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movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Comedian

Starring: Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling
Director: Christian Charles
Rated: R
RunTime: 81 Minutes
Release Date: October 2002
Genres: Comedy, Documentary

*Also starring: Chris Rock, Colin Quinn

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Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

Take it from a guy with some three decades of teaching high school social studies under his belt: no matter how many times you give the same lessons to the same-age, captive audience, there's always the fear that your mind will go blank, that you won't get any response whatever form the class, that you won't have enough material to fill the forty minutes. No wonder, then, that a stand-up comedian the type of profession that's not unlike that of teaching will sweat and pace and let off steam backstage while waiting to go out to the crowd. It matters not whether he or she is performing before a small group at New York Bitter End Caf‚ or in Carnegie Hall as Jackie Mason has done several times. The anxiety is there. What's more the tension is present even if, like Jerry Seinfeld, you have a solid reputation behind you and the knowledge that just walking out on the floor will bring your audience to its feet.

The premise of Christian Charles' documentary, then, is the angst faced by experienced comic and newcomer alike, the stage fright that can overcome even the most experienced performer. We can believe that the hyper, upcoming comedian Orny Adams would probably have to go to the bathroom five minutes before making his presence felt before a live audience. After all Orny is twenty-nine years old and has not enjoyed nearly the success that has befallen Jerry Seinfeld. But Mr. Adams who shares the spotlight in this brief, eighty-one minute doc is the very type you'd expect to tense up before picking up the mic. He's hyper, he appears to thinks he deserves accolades simply because he has survived on stage for a few years, and director Christian Charles evokes a surpringly spontaneous backstage performance from Adams who seems impervious to the notion that his arrogance could alienate the audience for "Comedian."

Adams is the more interesting person to watch, probably because he's so insecure that Mr. Charles can get a more dynamic off-stage performance from him that he could with Seinfeld. Talking as though he's ready to buy his first walking cane, Adams laments that he's 29 years old, he's not sure he's going anywhere (at least not when he compares himself to Seinfeld), and worries that his friends have Wall Street jobs and nice homes and families while he's, well, what really is he? He's proud of his performance in Montreal and in one case blames not himself but his patrons for a show that tanks: "The audience sucks," he insists, "Really sucks." By contrast Jerry Seinfeld, who garnered publicity you simply could not buy simply by quitting his fabulously successfully TV show to return to his stand-up roots, is coasting on his rep and despite the fear he seems to have each time he is about to strut before his rabidly loyal fans, the edge is off. He could probably read the Manhattan Yellow Pages and draw laughs.

Seinfeld is shown with his manager, George Shapiro, and since stand-up comedy rests in the same insular world as, say, online film criticism, he is personally familiar with all the great comics of our time just as online critics can rattle off the pluses and minuses of colleagues that most of the country does not know exist. He is particularly awed by a two and one-half hour performance given by the sixty-four years old Bill Cosby and speaks all too briefly with the hilarious Chris Rock who comes across in this film as just another admirer. We get bits and pieces of Robert Klein, Garry Shandling, George Wallace, Ray Romano and Colin Quinn, each on stage all too briefly.

Though "Comedian" centers on the fly-on-the-wall expose of entertainers, showing us that when they walk off the stage they do not disappear into thin air but are regular people who can converse without making jokes, the film could have been longer. We would have appreciated more time given to Seinfeld's and Adams's actual performances rather than a few seconds here, a few moments there. The opening fifteen minutes are edited by Chris Franklin in the hyper style of a John Woo film, as though to challenge us in the audience to ask, "What exactly is going on here?"

The critic of a New York tabloid has written that he has no sympathy for Seinfeld's alleged angst since, after all, the entertainer has a private jet. This misses the very point of the movie, which is to show us that no matter how famous and rich a performer may be, he still puts his pants on one leg at a time, a human being with the same fears and anxieties as the rest of us.

Copyright © 2002 Harvey Karten

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