"Because it's pure," says Jerry Seinfeld, who reacts as though he doesn't quite understand the question. And, he adds, because "it's hard." And, ultimately, he says with an amiable shrug, "because it's my job."
Comedian, an engaging, low-budget documentary that begins playing in 60 cities this week, is all about that job, about how the 48-year-old Seinfeld struggles to go back to the small time, to return to what he was doing before he was Jerry. In it you'll see Seinfeld as you've never seen him before standing onstage with a scrap of paper, scratching his head as he's unable to come up with a particular word or funny phrase. And no one boos because he's Jerry.
If there is a theme to the movie, it's that comedy is a difficult and deadly serious business. "You can't be bigger than me," he says to a small crowd at one point as he's cobbling together his new act, "and look, I'm still s___." Onstage and in life, Seinfeld can and does make jokes about everything, except telling jokes. "Ultimately, it's, How good are your jokes?" he says. "It's the only thing that matters." To help explain why, he has arranged for me to meet him at the Museum of Television and Radio in Manhattan, so we can watch some of the comedians who influenced him.
Professor Seinfeld has put together a syllabus for the course he's always wanted to teach, Stand-Up 101. His working definition: "Stand-up is a guy onstage talking about his life." We sit at a monitor and unspool his Mount Rushmore of comedy, starting with the man he considers the father of modern stand-up, Lenny Bruce.
A very young Lenny Bruce in a bow tieappears onscreen; he's doing not very funny impersonations. This is far removed from the later and more familiar agitprop Lenny. "Today's style started with Lenny Bruce. See," says Seinfeld, pointing to the screen, "he knew he couldn't be Danny Kaye." But it wasn't the political Lenny Bruce that influenced comics, Seinfeld says. "It was Lenny talking about his life. He had a routine about his wife wanting to have a kid, and he'd say, 'Why bring strangers into the house?'" Seinfeld laughs.
Two schools of comedy grew out of Lenny Bruce, he says. One is the Establishment comedian represented by Alan King; the other is the younger, edgier, anti-Establishment comic represented by George Carlin. What they have in common is simple: "They're funny." For Seinfeld, that's the gold standard. A young Alan King appears onscreen in a tuxedo, holding an unlit cigar. Seinfeld looks on reverently. "The cigar confers authority, wisdom, arrogance," says Seinfeld, "all key elements of being a comedian."
Seinfeld doesn't swagger; he has a cool confidence that is quiet but unmistakable. He laughs out loud at other comedians' jokes, something rare in that line of work. "Hey, I'm not that insecure," he says. His own comedy dives just below the surface of the culture; he talks about "tweezering" things out of society. "Every great joke uncovers something," he says.
Next up is Robert Klein, wearing a sweater and saddle shoes, performing before a college audience. Seinfeld chuckles as Klein talks about sliding down the couch on the Tonight Show. Seinfeld recalls that when he first saw Klein perform, "I said to myself, 'I could do that.' The way he looked at the world was funny. He had a point of view. That's stand-up. And at the time, I didn't even know how to get a tuxedo."
George Carlin, he says, "made the language his personal puppet. He took words and phrases and sliced them eight different ways." Richard Pryor, he says, was perhaps the greatest artist of all stand-ups; his stories had beautiful and elaborate structures. Seeing both Carlin and Pryor onscreen, though, you feel the anger simmering beneath their routines. Stand-ups have a quarrel with the universe, a chip on their shoulder that they turn into comedy. "Stand-up is socialized aggression," says
Seinfeld, who's a lot more socialized than most. His stance toward the universe is bemused irreverence; he's the ironic Bar Mitzvah boy, neat, well mannered but ready to puncture the pretense of everything going on around him. In some ways he just hides the hostility better than most. At one point in Comedian, he turns to a club audience and says, "You're in charge of deciding what's funny or not, and you know nothing. What gives you the authority? You bought two drinks." They laugh.
"People say that Pryor at his peak was the best there ever was," Seinfeld says, "but Bill Cosby is just as good." He doesn't get the credit, Seinfeld says, "because he's not as dark." Darkness, he says, makes you sexier. At this point, Seinfeld is interrupted when a senior ladies group from Long Beach, Long Island, on a tour of the museum, spy him. Three gray-haired women surround him, practically pinching his cheek. One says, "Jerry, I watch your show all the time, but it's too late, 11 o'clock." "Then watch it at 7:30," he says.