I saw the Jerry Seinfeld documentary Comedian yesterday afternoon. It’s a bit slight, but I found it more engrossing than I thought I would. Seinfeld comes off as believably devoted to the art form of standup, albeit the kind of devotee that takes private jets from gig to gig.
Post-Lenny Bruce, comedy and rock n’ roll have been compared to each other frequently; Saturday Night Live, with its mix of sketches and rock performances, only cemented the parallel. But watching Comedian helped me hone in on how comedy is a distinct form from rock-era music, and it’s all about the writing. What’s killing Seinfeld, in his quest to blow up his old act and start back at square one, isn’t getting reacquainted with smoky dive clubs or getting reacquainted with the practice of selling material to an audience. It’s the material itself – if you think coming up with new variations on eight notes plus sharps and flats is hard, try coming up with new snarky observations on airplanes and sex.
After his smash sitcom went off the air, Seinfeld did an HBO special, I’m Telling You for the Last Time, in which he made a big deal about retiring his old material. These were the jokes that had gotten him through everything from early Caroline’s gigs, to his first appearance on Carson (and his 10th), to the bookends of Seinfeld itself. I remembered thinking at the time, when I watched the promos for the HBO show: “Is it that big a deal? Isn’t it a good thing, that he’s retiring all this stale material?” To answer my own questions: Yes, and yes, but good luck replacing it. As Seinfeld wanders through the clubs in Comedian and encounters his peers (Chris Rock, Jay Leno, Colin Quinn, Robert Klein, Mario Joyner), you can tell they’re sort of bemused – and terrified – by the challenge Seinfeld has created for himself. No regular, beating-the-brick-walls standup gives up all of his material in one shot. It would be like the Stones giving up “Satisfaction.”
Or worse. The more I watched Comedian, the more I realized dropping a lifetime of standup material á là Seinfeld is like the Stones dropping “Satisfaction” and “Honky Tonk Women” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Start Me Up” all at once and trying to tour exclusively behind the songs on Mick’s last solo album. And even then, the Stones would probably find a way to make it work, not because they’re the Stones, but because rock n’ roll expects, even demands novelty (which explains the presence of four new songs, however limp, on the Stones’ just-released greatest-hits album). Yes, it’s been said that a rock act can make a career out of one hit song, but most rock and pop acts continue to try to produce all-new collections of songs regularly. The old favorites will always be trotted out for a concert or played the most on the radio, but to remain viable, any rock act has to keep producing new material.
Comedy, in a sense, is like a freeze-dried version of jazz. The material emerges in its finished form only in performance – but then, unlike jazz, that particular, nuanced performance has to be frozen in its best form and reenacted at that level night after night. What Seinfeld was giving up when he tossed his old material in 1999 wasn’t the jokes. It was the delivery, the pauses, the hand gestures, the turns of phrase that sold the jokes to a crowd. A jazz album may capture Miles Davis doing an incredible version of “So What,” but there might have been a better version in a smaller, unrecorded gig months or even years later; at the very least, each version of “So What,” because of the nature of jazz, would be different. By contrast, a journeyman comedian will have the exact timing of a joke down and repeat it over and over again. What keeps it from being pure theater – or what makes it like rock, not jazz – is that the material is exclusively theirs. You can’t do a show of “standards” in comedy unless they’re your own. No standup ever does a collection of Bill Cosby’s or Richard Pryor’s greatest hits, much as they might like to; a Chris Rock standup gig has to consist of material written by, honed by and tailored for Chris Rock. Those comedians that do rip off material aren’t noted for their clever way with “covers,” the way Aretha Franklin improved Otis Redding’s “Respect” or Run-DMC did a killer version of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way”; they are called thieves.
There are pros and cons to each approach. In rock, we suffer through albums of new material by acts long past their prime who should really only be touring with their old hits. In comedy, a comedian in his prime is doing all hits. On the other hand, in comedy, catching Jerry Seinfeld on two talk shows back-to-back means you’re likely to hear some of the same jokes, and they won’t be funny the second time around. Seeing a favorite band twice back-to-back produces nothing but pleasurable recognition when they play their best songs.
I basically respect Seinfeld for trying to move on but find myself a little flabbergasted by the standup format after watching Comedian: Isn’t honing the same 45 to 60 minutes of material night after night mind-numbing? When you finally perfect the material, doesn’t delivering it make you feel like an automaton? Obviously there are comedians who successfully work in new material. But comedy will never have a Madonna, someone who totally surprises you with a new approach every few years and makes it work. At best, standup comedy by a veteran is like a reunion of Simon and Garfunkel: The pleasures are easy and you can sing along, but not only did it stop trying to be innovative a long time ago, it may never have been that innovative in the first place.