have a comeback? A repeated cycle? Why would Seinfeld decide to start from scratch with all new material and tour the country as if just starting out?  We learn that the comedian is afraid he'll "lose it", maybe what athletes (secretly) fear if they put down the ball and put on those network jackets.  Fear is a driver.

Fear (and maybe a bit of boredom) drives Seinfeld to show up unannounced at 11:00 P.M. at a club near his Manhattan apartment.  To take the stage and just go for it. To see if he can still own the crowd.  You might think that someone as revered as Jerry Seinfeld will always captivate, his very presence enough to inspire the laughter every comedian needs to breathe.  He learns otherwise.  Even someone as famous and iconic as himself can bomb (after the audience's initial excitement) if the material and cadences are off.  Just as he suspected.

Seinfeld feels this is a good thing.  He's not trying to reinvent himself, necessarily, but rather build something new.  Satiate that craving for success, even if it had already been achieved, in spades.  Or maybe he just craves punishment.  Enjoys the pain.

COMEDIAN also follows an up and coming stand-up named Orny Adams, suffering the rites of passage as Seinfeld did back when.  He longs to join the stand-up royalty which has members like Chris Rock, George Wallace, Bill Cosby (all of whom appear in this film). How many years of dues will he be forced to endure?  Orny is also quite good at self-torture. Second guessing his talent and berating his T.V. appearances.  It just never is good enough.  Performers are always their own worst critics, and enemies. Adams hones his act so close to the bone that when the network makes him substitute the word "psoriasis" for "lupus" during a Letterman spot he feels the entire rhythm of the joke is lost.  On the DVD commentary, Seinfeld reacts to a scene in which Orny rides in a N.Y.C. taxi, fretting about what's going on in L.A. - "It's amazing how much suffering we inflict upon ourselves."

Adams is in his late 20s, watching the friends he grew up acquire steady jobs and houses, married with children.  He's on the road, always nauseous, refining his jokes.  He feels like a failure, perhaps ready to join the great mainstream.  Seinfeld poo poos his lament and chastises the younger man's resignation to what he considers a compromised life.  The elder concludes his scolding with a joke about a pair of wandering lawyers who observe a traditional family through their living room window - not with envy, but "how can they live like that?".

COMEDIAN is a fascinating though maybe unnecessary documentary that is primarily a collection of backstage conversations among the seen-it-all vets of the comedy circuit.  It is often difficult to understand what they are saying. This adds to the authentic feeling, but is also frustrating as hell.  What if we're missing some nugget of wisdom from Colin Quinn or Garry Shandling? Or least some bon mot or quip one can steal for later use?  Director Christian Charles should've had a more directional microphone mounted on his shaky camcorder.  Chris Franklin's editing is less than impressive.  Maybe your 10 year old nephew could've made a more professional looking doc. There are, however, appropriate uses of Steely Dan's "Deacon Blues" and Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage."

For devoted fans of Seinfeld, the movie will be curio, a time capsule.  Especially in this later on, as the comedian has indeed gone on to join the mainstream with a wife and kid. Orny's done some movies and T.V.  No family yet.  He's still trying to find that big break, but meanwhile is doing what he loves.  You know, despite it all.

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