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Wednesday, May 30,2012

The screening room

'Comedian': Being Seinfeld is no laughing matter

by James Sanford

If you missed out on getting a ticket for Jerry Seinfeldīs Thursday show at the Wharton Center, you can get some idea of what goes into one of his shows from the 2002 documentary “Comedian,” which documents Seinfeldīs return to the world of standup comedy after he wrapped up his phenomenally successful sitcom. If you are not a comedian, “Comedian” will probably not inspire you to try breaking into the business.

As scene after scene of a sweaty, visibly rattled Seinfeld demonstrates, making people laugh is a tough job and, despite its title, the movie is not particularly funny.

While other standup stars like Roseanne Barr, Tim Allen and Ellen DeGeneres took on the big screen in scripted movies (with wildly varying results), Seinfeld followed the route of Madonnaīs “Truth or Dare,” giving the world a warts-and-all look at his creative process. The movie shows us only bits and pieces of the actual act, concentrating instead on what it takes to put it all together.

Shot on video over the course of a year, “Comedian” is both literally and figuratively fuzzy. As it chronicles Seinfeldīs journey through New Yorkīs comedy dens — where he quickly learns a superstar name does not automatically guarantee a warm reception — the same situations keep repeating themselves: Onstage, Seinfeld is frequently jittery and only occasionally clever; offstage, he frets endlessly about not being able to generate enough new patter. Heīs flabbergasted when Chris Rock tells him about Bill Cosby performing for over two hours without a break.

Midway through, “Comedian” abruptly breaks away from Seinfeldīs struggle to examine Orny Adams, a 29-year-old who has devoted his entire life to becoming a comic. His home is filled with file after overflowing file of jokes that heīs accumulated and he seems to do well enough in front of a crowd. Yet he always seems to be dissatisfied with something: the attitude of the audience, meddling network TV censors, the progress of his career, etc.

Adams doesnīt have Seinfeldīs fortune or following, but he does share — you guessed it — his neuroses about the art of standup. The difference is that Seinfeld could conceivably stay home and live off comfortably off of his TV residuals for the rest of his life while Adams is still hungry. Seinfeld takes gigs to satisfy his ego; Adams is working to pay the rent and the utility bills.

The contrast should provide more insight than it actually does. Of course itīs easy to appreciate the effort that goes into preparing a rock-solid routine, but the constant hand-wringing and second-guessing eventually becomes a little tiresome. Director Christian Charles managed to capture plenty of footage of Seinfeld hobnobbing with Robert Klein, Colin Quinn and Jay Leno, but aside from showing us in explicit detail how difficult it is to win over the two-drink-minimum crowd, “Comedian” does not have much in the way of fresh material.  

Jerry Seinfeld

7 p.m. Thursday, May 31

Wharton Center

$45-$75

The show is sold out, although some last-minute seats may be available.

(800) WHARTON

www.whartoncenter.com

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