letters
to an unknown audience
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The Comedian/  /November 02, 2002

In The Comedian, as in life, the most interesting—and funniest—theatre happens offstage. Jerry Seinfeld takes a few months to muster a new stand-up routine, trying his material in NY clubs night after night, first with five minutes, then ten, then twenty, and the camera follows him as he does it. The filmmakers are inept—the first twenty minutes look like they were edited by a hyperactive kid that's just learned to tear the Scotch tape off the dispenser-edge—but they catch some wonderfully revealing moments, mostly of Jerry talking with other comics about the biz. Watching their familiarity with the lore of show biz, and the meta-humor it generates, is a pleasure in itself. (Embarassed disclaimer: this author once worshipped that Comedy Central show, Inside the Comedy Mind with Alan King).

The film is one part Stop Making Sense and three parts American Movie (which, by the way, may be the greatest document of American society yet created): it allows us to enjoy the show now and again but focuses on the depressing life of a comedian, and the process of a celebrity giving up that celebrity to start re-building a craft, bit by bit. It skirts the edge of pessimistic, showing how stupid is most of the material most comics use, how shoddily they execute it, and how cocky they can be about this dubious accomplishment. Even then, it shows how older hard-working performers are constantly fighting for their success alongside, or just mopping up for, hotshot upstarts that have hit the money.

But it plays a wisely melodious note when it shows how good comedy can get, and how good it is to be played upon (like Peter Quince's clavier) and stirred to laughter. One of the giants of our youth appears toward the end, and the patient deliberation he displays over his words shows that comedians are not all hacks, not all "players," and perhaps not all depressing.

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