Yes, a decade or so later, it's easy to mock the observational-humor style of Jerry Seinfeld, as what was once innovative has become the stand-up cliché. Seinfeld knows it, too, which is why, after his eponymous sitcom ended, he did one last big HBO special and then formally retired all his own material to start afresh. Unlike many stand-ups, he's never seemed to have big acting aspirations -- with one or two minor exceptions, he's only played stand-up comedians named Jerry Seinfeld. So it's no surprise to note that the first feature film to bear his name above the credits as the star, Comedian, is a documentary. Directed by Christian Charles, who worked on Seinfeld's American Express commercials, it's a movie designed primarily to answer the question: "So, just what the hell is Jerry Seinfeld doing these days anyway?"
He's doing stand-up, of course, and agonizing over new material -- trying out new bits, he tells us, is like going to work in your underwear. And some of his stuff is genuinely different this time, though by movie's end he's fallen into familiar patterns of wondering just what the deal is with answering messages, or why people in cars check themselves out as reflected in mirrored buildings. Charles takes us somewhat into the creative process -- Jerry pacing in the green room, Jerry testing new jokes, Jerry eating french fries with Colin Quinn. Yet Seinfeld doesn't completely open up: When his wife and baby show up, those of us who don't obsessively follow the tabloids may wonder, "Wait a minute! What wife, what baby? Is she that teenage girl he dated a while back?" (Answer: No -- see the current issue of People.)
That Seinfeld would want to keep his personal life shielded is understandable; that his wife and daughter aren't even named on film when we see them, nor looked at in any depth by the director, seems a significant sin of omission. It makes you wonder what else Seinfeld, who also produced, kept out of range of the cameras: We get to hear him use profanity (the only reason for the film's R rating), but other than that there's little sense of just how Jerry Seinfeld the person differs from Jerry Seinfeld the character on that show produced by Larry David.
All of this is perhaps why Charles splits his focus, and turns his camera on another comedian: up-and-comer Orny Adams, a big swinging dick determined to convince the world and himself that he's God's gift to the comedy game. Ever camera-aware, Orny never shuts up about himself even in candid moments, and it's with him that we get a look at just how much preparation is really needed to get out onstage and do a good job. Adams' house is filled with notebooks full of jokes, and he seldom sleeps, claiming that writing is the only thing that calms him down. It's also via Adams that we see some of the idiosyncrasies of the comedy game, as he prepares to go on Letterman and is told that a joke about lupus has to be changed to one about psoriasis, and that he can't make a joke about getting cancer from a cell phone -- that "tumor" has to turn into a "headache."
Charles' heart isn't with Adams, however, and at a certain point he simply loses interest and goes back to Seinfeld. It's likely that Adams was insufferable to be around, though the qualities that make him so also make for great TV (and this movie feels like it was made for the small screen). But what we're left with is half a movie about a cocky up-and-comer, and half a movie that could be one of those MTV Diary of ... specials on Jerry Seinfeld ("You think you know ... but you have no idea"; actually, we have a pretty good idea in this case).
Which isn't to say that Comedian is worthless; it's often a capable documentary on an interesting subject, even if it doesn't probe as deeply as it could. It gives us a look at various familiar faces in casual moments, among them Bill Cosby, Chris Rock, Jay Leno (who still fears he may lose everything someday), and Garry Shandling, who seems the most like his onstage persona, more so even than Seinfeld. Coming off the best, however, is neither Jerry nor Orny, but Colin Quinn, whose casual asides and stand-up snippets seen here reveal a man much funnier than anyone could have guessed watching his nervous "Weekend Update" stints on Saturday Night Live.