When Jerry Seinfeld started criticising political correctness in comedy a few years ago, some nodded their heads and others rolled their eyes, but nearly everyone was baffled. Why would the squeaky clean, rigorously inoffensive comic even care?
The reason, I suspect, is that Seinfeld pays close attention to his audiences, both what they laugh at and how their tastes change. While few think of him as a radical innovator, he has been ahead of the times – or at least someone who catches up fast. Besides helping pioneer observational humour and the vogue for film and television shows about stand-up comics, Seinfeld anticipated our culture’s obsession with the process of comedy with his 2002 documentary, Comedian. While keeping a busy performing schedule, he dabbles in other forms, like web series (Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee).
So it’s not a surprise that Seinfeld is joining comedy’s Netflix moment, following his peers in signing a deal, in his case for two specials, which essentially matches his output for the past several decades (he made cable specials in 1987 and 1998). This represents a shift in his focus, from stand-up as an evolving performance to the dominant model today, with elite comics regularly putting out new specials.
The first show in the deal, Jerry Before Seinfeld, which started streaming this week, is deeply nostalgic, with footage from his childhood and a pocket history of his early material. But aesthetically, it inches closer to current fashion, a subtle move away from impersonal, immaculately polished comedy. It’s still quintessential Seinfeld, poking fun at cereal and air travel and prepositions, but his set is looser, intimate and more biographical, a rebrand for the podcast age.
Seinfeld (right) and David Letterman in Seinfeld’s web series ‘Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee’ (Sony)
Taking place at the Comic Strip, an Upper East Side club that was redesigned for the special to look more like it did in the 1970s when Seinfeld was just starting out, this special is organised as an explanation of his roots. What’s different from his previous work is the shrinking of critical distance (“What’s the deal with…”) as he builds many premises on his own experiences. He still has a gift for deconstructing language, in phrases like “losing your appetite” or in the quirks of modern marketing (he marvels at the chutzpah of naming a cereal Life). But his route to these riffs is filled with slightly unexpected details from his life.
Seinfeld, who earned $69m (£51m) last year, putting him at the top of Forbes’s list of the highest-paid comics, has long seemed thoroughly middle of the road in his style and taste, a jeans-and-Superman-action-figure kind of guy. In recent years, he transitioned to suits, but in this special, he emphasises his blue-collar beginnings. Without a trace of complaint or hardship, he describes happily living in cramped apartments, earning nothing doing comedy and sledgehammering walls for $25 a day.
Jerry Seinfeld in the documentary film ‘Comedian’, directed by Christian Charles
His jokes here have more of a class context, even if it’s one that seems blissfully unexamined. At the Comedy Store in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, comics went on strike for the right to get paid. When Seinfeld says in his special that he worked for free during the same period, he doesn’t seem bothered by it. In one of his first jokes ever, he discusses the building of the Roosevelt Island tramway in the late 1970s, marvelling that New York was building a ride after nearly going bankrupt. “Next thing you know they will have a roller coaster in the South Bronx,” he said, adding it will be “the first roller coaster where people scream on the flat part of the ride.” (In an early version of the joke from the Seventies, he used “ghetto” instead of “South Bronx”.)
Not only is Seinfeld playing a smaller room than he usually does on tour, which benefits his conversational style, but he’s also giving a rougher-around-the-edges performance. Given that he’s such a supremely confident stage presence, it’s clearly a calculated choice, an effort to look casual and offhanded. He involves audience members and responds to their questions even if it doesn’t lead anywhere that funny. There are even hints of his own social anxiety, which he describes elegantly: “I can talk to all of you, but I can’t talk to any of you.”
Seinfeld is known as a gifted joke writer, and he emphasises his commitment with a shot of him sitting down surrounded by pages of his jokes. But the backbone of his stand-up was always his distinctive attitude – the gently sarcastic, benignly neurotic scepticism that merges Jewish cadence with WASP restraint. Listen to how he gets a laugh poking fun at La Guardia Airport just by saying it’s nice, and you notice a light touch that has more in common with Robert Benchley than Lenny Bruce.
As much as Seinfeld nods to revelatory comedy in the new special, he’s not introspective enough to really pull it off. The best he can to do is navel-glance. The passion he has that overrides all others is for comedy itself, a strong theme of this special and nearly every substantive interview he has ever done. The motto of his sitcom was “No hugging, no learning”, but that’s only because you can’t hug a joke.
The Comic Strip wasn’t the first club he worked – that would be the defunct Catch a Rising Star, where he first talked to his fellow Seinfeld creator, Larry David. “Catch was the cool place; the Comic Strip was lame,” Seinfeld told Richard Zoglin in his book Comedy at the Edge. Being cool was never Seinfeld’s primary goal. He didn’t court cult fandom and avoided the inside joke. His brand of stand-up always seemed as if it was aimed to appeal to everyone, even though none could. (A scene from the FX series about the OJ Simpson trial where the black and white jurors argue about whether to watch Seinfeld or Martin helps illustrate the point.)
Every once in a while, critics (myself included) praise a young comic as the next Jerry Seinfeld. But what’s become clear is that there will never be another, in part because the entertainment landscape means star comedians can no longer make sitcoms with finales watched by 76 million viewers. Now that the culture has broken apart into a collection of niches, being mainstream is just another one. Jerry Seinfeld may signify its apex and end.
‘Jerry Before Seinfeld’ is out on Netflix
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