The documentary debut of director Christian Charles and producer Gary Steiner, Comedian successfully illuminates the push-me/pull-you essence of stand-up comedy for the people behind the mic. Professional joke-telling, it turns out, isn't strictly a laughing matter; it's a matter of work ethic, thick skins covering raging insecurities, a ravenous desire to succeed, and an unsettling inkling that personal best might not be good enough. What Comedian ultimately reveals is the pain and pleasure of ever defining yourself by your work, show business -- and comedy in particular -- simply providing the most brutal of measuring sticks.
Jerry Seinfeld's comeback struggle is the primary focus of Comedian, which just goes to show that nothing comes easy, even for the man whose comedic reputation is built on having a show about nothing. For a little more than a year, filmmakers Charles and Steiner follow Seinfeld on his strange odyssey to re-succeed as a stand-up comic, shedding the skin of his phenomenally successful primetime shtick and scraping up an hour or two of new material. The two wield handheld digital video cameras, tracking Seinfeld from the green room to the stage and everywhere in between. At the same time, Comedian introduces Orny Adams, an arrogant, hungry up-and-comer who videotapes every performance for his own couch critiques and who stands right on the cusp of his biggest breaks. The film is the ouroboros of a guy who's achieved what all the young comics are killing themselves for pushing through and finding himself right back at the beginning. Sure, this time around, Seinfeld's got a Croesian bank account to fall back on and a plush private jet to ferry him around, but that doesn't mean his desire to be funny and his fear of failure are any less real.
In fact, one of the documentary's greatest deeds is this rehumanization of Jerry Seinfeld, reminding us why we loved the guy in the first place. The gesticulating comic Everyman of the nasal whine and the slightly skewed perspective is back, no longer just the smug straight man to George, Elaine and Kramer. And the audience gets the full package: Seinfeld struggling with new bits on stage, losing his train of thought completely; Seinfeld confronting hecklers head on and joking about how big he used to be; Seinfeld listening to what other comics have to say -- really listening, practically taking notes -- from the equally kinetic Chris Rock to the decidedly less-successful Colin Quinn. When Seinfeld observes that he does not consider himself to have been the funny one growing up, it's just that all his friends grew up and got other jobs, he sells it. And, most endearingly, Seinfeld croons the Cracker Jack jingle to his baby girl backstage before his big stint on Letterman. This is the most real Jerry Seinfeld we've ever seen -- he's not polished and he's not perfect, but he's positively likeable. And quite possibly funnier than he's ever been.
Equally compelling -- although decidedly less likeable -- is the documentary's other half. Orny Adams is just getting a manager as the film begins, the larger-than-life George Shapiro, and the interaction of these two is priceless. Adams is a bit of a head case; mere minutes after receiving a career-advancing invite to the Montreal comedy festival, he's lying on a New York sidewalk moaning that he's miserable again. Still, he's a fascinating study. His frustration with the network censorship he encounters for his first-ever television appearance on Letterman -- they won't let him use the words "tumor" or "lupus" in his jokes -- stems more from the fact that the change upsets his rhythm than from any sense of authorial integrity. His admission that he wants to be funny enough to be famous and his obsession with a profile in a Canadian newspaper that nobody seems to read are as honest as they are arrogant.
What distinguishes Comedian most of all is how intricate and well-crafted the film is. The film's low production values and sound quality (or lack thereof) require some adjustment but ultimately add a layer of comedy-club realism. And despite the technical challenges, certain shots are exquisite and several sequences are well-cut, a comedian going onstage to do Letterman while we the audience are left to watch the set on a wall-mounted TV in a now-empty dressing room, a nice and lonely separation of realities. Seinfeld and his loquacious peers -- who include the aforementioned Quinn and Rock, Jay Leno, Garry Shandling, Ray Romano and a deified Bill Cosby, among others -- can only lift the curtain for us outsiders so much. It's a different and absorbing language these men speak when they're hanging out in the green room. But they're all determined to have the last laugh, even if it kills them.