It’s no secret that sometimes comedy is taken a bit too seriously. Comedy obsessives love not just the jokes, but the mechanics and emotions of the comedy world. There are a raft of comedy documentaries exploring comedy and comedians, but do they really have anything significant to add to the discussion? This series looks at comedy documentaries and whether they’re interesting, insightful, and possibly even…funny?
It’s hard for me to believe that Comedian is 10 years old. I remember watching it on DVD not long after it came out (I suppose I got it from Blockbuster? I don’t really remember how that worked), and loving the behind-the-scenes world of stand-up. Back in those pre-podcast days, hearing comics talking about the ups and downs of comedy — the process, the grind, the doubt — was exciting and rare.
Nowadays, obviously, discussions about comedy are a lot easier to find, all over iTunes and the website you’re reading at this very moment. But there’s still something unique about Comedian. It’s a glimpse into the world of an icon, an unqualified international superstar, who decides to start from scratch.
Comedian begins with a clip of Jerry Seinfeld on stage, explaining that he’s chosen to put aside his decades of tested material and start afresh.
“People always say to me, it must be so easy […] for me, now, because people know who I am,” Jerry says to Colin Quinn one night at the Comedy Cellar. “It’s not easy.”
“No, you get a little bit of a break up front,” Colin agrees, “and then, you still gotta be funny.”
That idea clearly drives Jerry as goes back to square one, building up material and hitting the road (even if his lifestyle is far from ordinary for a touring comedian — cruising around New York in his Porsche, flying on his private jet).
The documentary also follows up-and-comer Orny Adams, a brash young comic seemingly convinced that he’s God’s gift to comedy, as he starts to break through. He’s not particularly likeable for much of the film, but it’s interesting to watch his scramble for success, and see the difficulty — sometimes desperation — of being a young comedian.
In one nice parallel, we see both Jerry and Orny preparing to do spots on Letterman. It’s Orny’s first Letterman gig, and his nerves and enthusiasm before the show melt into disappointment as he watches and critiques his own set as it airs. A few months later, Jerry’s makes his first post-Seinfeld TV appearance in the stand-up spot on Late Night, and his experience is exactly the same.
About halfway through, Chris Rock swings by the Cellar, raving adorably about seeing Bill Cosby live, calling it the best comedy show he’s ever seen. This film ends with Jerry taking a pilgrimage to see Cosby, and marveling at his dedication to the form — a reminder to him why, despite all the pain, he’s still doing it.
And so, in conclusion…
Is it interesting? Yes. It’s a story with universal appeal — the story of a superstar starting over.
What does it have to say about comedy? “I never felt pain until I started doing comedy,” Orny says, and it’s a theme that reappears many times in the documentary. It’s a look at the grind of making comedy, and the type of people who can’t help but do it. “Without a doubt, the single most horrifying movie you’ll ever see (if you want to be a stand-up comedian),” boasted one tagline for the film.
Is it funny? Sometimes. Most of the jokes come from on-stage clips, with the documentary elements more serious.
Can I stream it on Netflix? Nope, DVD only.
Any comedy documentaries you’d like to see discussed? Do let me know.
Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City. She’s getting a little obsessed with this comedy thing.