Movie of the Week: Comedian (2002)

Christian Charles directs Jerry Seinfeld, Orny Adams and George Shapiro in this documentary following America’s biggest comedian hitting the road again to work up new material after retiring all his “gold”.

A decade ago stand-up was a massive part of my life. Between my now wife, movies and gigging I didn’t really have time for anything else. Not even sleep. I travelled the lengths of the country trying to move up off the lower rungs of the circuit ladder. Trying to work up enough material that landed consistently with audiences, suited my voice and hadn’t grown stale from over repetition. So this is a movie I very much understand. It captures the feel of standing in a liminal space, scribbled notes in hand, waiting to try a convince an audience what you have to say is worth laughing at. And although Seinfeld comes from a rarefied position (who isn’t going to be excited if someone that recognisably funny rocks up unannounced on a bill, he doesn’t struggle for stage time to nail down his new stuff, his joke ideas rarely challenge audience expectations), he is working at coal face he no longer has to and with self imposed disadvantage nobody needs to. Except in the U.K. where established comedians are actually expected to work up an hour of new material each year to sate the needs of the Edinburgh fringe critics and, if successful, the now dominant solo touring market. Watching Comedian from an insider’s perspective is mainly pleasure but also a curse. You wonder if the support act who hitches a ride in Jerry’s private jet had to pay his share of the petrol money? You wonder at what point the circuit hacks he is reconnecting with over late dinners got bored of his philosophical waxings and just wanted the cameras off so they could touch base with their most famous friend while he slummed it, stuff their faces between sets and maybe pick up an audience member? But the project stumbles onto gold when it begins to juxtapose Jerry’s humble quest to start from creative scratch with the fame hungry upstart Orny Adams. Where Jerry is convivial and wise, Adams is abrasively ambitious and brashly rehearsed. Nearly every interaction the overconfident loner has with any long established industry player is an utter car crash to watch. For the middle hour Comedian becomes schadenfreude deluxe viewing as two very different creatures briefly occupy the same territory. Of course Seinfeld and his people have complete control over this production, they control the edit and light “Jerry” the brand is shown in. But I bet everyone let out a little unguarded yelp when a person quite so apposite as Orny Adams proved willing to become the counterbalance to the narrative. It is almost a shame that during the lengthy triumphant wrap-up the walking social disaster is suddenly lost from the edit. As someone who was spending every waking hour with such people in my former life, even was such a person on some occasions, I can tell you there are far more Orny Adams than there are Jerry Seinfelds. It takes a special kinda sociopath to keep hustling for your attention. A few obvious conceits aside, this is a startlingly accurate representation of the hubris, self doubt and drive that goes into making people laugh as a vocation.


Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here

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