It’s been said the very best comedians are those for whom comedy is a compulsion, those who’d have a near-impossible time doing anything else. One gets the sense this describes Larry David but not Jerry Seinfeld.
David and Seinfeld both became billionaires as co-creators of “Seinfeld,” but to all but the most knowledgeable “Seinfeld” fans, David was anonymous until “Curb Your Enthusiasm” premiered in 2000.
“Curb” made revisionist historians of “Seinfeld” fans; it launched a large-scale re-evaluation of who was behind the jokes that made us smirk (Seinfeld) versus who was behind the jokes that made us scream with misanthropic delight (David).
For David, the question has always been whether “Curb” was really a love-of-the-game pursuit or whether its purpose was to pull the curtain back on where the laughs really came from on “Seinfeld.”
That’s a cynical way to frame the impetus for Jerry Seinfeld’s new Netflix special, “23 Hours to Kill.” Maybe Seinfeld’s not irked that popular opinion has declared David the singular maladjusted force driving the “Seinfeld” money train. Maybe Seinfeld doesn’t hear the talk that calls his brand of comedy dated and David’s brand timeless.
David is said to be the genuine article—the real George Costanza, only much richer. And Jerry? A polished stage comic with good timing and horse teeth who can turn his comedian persona on and off.
Maybe there is no ego thing between Seinfeld and David; maybe comedians become much less insecure once their net-worth hits 10 digits.
However obscene Seinfeld’s payday from Netflix, there’s no way his return to stand-up was just about the money. Nor, realistically, could it have been about rejiggering the “Seinfeld” legacies closer to their pre-2000 borders — not since it’s become consensus that David, not Seinfeld, was the sein qua non — the one without whom “Seinfeld” could not have been.
Still, ego doesn’t surrender easily to reason, especially with funny people. That and the sheer adrenaline of stand-up must be part of what lured a 65-year-old comic away from the occasionally funny but totally low risk and self-congratulatory “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” a comedic sinecure if ever there were one, and back onto the stage at a place like the Beacon Theatre for an 80-minute major network special.
Outside of straddling the pitchers’ mound at Yankee Stadium when the fall weather calls for shirtsleeves, the stand-up comedy stage has got to be the loneliest place on Earth. In fact, it was Seinfeld who once famously quipped: “At a funeral, most people would rather be the guy in the coffin than the guy giving the eulogy.”
If Seinfeld was ever rattled at the Beacon, it never showed. From the moment he literally jogged onto the stage, his energy was high, his command clinical. Rhythmically, only a handful in history are better than Seinfeld; he hits literally every beat here. Seinfeld’s always been a writer’s comic, heavily dependent on timing; from that standpoint, he’s a machine.
And that cuts both ways. The set is so tight, it’s almost too tight. Though well-acted, his set is clearly memorized — pro that he is, he handles crowd work smoothly, a must when a comic’s material otherwise lacks an extemporaneous quality. But every beat is scripted, and it shows.
None of that would’ve made much of a difference if the material had been stronger.
Early on, we see an edgy, almost nihilistic Seinfeld on the verge of total resignation. And it’s great.
“Yes, we want to go out,” he muses. “But as soon as we’re out, we’re thinking about how we’ve got to get back.” Nearly everything, Seinfeld suggests, is waste of time, a contrivance to merely keep us moving from one thing to another that’s of little actual importance to us.
“Nobody wants to be anywhere; nobody likes anything,” Seinfeld states emphatically. “And so we come up with things like this … this is a made-up, bogus, hyped-up, not necessary special event. A lot of people worked very hard to put together so that we could kill some time.”
The irritated, cynical Seinfeld, though it wouldn’t be on so many comedians, is a fresh look, a fresh tone. The problem is he abandons it too quickly and backslides into tired bits about Vegas buffets and restaurant bills and Pop-Tarts.
There’s a difference between repackaging and reproducing verbatim, and Seinfeld’s too often guilty of the latter here.
Other material felt derivative of other comics’ jokes, which wouldn’t be so horrible except they didn’t build on the originals. If you can add something new to the canon, you get a pass for cribbing an idea. But throughout Seinfeld’s set, I heard borrowings from Jackie Mason, George Carlin and Robin Williams, all of which fell far short of the originals.
Jerry Seinfeld’s in the pantheon of late 20th-century comics, and, short of a grievous Louis C.K.-style indiscretion, there’s literally nothing he can do to jeopardize his status as a legend.
Of course, the 20th century’s 20 years in the rearview. Can Seinfeld return with anything new or trenchant or incisive to say?
I’d never expect Seinfeld to take aim at sacred cows as comics like Dave Chappelle or Bill Burr do — confrontation’s never been his style. But, legend though he is, Seinfeld can’t be let off the hook for a set that was totally risk-free, good for all time zones and ultimately boring.
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