Somewhere in this wonderful mess of a film, a dog-eared stalwart of New York's comedy underworld postulates that stand-up is the closest thing there is to true justice. No matter how colossal a celebrity may be, his reasoning goes, the average audience will only grant a five-minute honeymoon before insisting they get funny or get outta Dodge.
This is one of many nuggets of insight from Comedian, a documentary that tracks the return to the stand-up stage of Jerry Seinfeld, and insurgent tyro Orny Adams. It's not a concert film per se, though it's easy to mistake it for one with its endless montage of Jerry bustling in and out of Manhattan comedy clubs, hotel suites, and East Coast comedy crevices. Director Christian Charles wants you to know that it's not easy being Jerry Seinfeld. Fortunately, he also wants you to know that even after you've ascended the throne of fame, it's never easy to be a stand-up comedian. As Seinfeld laments after performing before a rough Long Island crowd: "How big do you have to be before people will shut up?" When one considers the multitudes that crawled out of the stand-up sewer and never once looked back -- Steve Martin, Bill Murray, Adam Sandler, etc... -- it's easy to see his point.
Comedian's working title was Anatomy of a Joke, and like many working titles it's a more accurate description of the film, which is a frank meditation on the struggle of making people laugh. We're treated to Seinfeld's backstage discussion with colleagues like Chris Rock, Jay Leno -- who, it must be noted, can barely elicit a giggle from his own laugh track -- and Gary Shandling. A few insights are passed on that might not be obvious to an outsider. Never, for example, open your routine with untested material.
It's hard to feel Jerry's pain as he prances around the nation in private jets, first-class hotel suites, and a black Porsche, but he does come across as a man who, despite his success, remains sincerely humbled by his craft and its masters. In one scene he chats backstage with Bill Cosby, who he marvels at not just for being Bill Cosby, but for his capacity to perform for two hours straight -- an Ironman-like accomplishment for any comic. "It's a highlight of my career that I even know you," he tells Cosby. The two embrace, and, aw shucks, it's really touching.
And then there's Orny Adams, a 29-year-old up-and-comer who is president, vice president, and corresponding secretary of the Orny Adams Fan Club. Don't expect to like him, but it's hard not to respect this oleaginous yukster due to his work ethic. We're introduced to Orny via his colossal empire of sketch notebooks, 3-ring-binder joke index, and videos of gigs past. A victim of his own ambition, Orny's utterly incapable of discoursing upon anything beyond the parameters of his career.
Apparently, he has since relocated to Los Angeles where he's undoubtedly in good company. During the film he not only has the good fortune of being hooked up with Seinfeld's manager, but gets a slot on Letterman. The upshot is that Orny is still completely miserable. As another fine comedienne, Janeane Garofalo, once remarked, "Only the entertainment industry provides me with the amount of self-loathing I require."
Orny embodies a uniquely American Molotov of insane ambition, narcissism, and no moderation in sight. You might despise him, but he's as American as a microwave burrito and, strangely enough, worth the price of the ticket.
-- John Dicker