The Netflix special Jerry Before Seinfeld consists largely of Seinfeld performing onstage at the Comic Strip Live on 2nd Avenue — the club where he got his first professional booking in 1976 — with narrated photo-and-home-movie montages and brief, scripted-sounding interviews inserted every few minutes. As written and overseen by Seinfeld and directed by Michael Bonfiglio (Oprah’s Master Class), it’s presented as an eye-opening trip into the entertainer’s past, or as this superhero-loving stand-up might prefer, an “origin story.”
But in the tradition of Seinfeld the stand-up and “Seinfeld” the fictional character, it’s a carefully curated one. Its packaging notwithstanding, Jerry Before Seinfeld doesn’t feel much different than any other Seinfeld concert or talk-show appearance, except for the old photos, Seinfeld family home movies, and archival footage of young Seinfeld doing stand-up. (Much of the latter is of such poor resolution that it looks to have been downloaded from YouTube, which is weird. Could Seinfeld’s production company not afford to license better-looking images from their original sources, or were every single one of them not available?) Those hoping for a thorough and surprising documentary about Seinfeld, or even a concert with a heavily confessional bent, will be disappointed. But of course, these same people would need to be unfamiliar with Seinfeld’s work to expect more than that. Seinfeld built his legend by taking the “how about airplane peanuts, folks?” school of innocuous observation, melding it to a PG-version of George Carlin’s fascination with social rituals and language, and pushing the result about as far as it can go — which isn’t all that far, considering the strict parameters you have to place on this sort of comedy to prevent it from becoming mildly uncomfortable.
Luckily, it’s a good collection of jokes and stories. The special begins with Seinfeld being introduced right before making his debut on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, which was once the ultimate star-making TV program, conferring upon comics the unmistakable stamp of Carson’s approval and the undeniable knowledge that they’d finally, truly arrived. Then it works its way forward via Seinfeld’s stand-up, more or less chronologically. There are a few rants that sound off-puttingly entitled, coming from one of America’s richest entertainers, and sometimes peculiar as well: Seinfeld mocks the self-important aura of the notary public, as if that’s a thing that we’re all going to be glad someone finally called out. He talks about growing up “on” Long Island (correctly noting that no one ever says they grew up “in” Long Island) and offers many sharp insights into the mentality of young children, such as the way they tend to withdraw and slump and even lie down from “exhaustion” whenever they’re forced to go to a bank or anyplace else that holds no interest for a kid. “When you’re five and you get bored, you literally can’t support your body weight,” he says, adding, “Adulthood is the ability to be totally bored and remain standing.”
There are a few self-deprecating and otherwise charming moments where Seinfeld frankly acknowledges what he didn’t know about comedy when he was younger. He repeats the first joke he ever told onstage, which isn’t all that great, and then admits that it isn’t. But there always seems to be an invisible shield up around him. He mentions that New York was much sleazier and scarier in the 1970s, but avoids delving into his actual experience of that time and place. There’s nothing about what the social culture of ’70s stand-up was like, or managers or agents for that matter. Early on, he jokes about how his parents were never interested in taking him to Disneyland because they didn’t see the point of paying to fly across the country so that he could sit in a plastic teacup. That’s a great bit, but it also unfortunately offers a metaphor for this special: It’s the Disneyland version of Seinfeld’s early years. The closest he gets to edgy is a bit where he ponders the possibility that the president might be “crazy,” then observes that anyone who thinks they could do that job has to be crazy. “I can’t think of anyone better than me to be in charge of absolutely everything,” he says, in the mind of a hypothetical candidate, building to a peak of outrage that we expect to lead to Trump, but instead leads to a complaint that the two major party symbols are an elephant and a donkey.
I came away from Jerry Before Seinfeld feeling satisfied, because I laughed a lot, but also convinced that a great opportunity had been studiously avoided so as not to contradict Seinfeld’s brand. The most intriguing moment in the whole special is the spontaneous-seeming bit where an audience member asks him about the books arranged onstage and the bookends holding them in place. The books are fake — “I don’t live here!” he exclaims — but the bookends are of both sets of Superman’s parents: the ones who put him in a spaceship so that he could escape the destruction of Krypton, and the humans who found him in a crater in a Kansas field and raised him as their own. Earlier in the special, there’s a throwaway phrase inserted into the middle of a story that really didn’t require it, revealing that both of Seinfeld’s parents were orphaned. There’s no elaboration: It’s just a parenthetical that’s skipped over, like a speed bump in a road. You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to be struck by the fact that a young man raised by two orphans became intoxicated by the success narrative of Superman, who — as many Superman fans, including Seinfeld himself, have noted — is also a parable of Jewish assimilation into a country dominated by white Christians. A special with a more adventurous sensibility would have caught that moment like lightning in a bottle and studied it. There are many more instances just like it, where Seinfeld alludes to a more complex and possibly affecting story than the one he’s chosen to share with us.