Directed by: Christian Charles
Starring: Jerry Seinfeld, Orny Adams, Bill Cosby, Jay Leno, Robert Klein
First a confession: I have never seen an episode of Seinfeld, so the name of Jerry Seinfeld holds no sacred magic for me. I have only the vaguest memories of ever having seen him during his years as a standup comic. In other words, my exposure to him via this cinema verite documentary was an utterly fresh and completely unbiased experience. Did I emerge from it as a huge Seinfeld fan? No. I did, however, emerge with a respect for him both as a performer and as a person.
First-time documentarian Christian Charles took a very interesting approach to his project, which is not identified as a film about Jerry Seinfeld, but rather as "a film about comedy with Jerry Seinfeld." Using the formula laid down by the godfather of the cinema verite documentary, D.A. Pennebaker, Charles has crafted a movie in which the substance is all contained in the footage itself. There are no titles identifying the various comedians. There is no voice-over explaining anything. Everything lies in the film itself. It's an approach that, generally speaking, doesn't always work. With Comedian it does -- and it works beautifully.
While Charles has made a film about comedy in which numerous comedians pop up in various capacities -- usually in fairly minor ones (George Wallace might almost not be in the movie) -- the major thrust Comedian lies in contrasting the established Seinfeld with the up-and-coming Orny Adams. And what an engrossing contrast it is. Both suffer many of the same doubts and misgivings. Both seem to share a degree of inner torment. But it quickly becomes apparent why Seinfeld is a star who can return to play comedy clubs while Adams is still playing comedy clubs because they're the only venues open to him.
But the movie isn't out to hang Adams in order to score points for Seinfeld. Adams -- who is frequently hilarious onstage -- hangs himself. It all comes down to a simple difference: Seinfeld wonders and worries about how to give the audience what it wants while Adams wonders and worries about getting the audience -- and the media and his coworkers -- to recognize his "genius." Seinfeld gives to his audience; Adams takes from it. Yet Adams, despite his raging ego, isn't entirely unsympathetic. True, there's an irritating quality to some of his whining about how hard the life of a comedian is, but Adams has one moment where it's impossible not to realize that he's not just a self-obsessed jerk but is a genuinely troubled man. After landing a particularly good gig, Adams goes through the roof with joy, calling everyone he can think of to tell them the news. No sooner does he finish making the calls than he's deflated -- "I was happy for four minutes. Now, I'm depressed again." In that one moment, we know there's more to this man than he lets anyone see. But that doesn't keep Seinfeld from coming off far better.
Seinfeld always seems genuine, and genuinely interested in other comedians -- a key point. He is more than happy to pay his respects to his influences, especially in a strangely touching encounter with Bill Cosby, who comes across as the modern-day elder statesman of standup. There's a true sense that Seinfeld reveres Cosby, that he really did start off by listening to Cosby's classic 1960s LPs like Wonderfulness and Why Is There Air?, and that he's not just schmoozing when he tells Cosby that knowing him is the greatest prize of his career. By the end, it's impossible not to like Seinfeld -- and equally impossible not to realize that Christian Charles has a bright future as a documentarian.