By Kanishkaa Balachandran/The Hindu
For several seasons, the hit sitcom Seinfeld began with its main character Jerry Seinfeld performing his stand-up comedy routine, each teaser lasting not longer than a minute. The setting was standard — a dark room, simple stage with a single piece of furniture as a prop and with the spotlight on the comedian alone. Now piece together all those short comedy blurbs and watch them in one sitting — that’s what Jerry Before Seinfeld largely feels like.
A Netflix original, Jerry Before Seinfeld (JBS), an hour-long documentary that went on air globally on September 19, is a tribute to Jerry’s early days in the comedy circuit in New York City. Jerry’s career can be broadly divided into two eras — before Seinfeld and after. Seinfeld (which ran from 1989 to 1998) was a big enough hit to garner Jerry global acclaim, a step forward from his success as a regular on American primetime staples like The Late Show and The Tonight Show.
In Jerry Before Seinfeld (JBS), Jerry goes back to where it all began — a comedy club in New York called The Comic Strip Live that gave opportunities for budding stand-up comics to sign up, perform on stage without pay (“but the hamburgers were free!”) day after day. Over 40 years after Jerry’s first gig there in 1976, he returns to the same stage and does a reprisal of the same material that earned him a following, which then led to his first big career break, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in May 1981, and several other high-profile appearances.
JBS does dig into the archives, but only just. Jerry’s stand-up show gets more than a generous share of airtime, interspersed with archive pictures and barely audible comedy reels and scenes of present-day Jerry sitting outside his old family home on Long Island, the corner of a busy street in Manhattan where he spent several hours as a young man contemplating his life ahead and whether his skills as a funny man would one day pay his bills. Right through it all, it feels like the man hasn’t changed – a few extra pounds and a receding hairline notwithstanding — nor has his humour.
Jerry’s signature style is observational comedy. His comedy isn’t necessarily about him, but in the way he sees the world. In the series Seinfeld, he is the pivot around which the show revolves, which is him and his dysfunctional, neurotic, bachelor friends. JBS, as much a laugh riot, still somehow doesn’t put the spotlight on Jerry the person and this is where it leaves you expecting more.
It begins promisingly as Jerry details his Long Island roots, and how the ‘Grammar Nazis’ would never fail to point out that “you live on Long Island and not in Long Island”. Any Nazi reference is expected from Jerry, if you’ve watched Seinfeld. MAD magazines and TV shows featuring leading comedians of the time were his early influences but he merely glosses over these details. In his 20s, his parents saw him perform for the first time, and he recalls being “embarrassed” to show them this side to his personality. Clearly, Jerry was not a clown at home; he was one at school, as one teacher wrote in his report card that he fooled around a bit too much.
“Our parents didn’t really care…about anything” is how he describes his upbringing. There’s still humour that could be unearthed from his seemingly uninteresting parents, like when he talks of his mom’s fascination for mirrors — “If you make one wall of a room a mirror, people will think you have an entire other room”. Or his dad insisting that one should never touch the thermostat. “I was 28 years old, in a hotel room in Pittsburgh when I finally had the guts to make it a little warmer. I was terrified my father was going to burst through that door.”
Those expecting JBS to be a biopic might feel a bit let down, as you feel there are probably more stories from his childhood and teenage years he hasn’t revealed. The narrative shunts between the stand-up show and flashbacks, and you wish there was more airtime for the latter. Comedians need thick skin, to be able to take the occasional heckler who “flings a glass on stage”, as Jerry once experienced. How did he develop the will to soldier on?
However, a more compelling study of Jerry the man and the life of a stand-up comic is covered in the documentary Comedian, released in 2002. It takes us behind the scenes and the not-so-glamorous world of stand-up comedy — that it’s impossible to be funny all the time, there is jealousy in the business and travelling takes a toll. Over several conversations at the bar with fellow comics, we see a different Jerry — the insecure, self-critical, exhausted comedian who still fears, despite his reputation, that he would botch it, or that he muffed some segments, like erring by beginning with new material.
Yet in JBS, Jerry is in his element on stage. He occasionally digresses from his older material and drifts into talking about daily observations, such as the hilarious segment where he talks of the ‘social life’ of a pair of socks. Like in Seinfeld, JBS follows the tried and tested formula — the world through the eyes of Jerry and how he sees humour in the mundane.
(The featured picture at the top shows Jerry Seinfeld performing at The Comic Strip | Photo Credit: Netfix)