Back when he made his documentary about the calling, the life and the difficult work that being a stand-up comedian is “Comedian,” Jerry Seinfeld gave voice, in interviews (with me and others) that his sole ambition, after his wildly successful sitcom ended, was to get back to performing live.
It wasn’t about money. He’s been stupidly rich since “Seinfeld.” And it wasn’t really about ego. Well, maybe a little. He wanted to go back to playing live shows — trying out material in small clubs, touring it in pricier venues — for the ongoing challenge, the need to work and to set in stone his place in the stand-up continuum.
He idolizes the great comics of his youth, who did TV shows, made movies and the like. But what he most admired and identified with was the work ethic, the compulsion to perform, process of finding an observation, seeing what’s funny in and polishing that into a comic gem that fit in with a whole set — a routine.
“Comedian” — hunt it down if you missed it, most people did — was the most naked we’ll ever see him, stumbling through sets with note cards, “starting over” the hard way in tiny clubs, failing to get laughs, losing his place. Failing.
In the years since, he’s done more TV — failed shows that one suspects he was begged to do by a desperate network — and the hilarious and off-the-cuff web series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” But those are just play. The real work is going on tour, like Robert Klein and George Carlin, David Steinberg, Phyllis Diller and Shelly Berman and even Henny Youngman before him — a road warrior, a comic survivor.
“Jerry Before ‘Seinfeld'” is a Netflix special that lets Jerry tell the story of his career, to visit the childhood home in Massepequa, Long Island, where he discovered there was this thing called “stand-up” by watching Ed Sullivan and “The Tonight Show.”
And it takes him back to the club where he auditioned, got his start and worked “for FREE” — New York’s Comic Strip — back 1976.
There aren’t a lot of interviews. Plenty of TV documentaries have covered that ground. There’s just a stage, a few props (Whoa!) and the decades-polished Jerry more or less running through his Greatest Hits.
There’s new material here, but in telling the Cliff Notes/Funny Bits version of his autobiography, “engaged at 29,” etc., he showcases “my first joke” on stage that worked — the big about “left handed” and all the negative connotations we attach to “left.” And his “second joke.”
And there are all the jokes he doesn’t ID as “oldies but goodies,” the bits about the secret ambitions of clothes, socks “making a break for it” from the dryer. I watched this, and flipped on “Seinfeld” re-runs, and there much of this material existed in a previous form — the stand-up bits that opened and closed the seminal 1990s series.
Of course the jokes themselves are even older than that — dating back to their stand-up origins in the ’70s and ’80s (He made his first appearance on “The Tonight Show” in 1981).
I’ve always connected Seinfeld, in my mind, with his pal Jay Leno — guys who love the work,the challenge of getting a laugh out of a fresh audience every night. “Jerry Before ‘Seinfeld'” — which flashes on images of his idols and his contemporaries — Elayne Boosler, Andy Kaufman and others — connects him more closely with those who developed an act and more or less stayed with it.
It’s not contemporary. There’s never a hint of politics. Every joke made at his expense, on “Seinfeld,” from “When’re you coming up with some new material?” to “Is it another ‘Didya ever NOTICE?'” — lands hard and true.
I once sat in a hotel bar in LA in the early 1990s, swapping notes with fellow entertainment journalists about the “worst” (toughest) interviews we’d ever had. Seinfeld, especially pre-“Seinfeld” topped the list. Angry, testy, dismissive. He’s not that way (much) any more. The confidence and ease of success rubbed some of that off. The shortest stand-up interview I ever had was with him in 1988, just before the series came out.
So if you’re curious enough to learn about the “real” Seinfeld — and the unguarded Jerry can be testy and still doesn’t want the world poring over his personal life, professional rivalries and romantic history — you’re going to have to go someplace else. Because unless your memory’s going (Whose isn’t?), nothing here will surprise you enough to get a fresh laugh.
Cast: Jerry Seinfeld, Jimmy Brogan, Mark Schiff
Directed by Michael Bonfiglio, written by Jerry Seinfeld. A Netflix production.
Running time: 1:02