Jerry Seinfeld's New Netflix Special Puts His Comic Life Into Perspective

Sep 20, 2017
Originally published on September 21, 2017 6:40 am

On television, Jerry Seinfeld has not only been astoundingly successful, he's also been amazingly consistent in pursuing and presenting his particular comic vision. He doesn't do big shows or specials about grand ideas and giant themes. He does narrowly focused TV programs about specific concepts — then, within those narrow confines, he finds humor, honesty and sometimes even art.

With Larry David, he created the mega-hit NBC sitcom Seinfeld, commonly and aptly described as "a show about nothing." After that, Seinfeld created a series for Sony's streaming service, Crackle, which is brilliant in both its narrow focus and its perfect execution. It's called Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, it's exactly what the title suggests — and it's now in its ninth season.

For Netflix, Seinfeld begins with another intentionally small-scale concept. It's called Jerry Before Seinfeld and it's all about his comedy roots.

He starts with Johnny Carson introducing him on The Tonight Show in 1981, then flashes back to the time, several years before that, when he decided to give stand-up comedy a try. He even tells that story from the specific place in New York City where he first had that thought — and for the record, it's on a ground-level shop window ledge at the corner of Madison Avenue and East 58th Street.

Then, as part of this autobiographical retracing of his past, Seinfeld returns to New York's Comic Strip, the comedy club where he became a regular in the summer of 1976. The club is retrofitted to look like it did back then, so Seinfeld performs in front of a red brick wall, happy to tell some old jokes — including one of the jokes from his original Comic Strip audition.

But in addition to recycling old material, Seinfeld puts his whole comic life into perspective. At one point, director Michael Bonfiglio photographs Seinfeld sitting among reams of hand-written note paper — the collected-and-never-discarded records of a career's worth of joke-writing. And at another point, back at the Comic Strip, Seinfeld recalls the first time at that club that the audience for his act included his parents.

Jerry Before Seinfeld works so well for the exact same reason Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee does. It knows exactly what it wants to do, never wavers, delivers precisely what it promises, makes you laugh — a lot — then runs the closing credits long before you think of getting bored.

The personal touches added — like the home movies and the visit to the outside of Jerry's childhood home — are nice and smart grace notes. But Jerry Before Seinfeld doesn't need them, really. It's the best kind of minimalist comedy television. Just a comic, a mic, a stage and an audience.

Jerry Seinfeld has been doing it for more than 40 years. Now in his new Netflix special, he reveals how he started — and demonstrates, once again, just how good he's gotten.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Jerry Seinfeld became the biggest TV name to sign with Netflix when he agreed to star in a pair of comedy specials for the streaming service. The first of them called before - the first of them, called "Jerry Before Seinfeld," premiered this week. And our TV critic, David Bianculli, found it to be a delightfully well-crafted surprise.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: On television, Jerry Seinfeld not only has been astoundingly successful, he's been amazingly consistent in pursuing and presenting his particular comic vision. He doesn't do big shows or specials about grand ideas and giant themes. He does narrowly focused TV programs about specific concepts, then, within those narrow confines, finds humor, honesty, sometimes even art.

With Larry David, he created the megahit NBC sitcom "Seinfeld," commonly and aptly described as a show about nothing. After that, Seinfeld created a series for Sony's streaming service, Crackle, which is brilliant in both its narrow focus and its perfect execution. It's called, "Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee." It's exactly what the title suggests, and it's now in its ninth season.

For Netflix, Jerry Seinfeld begins with another intentionally small-scale concept. It's called "Jerry Before Seinfeld," and it's all about his comedy roots. He starts with Johnny Carson introducing him on "The Tonight Show" in 1981, then flashes back to the time several years before that when he decided to give stand-up comedy a try. He even tells that story from the specific place in New York City where he first had that thought. And for the record, it's on a ground-level shop window ledge at the corner of Madison and East 58th Street.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JERRY BEFORE SEINFELD")

JOHNNY CARSON: The next guest is a young comedian who's making his very first appearance on "The Tonight Show." He's originally from New York City. He's worked a lot of small clubs, both in New York and Los Angeles. Would you welcome him, please? Jerry Seinfeld.

(APPLAUSE)

JERRY SEINFELD: In the mid-'70s in New York, there were only two places you could even see new comedians. A stand-up comedian was just a novelty act. They'd have one in front of a singer or a rock band, and just to be that was the most glorious dream of my life. That's all I wanted. And it's funny, but I was actually sitting on a ledge when I decided to make that leap right here. This is the exact spot.

BIANCULLI: Then, as part of this autobiographical retracing of his past, Seinfeld returns to New York's Comic Strip, the comedy club where he became a regular in the summer of 1976. The club is retrofitted to look like it did back then, so Seinfeld performs in front of a red brick wall, happy to tell some old jokes - so old that he includes one of the jokes from his original Comic Strip audition.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JERRY BEFORE SEINFELD")

SEINFELD: And I only had one joke that worked...

(LAUGHTER)

SEINFELD: ...Which I'm going to do for you right now.

(APPLAUSE)

SEINFELD: And if you ever think yourself that you might want to someday do comedy, this is not the way you do it. Don't ever say, I'm going to tell you a joke now.

(LAUGHTER)

SEINFELD: So I'm left-handed. Left-handed people do not like that the word left is so often associated with negative things - two left feet, left-handed compliment. What are we having for dinner? Leftovers.

(LAUGHTER)

SEINFELD: You go to a party. There's nobody there. Where did everybody go? They left.

(LAUGHTER)

SEINFELD: That was it. That was my first joke.

(APPLAUSE)

BIANCULLI: But in addition to recycling old material, Seinfeld puts his whole comic life into perspective. Back at the Comic Strip, Seinfeld recalls the first time at that club that the audience for his act included his parents.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JERRY BEFORE SEINFELD")

SEINFELD: You know, one of the big nights that I had here was my parents coming to see me do my show because I had never - for whatever reason, I was very embarrassed around my parents to show them this part of my personality. So when I started doing this, it was, you know, a little strange to them. You know, when I told them, I think I want to be a comedian, and they went, OK, you know, you've never done anything funny.

(LAUGHTER)

SEINFELD: And so I - eventually, I brought them here. And they sat right there. And I was so nervous that night because I was showing them this whole side of myself. It was like my little gay closet moment.

(LAUGHTER)

SEINFELD: You know, where I had to say, Mom, Dad, I'm - I don't know how to tell you this, but I'm a funny person.

(LAUGHTER)

SEINFELD: And I don't want to be ashamed of it any more.

(LAUGHTER)

SEINFELD: And I want to lead a funny lifestyle now.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: This special, "Jerry Before Seinfeld," works so well for the exact same reason "Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee" does. It knows exactly what it wants to do, never wavers, delivers precisely what it promises, makes you laugh a lot, then runs the closing credits long before you think of getting bored. The personal touches added, like the home movies and the visit to the outside of Jerry's childhood home, are nice and smart grace notes.

But "Jerry Before Seinfeld" doesn't need them, really. It's the best kind of minimalist comedy television - just a comic, a mic, a stage and an audience. Jerry Seinfeld has been doing it for more than 40 years now. And in his new Netflix special, he reveals how he started and demonstrates, once again, just how good he's gotten.

GROSS: David Bianculli teaches TV and film history at Rowan University. "Jerry Before Seinfeld" is streaming now on Netflix. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE VIETNAM WAR")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I remember my knees shaking. And I was saying, holy smokes, I'm going into a war.

(SOUNDBITE OF MISSILE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is war.

GROSS: My guests will be Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, creators of the new PBS documentary series "The Vietnam War," which tells the story of the war from multiple perspectives, including the North Vietnamese perspective. This series has some remarkable footage and interviews. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF URI CAINE BEDROCK'S "COUNT DUKE")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF URI CAINE BEDROCK'S "COUNT DUKE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.