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I saw "Comedian" at my local theater, in only its second day of release. It was my duty as a comedian and as the editor of the WWW's most beloved monthly magazine about standup comedy to see this movie and tell our readers about it. It was most enjoyable. I found it entertaining, comforting, reassuring, familiar, funny.
It was a relief.
One of the reasons we started this magazine was to counteract the wretched press that burbled forth from the ink-stained wretches. The negative comments and impressions about standup comics that have permeated the popular culture in the past decade or so were disheartening. A good number of my columns have tackled this disrespect head-on. And, conversely, I've tried to direct attention to the positive portrayals and trends as well (few though they have been).
Which is why this movie is so important to us here at SHECKYmagazine.com and why it's important to standup comics in general. We see a comic (arguably the most important comic of this era) on the big screen as he struggles to climb back to the top of the standup mountain. And struggle he does. And that's what's so spectacular about this movie and what makes it so fascinating.
He shot his bolt three years ago by doing his HBO special "I'm Telling You This For The Last Time," in which he burned through his A material for, quite literally, the last time. He tuned up the act over ten shows on Broadway, then let HBO broadcast one of those ten shows as a special. And he vowed to never do any of the material again. This latest movie, by Christian Charles and Gary Streiner, documents Seinfeld's travails as he attempts to build a 50-minute set from scratch while resisting the temptation to "borrow" material from his old self.
It's wildly entertaining to see the master starting over again, with all the uncertainty, the strategizing, the late nights at the comedy clubs, the post-mortems after the less-than-sparkling sets that are usually the province of the novice, the open-miker. To be sure, Seinfeld still possesses the skills and the instincts honed over the years, but, as Colin Quinn and others are quick to point out in their candid conversations, that stuff doesn't count for much after the first five minutes. That's when the flag drops and ya gotta start being funny, no matter who you are.
That's one of the primary (and very sharp) hooks of this movie: Can this guy, who was one of the best in the game, come back and be as good as he was? Of course, he can. But it isn't an easy ride. But it's a beautiful thing to watch the process. He encounters an unusually rocky road initially, but he seems to enjoy all the other sights, sounds, sensations and perks that he'd gotten away from in the intervening years. The cameraderie is one of those perks that is so vividly depicted and which forms the heart of the picture. Seinfeld seems to genuinely enjoy the pre- and post-show interaction with the likes of George Wallace, Quinn, Chris Rock, Ray Romano, Jay Leno and others.
There's a sub-plot, too. Jerry's manager, legendary comic svengali George Shapiro, is along for the ride and ostensibly on hand to monitor the progress of a prospective client, Orny Adams. Adams is a tightly-wound, manic Tasmanian devil of a comic, who wears his work ethic like a bright orange parka and who provides the perfect documentarian's wet dream of a counterpoint to Seinfeld's calm and self-assurance. He's also a rather transparently neurotic fellow who is hard to watch for any length of time. Seinfeld is serene, comfortable with his fame and his domestic situation. Adams is alone, miserable, driven to success but pathetically unclear as to what such success might mean. A mini-plot involving Adams' audition for the Just For Laughs people leads eventually to Canada and the Fest itself. This was especially fascinating for us, since we were present when Adams snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Montreal.
From our JFL Update of Monday, July 24, 2000: "And speaking of hype and the dangers of hype, Orny Adams won the award for Most-Hyped of the Fest. The Orny hype was ankle deep at the Delta. The Hollywood Reporter referred to Adams as the 'It' comic. Who's writing this stuff? Theda Bara's publicist? (Our tribute to Dennis Miller!) We never saw Mr. Adams perform, so we can't comment one way or the other on his talent as a standup comic. However, there was a palpable "hype backlash." By midweek his name became a punchline. Did he deserve such treatment? Nobody deserves that. But we're fairly certain that the object of publicity and hype and press is not to invoke pity. And, by the weekend we felt bad for the guy. What went wrong there? Pray that it never happens to you!"
It all makes sense now. Adams stood out at the festival that year. It was mainly because of the advance hype, though, and not because of any reputation based on being funny. In a way, he represents the other side of the Seinfeld coin in more ways than one. While Seinfeld, arguably the most famous comedian in the latter half of the 20th century, found himself struggling to prove to modest crowds that he was still funny, Adams was thrust into the hothouse of the world's largest comedy festival, and found himself struggling to prove to the industry that he was as funny as George Shapiro's imprimatur might imply. Seinfeld handles his dilemma with grace. Adams finds his to be an opportunity to hone his psychosis.
While Adams provides the serio-comic relief in this movie, no one watching thinks (and no one believes that the director thinks) that Adams is destined to be a comedy star on a par with Seinfeld. He's only included for contrast. He's there to provide a sort of scale. Here's Jerry, who is doggedly engaged in reclaiming his reputation as the king of standup comics. And, over here, we have Orny, a guy who just doesn't get it and never will. But, don't you know, we were in Chicago the day the movie hit the theaters and one reviewer seized upon the "character" of Orny to deliver a vicious and tired putdown of all standup comics.
From Allan Johnson, Staff Reporter, Chicago Tribune: "'Comedian' contrasts Seinfeld with up-and-comer Orny Adams. If Adams is really as arrogant, self-centered, selfish and insecure as he is made out to be, he's also not so different than other comedians."
Aside from its questionable grammar, this statement is so tired, so lazy and so inaccurate that you gotta figure that Mr. Johnson has had something go horribly wrong in his life and that he blames it on a comedian. Why else would someone choose to perpetuate such a ridiculous stereotype? What makes it even more stupid is that, if you ignore Orny Adams, this movie is packed with comics who appear kind, gracious, witty, helpful, industrious, successful and quite humble. Johnson sees none of this, however. How does someone working for a major daily manage to uncork such college-newspaper-caliber nonsense? Does he still think "Punchline" is an accurate glimpse into the world of standup comedy?
The lasting effect of this movie, when it finishes its theatrical run and it sells a good number of units in DVD, is that people will finally gain valuable insight into what it's like to be a standup comic. If you're a comic and you feel that those well-meaning relatives of yours "just don't get it," tell them to see "Comedian." It's been a long time since "Punchline" polluted the popular consciousness with its hackneyed stereotypes and Hollywood shorthand about the life of a standup comic. "Comedian" might undo all the damage.
There is one scene in particular that goes a long way toward
undoing the wreckage wrought by Hanks and Fields. Seinfeld seems
uncomfortable as he shares the frame with Adams. Adams
seems unsettled (of course!) because he constantly compares his
success with the success of his friends, his peers, and finds
his lacking. Seinfeld is quietly aghast. He tries gamely to
discourage Adams from such comparisons. He realizes, however,
that comforting Adams is... impossible. Why? Adams just
doesn't get it! Jerry enjoys the process. Adams is
fixated on the fame and the bucks. It nicely summarizes the
whole film. Seinfeld, a man who doesn't need to do this
is sweating and scraping nonetheless. He enjoys the process.
Adams, on the other hand, approaches his craft, his art, with
all the joy of an executioner. At one point, Adams confesses that
it's very difficult for him to watch videos of his own performances--
he can't enjoy the good, he can only see the mistakes-- he justifies
such tortuous activity because it's only through such scrutiny that
he'll be able to grab that vague brass ring. We must
confess that we found it very difficult to watch footage of Adams
because we're seeing a man who is having a miserable time while clawing
his way to a destination that will provide him with absolutely
no satisfaction. Seinfeld is bemused; he tries to explain
that it's the process, the ride, that is in itself the
success. It is the actual ability to do standup and to do it well
that is the reward. If you're doing standup, you're already
successful. They represent the two sides of the world according
to every standup comic: Us (who get it) and Them (the folks who
just can't understand what it's like to be a standup comic). It's
odd (and somewhat tragic) that, in this case, Them are
represented by someone who actually does comedy. Seinfeld, upon
realizing that Adams doesn't get it, asks Adams "What is wrong
with you?" What, indeed? It is a sort of a contextual
Rorschach test for every comedian. If you sympathize with Adams, you
probably started comedy after 1990. If you are comforted by
Seinfeld's fruitless attempts to calm Adams down, you probably
started comedy prior to 1990. It is this image that, in the future,
will shock us out of complacency (if we need that) and remind us to
appreciate that we're engaged in one of the coolest activities that
anyone can do (if, we should need that).
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