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COMEDIAN

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jerry Seinfeld, Orny Adams, Colin Quinn
Director:  Christian Charles
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Miramax
Features:  See Review
Length:  82 Minutes
Release Date:  May 13, 2003

“I never felt pain until I started doing comedy.”

Film **1/2

Laugh, and the world laughs with you.  Create laughs, and you’re on your own.

Such is the sentiment of Christian Charles’ documentary Comedian, which is light on laughs but heavy on sobriety, as it attempts to peel back the notion of comedy as a fun job and reveal it as a continuing struggle against insecurities and demonstrate just how much work and pain goes into those magical minutes on stage that make or break you.

The main focus of the film is Jerry Seinfeld, a man who’s already attained the stand-up’s holy grail:  a successful television sitcom.  Seinfeld was a top rated show for a number of years, went out on top, and netted Jerry God knows how much money.  But here we see him, even with all that success behind him, climbing up on stages in tiny comedy dives and trying to get laughs.  “What am I doing here?” he wonders aloud at some point.  The movie tries to answer that question.

The best insight comes from comic and former Remote Control star Colin Quinn.  Comedy is honest.  No matter how big a star you might have become, when you take that microphone, you’re lucky to get maybe five minutes of grace from the audience before they start demanding you make them laugh or leave.  And ever comic has those bad moments.  Even an experienced veteran like Seinfeld loses his train of thought during a meager show.  At another, the audience actually talks OVER Jerry’s routine…apparently, they can get over being impressed with a big name very quickly!

At the other end of the spectrum is comic Orny Adams, who appears to be on his way up.  As we spend time with him, we’ve learned he’s been in the business for some 8 years, has amassed files and files of written jokes, and manages an air that’s both cocky and insecure at the same time.  One person gives him advice against talking so much about it during his down times.  He shuns it, but it actually might have been good…the few moments we get to see Orny making us laugh doesn’t make up for the painfulness of experiencing his off-stage neuroses up close and personal.

Orny gets a big break on David Letterman’s show, but even that turns into a bit of a nightmare, as the producers request a last minute change in his routine.  A simple word alteration might not seem a big deal, but when you’ve lived, breathed and eaten your material for years, it can throw off your entire rhythm.  Fortunately, Orny is up to the challenge.

One comic has made it, one hasn’t, but they share a lot in common.  Every step on stage is a risk, every laugh has to be earned.  Rejection is real and never more than one bombed joke away. 

Apart from that central concept, Seinfeld gets to rub shoulders with a few other comic greats, from Ray Romano, Chris Rock and Gary Shandling to mega-veterans like Robert Klein and Bill Cosby.  After we learn how much sweat goes into crafting a half hour’s worth of material, we share Seinfeld’s awe when Chris Rock recollects a Cosby concert in which the man actually performed for 2 ½ hours straight with no intermission.  Then did it again later that same day.

Comedian is a much better look at the world of stand-up than the manipulative feature Punchline, but even so, it seems a bit haphazard in construction and a bit repetitious with its insights.  Essentially, as pointed out, there are three main areas covered by the film, and they don’t flow together very well.  At the same time, once the movie establishes that life isn’t all laughter for the stand-up, there’s not much it can do for the length of its running time than finding other ways to establish the same premise.  The amount of time we actually spend seeing comedy performed is fairly light…most of the time comedy is discussed and analyzed rather than presented.  That might have been a mistake.

Had Jerry Seinfeld’s name not been attached to the project, the film probably would have never garnered the attention it did.  You feel every pinched penny of the low budget as the movie is filmed chaotically with video cameras and the post production seemed a bit rushed through.  The best touch is the musical score, which features nice renditions of good jazz standards.

Comedian isn’t a waste of time, by any means…most viewers, particularly Seinfeld fans, are likely to be intrigued by the ongoing struggles of stand-up comics.  But overall, it left me a little cool.  Maybe even a bit depressed.  I could use a good laugh right about now.

Video *1/2

As mentioned, this is a low budget film and looks it.  With video cameras shooting in mostly low-lit situations, this DVD has very poor source material to work with.  Shots are frequently VERY grainy and soft, with poor definition.  You can see the comics’ faces as they talk, and usually that’s enough, but don’t expect much more.

Audio ***

The 5.1 soundtrack fares a bit better, thanks again to the terrific musical score plus some moments on stage where you can really get into the audience’s reactions.  Not much use of the .1 channel, but it isn’t really missed given the source material.

Features ****

Miramax strikes gold with a terrific features package, starting with two commentary tracks.  The first, by the director and producer, is more informative, while the second by Jerry Seinfeld and Colin Quinn is more relaxed, and in some places, more of a continuations of the discussions on comedy they had in the film,  Deleted scenes with director/producer commentary are included, as well as interviews of Seinfeld and Orny Adams conducted by Jimmy Glick for the disc.  “Where Is Orny Now?” is a short film also made just for the DVD that follows up on our newly favorite rising comedy star.  You can also see both Adams’ and Seinfeld’s full appearances on David Letterman’s show.

Rounding out is the trailer (which is a hoot), TV and radio spots, plus a look at posters and (?) action figures, plus actual handwritten joke notes from Seinfeld, Adams and Quinn…but good luck trying to read them.

One minor complaint:  every menu selection makes you sit through a few seconds of worthless footage before letting you go on. 

Summary:

It’s not exactly the tragic side of comedy, but Comedian will definitely show you how hard laughter can be.  A good enough curiosity piece, but you might be surprised at how little you chuckle in a film with Jerry Seinfeld, Colin Quinn, Chris Rock, Robert Klein, Bill Cosby and others.