Comedian (2001) ** 1/2
A documentary directed by Christian Charles. Produced by Gary Streiner. Photography, Mr. Charles & Mr. Streiner. Editing, Chris Franklin. Featuring Jerry Seinfeld, Orny Adams, Colin Quinn, Robert Klein, Chris Rock, Garry Shandling, Jay Leno, Bill Cosby, et al. A Miramax release. 81 minutes. Rated R (language).
In my list of best quotations there stands at or near the top the deathbed repartee of a famous, 19th century English actor. As tearful friends and family surrounded the moribund fellow, he said to them: "Don't cry for me. Dying is easy. Comedy is hard."
What wonderful last words! And how right, at least when it comes to comedy. It is incredibly hard to write, to direct, to stage and, above all, to play. It is even harder perform solo. As in the case of Jerry Steinfeld, the central subject/object of this documentary.
Mr. Seinfeld's "Seinfeld" has been a triumph among TV sitcoms. I am not a fan of it, I admit, but this is neither here nor there, since I belong to a tiny minority. The point is that the series longevity and success belong to the Guinness Book of Records.
When it finally closed shop, it had made many people rich and famous. And made Mr. Seinfeld more than rich. He sold his syndication rights for 225 million. That's 225,000,000. What the man is worth (what an odd expression, since it always refers to money!) is your guess too. F.y.i. I just found out that Mr. S. had bought Billy Joel's house in the chic Hamptons for 32 million dollars.
All this talk about wealth has a purpose. When Mr. S. was through with his TV series, he decided to return to his roots as a stand-up comedian. This shows dedication and also answers the question of what you could do if you're a zillionaire, So, starting in the Gotham Comedy Club, then getting on to a circuit, Seinfeld did the double job of renewing himself and of having his new/old venture put on film.
What makes Seinfeld (not Sammy) run is both in the main "text" of the documentary and between the lines. Seinfeld does not have the spotlight just on him. It shines on -and sometimes illuminates- other stand-up practitioners, mostly well established, as they chat, talk shop, compare notes and experiences. (They drink bottled water rather than strong stuff.)
The second banana here is a near-30 unknown or semi-known, Orny Adams. He is insecurity personified, may be found annoying by the movie's audience or the other comedians, but to me he looks pitiful. He is the most obvious case of worry among his co-comedians. But nervousness, amply shared by Seinfeld is justified. In a sense, the audiences of stand-ups have a defiant "show me" attitude which, with may or may not turn into a "I'm buying it" reaction. All this means stress for the comedians. A half-hour may be an eternity for them. They seem to live in permanent fear of failure, with small exceptions. The key word here is "performance." Not in the sense of collective acting (the stage, for ex.), or acting in a movie where you get a script, a director, coaches, takes and re-takes, editing and so on. With stand-ups you are alone, naked, with no outside help. In fact, this sort of solo performing is shared by violinists, singers, pianists and all other soloists. So, if "normally" comedy is hard, for thespians in one-person shows, comedy is even harder than harder.
Does all this come through in this documentary. Yes, up to a point. But what we get here when all runs well, seems to have laughs without wit. So I am adding "laughter is hard, but wit is harder yet."
The documentary does give you a general notion of stand-ups, especially of Seinfeld's life over almost a year of gigs, but the film itself feels improvised and scriptless. It only scans the surface. Few professional tips, secrets or tricks are learned by us. But what really hurts the movie is that it was shot with a couple of digital cameras, almost always handheld. The footage can be shaky, jittery, murky and often unfocussed. Worse yet, the sound is a constant problem. There are far too many scenes in which you have to strain to understand what is being said. The background/ambient noises make matters worse.
Much of this could have been avoided with powerful, narrow-range unidirectional microphones, like those in Coppola's brilliant "The Conversation" of 1974. Or, I am sure, those used by the C.I.A. and the F.B.I.