[Screen It]

(2002) (Jerry Seinfeld, Orny Adams) (R)

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Documentary: A backstage look at standup comedian Jerry Seinfeld as he hones his new material in preparation for a doing a full-length stage performance.
Covering more than a year's worth of time, the film follows comedian Jerry Seinfeld as he prepares for and hones his comedy material for a live standup performance. We see a backstage look at his preparation behind and in front of small test crowds, as well as his interaction with other comedians and standup performers such as Colin Quinn, Chris Rock, Robert Klein and Bill Cosby.

At the same time, we see the somewhat parallel course of relative newcomer Orny Adams as he tries to hone his act and break into the big time.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Some people are naturally funny, others have to work at it, and some end up in both camps. Ask those who do it for a living and they'll tell you that it's not as easy as it looks. Indeed, comedians, particularly of the standup variety, spend years honing their act hoping to get laughs as well as some sort of break if they're still unknown to the masses.

Jerry Seinfeld hasn't had to worry about that for years. After a successful standup career, he created and starred in the long-running sitcom named after him that's arguably one of the funniest series ever put on TV. Accordingly, one wouldn't think that he'd 1) ever have to work again, 2) would need or want to return to the grueling, live standup life or 3) that if he did, he'd have no problem since he's so famous and so gosh darn funny.

The reality is, he doesn't have to work but felt the urge or need to return to standup. Yet, instead of unearthing his old jokes, stories and observations, he retired them (on the HBO special "I'm Telling You For the Last Time") and decided to start anew with fresh and untried material.

He then set out to do that and build a new routine and we get the chance to watch the process in "Comedian." Filmed over a one-year period, director Christian Charles (making his debut after making Seinfeld's American Express commercials) and his crew followed Seinfeld as he slowly built and tested his material throughout the country at various comedy clubs (where audiences often were surprised by his appearance).

The result isn't exactly a true documentary as there's no voice over narration or any biographical or historical look at standup comedy or its practitioners. Rather the eighty-some minute film is a behind the scenes look at the comedy process as practiced by a veteran who's as unsure of himself and his material as some fledgling performer.

Speaking of which, the film also follows the efforts of Orny Adams, a 29-year-old who's spent the last eight years of his life plying his craft and hoping for his big chance or lucky break. He gets both and it's fascinating watching the two - after they meet and briefly converse when Seinfeld bumps Adams from his slot - as they do their thing and go through the trials and tribulations in the biz.

The result is an insightful and occasionally hilarious look at the process, the hard work, insecurities and egos at play. Some may be disappointed that the film isn't filled with nonstop laughs, but that's not really the point or the filmmaker's intention.

Instead, we see how the comedians' minds work (although that never quite goes an in-depth as some might like) as well as a slew of other standup comedians with whom Seinfeld interacts including Chris Rock, Colin Quinn, Jay Leno and Bill Cosby. The result is the equivalent of eavesdropping on a bunch of workers, who just so happen to be famous, discussing and griping about their work, audience and industry.

Although the focus alternates between the veteran and the green rookie, it does eventually spend more time with the former. Even so, it's fun and funny watching the two as they prepare for their various gigs, separate appearances on "Late Night With David Letterman," and Seinfeld's return to doing a full act of new material.

Proving that comedy is and isn't a laughing matter, "Comedian" manages to make the viewer feel the fear, pressure, frustration and success of making people laugh for a living. It rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed October 11, 2002 / Posted October 25, 2002

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