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In 1998, Jerry Seinfeld decided to hang up his award-winning sitcom after nine years on the air, when it was still the top-rated show on television. Soon after, he decided to chuck all of his old material out the window and go back on the road in the guise that he started his career in: a comedian. In a memorable scene from this documentary chronicling his comeback, Jerry stands in a small club in front of a few dozen cramped onlookers, then exclaims, "What am I doing here? I made it!"
It's a scary world out there for a stand-up comic, as COMEDIAN lets us know. In this documentary (which I had hoped to have seen by the end of last year but it wasn't playing here) we see one of the biggest names in comedy try and get his bearings, basically starting at square one all over again. Alongside Seinfeld, we also follow another comic, by the name of Orny Adams, who is trying to make a name for himself in the business for the first time. COMEDIAN shows the similarities and differences in the two performers' struggles on the club circuit, building up to appearances on big time talk shows. In the meantime, they get to give as well as receive advice to and from other high-profile comics, including Colin Quinn, Chris Rock, and Dave Chappelle.
In Seinfeld's case, it's a learning experience. After over twenty years of doing stand-up, he has to prove himself all over again. It's easy to get your foot in the door when your name is Jerry Seinfeld, but if you don't entertain the people in the crowd, your name might as well be Orny Adams. There's a particular scene where Seinfeld actually loses his train of thought while performing an act. For someone who has watched him perform so comfortably on his television show, it's a painful sight to watch. He even gets heckled. Yes, Jerry Seinfeld gets heckled. He handles it well, of course, which is more than we can say for Orny Adams.
At one point, Adams, who comes off as an arrogant prick half the time and then a humbled ass-kisser the next, also gets the heckling treatment by a crowd member, and lets it get to him afterward to the point where he's calling relatives. He's quick to blame the audience's intellect and the time of day for a failed joke, but it's pretty visible that inside he considers himself a failure. Looking deeper, we see that Orny has scores of material written. Mindblowing amounts of paper, neurotically and obsessively filed away, showing how much work he is willing to ply to his craft. If he seems bitter because life seems to be passing him by, he's apparently got the right to. But Seinfeld himself encourages Orny to keep at it, regardless of what the rest of his peers are doing with their lives.
The real interesting thing to see is the other side of Jerry Seinfeld. We know the character from the television show as the real him, so it's a bit of a shocker to see him with his wife and child. It's another to see him cursing up a storm. And of course, the kicker is seeing this comedian, who has been perceived as one of the best in the business, getting butterflies about performing material for the first time. Seinfeld draws a lot of encouragement from his idols. It's quite a sight to see a man in his late 40's who has devoted half his life to comedy looking like the new kid on the block when meeting Robert Klein and Bill Cosby. However, the real icing on the cake comes from the big inspirational moment where Jerry meets with the Cos' himself. Hearing the man who made Cliff Huxtable a household name swearing like a sailor is worth the price of admission.
Documentaries tend to be a highly overrated genre of film, and probably in direct response to that, I'm highly scrutinous of them. It's rare you see Ebert or others of his ilk give a documentary film a subpar review, which is why it's so odd that Ebert gave this one two stars. This was part of the curiosity I had to see COMEDIAN, just to find out if I agreed with Roger on this one. He tends to give stellar reviews to documentaries that I find dull and uninspired, so I figured in this case I would either (a) despise COMEDIAN with every ounce of my being or (b) completely disagree with Ebert and actually enjoy COMEDIAN more than most documentaries I've seen recently. The answer, actually, was (c). For once in my life, I sort of agreed with mr. Chubbythumbs on this one, but for different reasons.
Ebert dwells on what you can't see here: and that's the politics behind the film. On the other hand, I criticize COMEDIAN for things like pacing, flow, and lack of "oomph". The subject matter is interesting enough, and there's plenty of entertaining footage, but the build to the film's final moments seems like it was executed without much effort. Director Christian Charles apparently followed Seinfeld and Adams around with a camera for a year, but you really don't get that impression. This feels more like a few nights at a few clubs more than a grueling year on the road. Adams' story is forgotten too soon, and he's virtually nonexistent for the last third of the film. There's a bonus on the DVD which shows a "where are they now" piece on Adams that really belongs in the film rather than as an afterthought.
But even with its flaws, COMEDIAN is an interesting look behind the scenes of the comedy biz, definitely worth a look for anyone who's ever enjoyed a night at a smoky comedy club watching a single person try to entertain a room full of onlookers. There's an old adage that says "comedy ain't pretty", and as you can see in this film, sometimes it's downright ugly.
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