from the archives

Looking Back at Jerry Seinfeld: Comedian (Without the Cars and Coffee)

A new season of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee recently launched and the world has ingested a new set of errands, breakfast orders, and analysis of minutiae from Jerry Seinfeld and his compatriots. But this series is not the first time Seinfeld has broken out of his sitcom world and branched into the world of reality. Today we dip into the archives, flash back to the year 2002, and take a look at the documentary film Comedian.

In 2002, it had been three years since Seinfeld went off the air with one of the most anticipated series finales in television history. It didn’t beat M*A*S*H’s sign-off, but with the rise of streaming and the glut of content out there now, it’s hard to imagine a world where anything will ever again rival the buzz, speculation, and build-up of the Seinfeld finale. Three months later, Seinfeld appeared live on HBO with a 75-minute comedy special titled I’m Telling You for the Last Time, in which he retired his act, vowing to throw it all away and rebuild.

Unless you made it out to the clubs, that was the last you saw of him until Comedian.

Directed by Christian Charles and filmed over the course of a year with two store-bought video cameras, Comedian is like Comedians in Cars in that it tells the story of two stand-up comedians, Seinfeld and newcomer Orny Adams, who are at two very different levels in their careers. But this is where the similarities end. Comedian is a portrait of a stand-up act being built, the backstage banter, the bombing — everything that comes with the profession of stand-up comedian. It is Louie, Crashing, and The Jim Gaffigan Show but for real this time, and nearly a decade before any of those projects had begun.

Seinfeld’s ride through the film is bumpy, but with significantly more experience under his belt (and significantly larger audiences coming out to see him), he is able to navigate the terrain of act-building. We see him drop in at the Comedy Cellar in New York with “two bits … and the rest is shit.” He deals with hecklers deftly. He talks with Colin Quinn, Godfrey, and Chris Rock, among others, at a table in the Cellar. After one particularly bad set, Seinfeld debriefs with Quinn, saying he made the “rookie mistake of opening with new material,” and the pair dissect the effect this had on the set and Seinfeld’s confidence. “Suddenly you’re not the man. And you know they think you’re not the man. Or that’s what you’re thinkin’ they’re thinkin’,” Seinfeld says. “Exactly!” Quinn responds. “They may not necessarily think that, but in your mind, that’s it.”

There’s a moment early in the film where Seinfeld is trying out material and he freezes; he’s lost the next thought he wants to hit in his joke. He moves back to his stool and checks the card for the next beat. It’s not on there. He paces slightly, trying to remember. This goes on for 45 seconds of thinking and offering the occasional “dammit!” into the microphone, and just as he’s getting ready to abandon the bit and move forward, a heckler in the crowd asks, “Is this your first gig?” Seinfeld initially gives a sarcastic and irritated “yes” before giving a more honest answer: “All this stuff I’ve never said before to anyone. These are just thoughts. So this is how comedians develop material. And as you can see, it’s quite painful.”

On the audio commentary, Seinfeld points out that this moment was cited by many audience members as being hard to watch, but he didn’t see it that way. “First of all, there’s eight people in this room. What do I care what they think of me, whether I have it together or not? Clearly you can see I’m having a good time …” It’s not make-or-break for Seinfeld. It’s tough, but it’s not the end of the world when it doesn’t go well.

Orny Adams’s journey in the film is there to serve as a counterpoint. What is it like for a stand-up to build their act and struggle to make it when they don’t have that same goodwill from the audience? We see Adams work in comedy clubs where he deals with hecklers who interrupt his set to ask if he’s gay, get booked at the Just for Laughs comedy festival, and eventually do a set on Letterman. Each step is faced with an enormous amount of anxiety, pride, and trepidation.

The downside of being the counterpoint to Seinfeld, however, is that you’re going to end up constantly being compared to Jerry Seinfeld. Big things are happening for Adams, and even though we see Seinfeld go through the exact same process (both Orny and Jerry’s full Late Show sets are a bonus feature on the DVD), it’s much different for Seinfeld. He’s been doing this since the ’70s. Financially, he can have the worst set of his life on Letterman and still be set for the rest of his life four times over. The stakes are real for Adams, and as a result he feels the ups and downs quite a bit more. In a DVD bonus featured called “Where Is Orny Now?” Adams muses, “We should call this ‘Where Isn’t Orny Now?’ I’m about an inch further.” In an interview from 2009 with Psychology Today, he said, “Struggling has made me a better person, more aware of how my actions affect people. I’m grateful that in 2001 when things started to really happen for me, they didn’t happen. Because now I feel more prepared.” He has continued with stand-up and done a bit of acting as well, appearing for several seasons on MTV’s Teen Wolf.

My favorite element of Comedian was something that seems so ubiquitous now, but was so exciting to see in 2002: getting to listen in on the conversations between comics. Colin Quinn and Seinfeld talk about the struggle of knowing when a bit is done. Seinfeld and George Wallace riff on what a “think tank” is, and we get to see this evolve as a piece in Seinfeld’s act. Backstage at a benefit show, Garry Shandling is incredulous that Seinfeld is actually getting rid of all his old material when he barely knows what he’s going to say that night. And finally, we have what I believe is the origin of the “Jay Leno doesn’t touch his Tonight Show money” legend.

As Leno and Seinfeld discuss the drive to continue doing stand-up long after their careers have moved beyond the comedy clubs, Leno talks about the importance of one’s act and how he exclusively lives off his live-performance money. Seinfeld pushes back, asking “Yeah, but, what are you going to do with it?” and together they reminisce about an incident years earlier where Leno stopped to talk with the security guard of a building, and when he rejoined Seinfeld, he pointed out that that guy had previously had two different TV series that had failed. Leno had never forgotten this and, as a result, filled a garage with antique cars without using any Tonight Show money. This anecdote is often used to disparage Leno when mentioned by other comedians, but the second half of that story is key to understanding the psychology of it all: Jay believes it could all go away in a second. Jerry gave it all up, and now he’s struggling to build a brand-new set. Granted, he’s got quite the golden parachute in the form of those Seinfeld residuals if he fails, but looking strictly at his stand-up career, there’s no net below him.

Reviewers in 2002 didn’t seem to enjoy Comedian very much. Some, like Entertainment Weekly, took issue with an abundance of Orny Adams, while Roger Ebert believed that since the movie was produced by Seinfeld that it “protects him,” which may be true. But whatever it lacks in insight into the man, it repays with insight into the profession, as two men build nothing into something. Comedian isn’t as much fun as Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, but before the days of 24/7 comedy podcasting, it was certainly more educational.

A Look Back at Comedian, the 2002 Jerry Seinfeld Documentary