Jerry Before Seinfeld: The Master Comes to Netflix

Jerry Before Seinfeld Plot Summary:

Jerry Seinfeld makes his grand return to standup with a greatest-hits collection of old jokes and routines, alongside some interesting footage and shop talk with other comedians.

Jerry Seinfeld has been the comedian’s comedian for a long time. Not the Lenny Bruce, Dave Chappelle, George Carlin comedian’s comedian (that William Faulkner of the form, perfecting their sets and jokes into bullet-hard curios that you look at in a museum and just breathe at how perfect they are, and who hasn’t leafed through a George Carlin book), but the other comedian’s comedian, student and teacher of comedy. He is the guy whose routine reads like a deconstruction of society but is actually a deconstruction of comedy itself. Let’s take something funny and boil it down to the main point: Isn’t that weird? Or, as he would say, “That’s stupid!”

Seinfeld’s work about comedy has enriched the culture, leading to shows like Louie, podcasts like Marc Maron’s WTF, and increased respect for the tireless craft of standup. But even though he has done great things with Seinfeld, Comedian, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Seinfeld the comedian has been away too long, and even if Jerry Before Seinfeld is just a collection of his best-known material, it’s nice to see him back for a full-length special. Like the name suggests, there is documentary material on his life, even the standup comedy exploring his biography.

Seinfeld is a strong, strong comedian, and this special highlights, above all else, his economy of form. While it’s disappointing he couldn’t fill it with new material, this represents the best he has ever done, and it’s great. Even great comedians often feel sloppy halfway through a good act, but Seinfeld engineers a routine (made of old jokes, but even so) where we have minimal fatigue and never full-on exhaustion. While other comedians spend minutes on weak concepts that draw diminishing returns, he loads each subject with several sections and builds these like brick houses.

He doesn’t pander for laughs. Because he has had the opportunity to pick and choose bits from old Seinfeld scripts or standup routines, it is hard to know how much credit to give for being knockout great, but despite the fact that he can just stack the material from his career into this special, not a minute is wasted. “Minutes!” he says, sitting on a street covered foreground to back with old sheets of paper he wrote the jokes on that worked. These minutes are packed so tightly, there’s never a dull stretch.

While even great comedians—Louis C.K., Chris Rock, anyone who’s on Netflix this year—often fall into minutes on end where it feels like they’re just trying to swim out of a joke, weakening with each backstroke, Jerry doesn’t have time for that. He brings every setup, every punchline, like a heavyweight. Much of it ventures into the surreal, such as how newspapers always have the exact number of pages for everything that happened that day. Meditations about cotton balls, laundry (“Clothes are waiting, all the time . . . they’re waiting in the store, closet, hamper, drawer . . .”), how sports teams are just uniforms with people inside them feels almost as creepy as fellow Transcendental Meditation proponent David Lynch’s use of objects in his films. Notice how mystical it feels, almost Kafkaesque, when Jerry talks about how one might rip the stamper out of a notary public’s hand (“You see, he’s just a man!”), how bizarre the stamping class he then describes sounds.

Seinfeld is known as a clean comic, and this special shows how clean jokes are not limited but rather called to be more than dirty jokes. That is an old man’s cliché, but this special shows, if nothing else, how true that can be. While talking about how stores had little mechanical horses outside, instead of comparing the grinding operation of these rides to the obvious dirty choice, he gives them a more poetic, funnier comparison: the motion was the opposite of thrilling, “like a grain elevator” (“But compared to lying on the floor in the bank . . .”). And by the audience response, you might think he is ending the set with his description of the epic battle between the roles we play at night and in the morning, which is so good, the audience actually cheers. But they are just cheering because it is great. He has another three minutes to go, and they’re great, too.

Of course, Seinfeld can’t get away from editorializing, but this special’s biographical interludes are replete with energetic editing and musings of comic wisdom, capturing the breezy magic of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, but instead of describing sports cars with caffeinated haiku, Jerry talks about how Mad Magazine bolstered his courage to say, “That’s stupid!” Instead of people pouring coffee, there is old footage of New York complementing descriptions of the 1970s comedy scene, ghostly handwriting tracking across the screen as he talks about his first signup sheet at the Comic Strip club where this was shot, a teacher’s response to his behavior as a student: “Jerry does a little too much fooling around.”

At one point, dozens of photographs from The Comic Strip pop across the screen to transition away from his standup. Alongside the jazzy, comedy club music, this fun energy brings us hurtling through biographical interludes, as Jerry’s own energy brings us through the standup (each return reflecting another chronological step forward between interludes, with socks and magicians thrown in).

This special is a time capsule that makes a case not for Jerry Seinfeld the Comic, though it does, but for the art itself. Seinfeld’s commitment to compression and quality in his material shows how well the medium has been done but also can be done if people put the work in with each and every line. These are hard, perfect jokes, and Jerry is an honest, clean, and hardworking craftsman of the first order. The consummate professional, he ends with a goodnight, a bow, and a wave, which fades into footage of himself doing the same wave from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and you wonder if he made the same gesture because he planned to or if that’s how he naturally does it.

It feels a little cheesy, and the ultimate effect of this special is more warm feelings and clean laughter than anything life-changing, but it’s so good, so solid, and so consistently enjoyable, it makes you wonder why more comedy can’t be this good.

Rating: 8.5/10 (Excellent)

–Matt Haviland

Founded in September 2009, The Pop Break is a digital pop culture magazine that covers film, music, television, video games, books and comics books and professional wrestling.