When Jerry Seinfeld started criticising political correctness in comedy a few years ago, some nodded their heads and others rolled their eyes, but nearly everyone was baffled. Why would the squeaky clean, rigorously inoffensive comic even care?
The reason, I suspect, is that Seinfeld pays close attention to his audiences, both what they laugh at and how their tastes change. While few think of him as a radical innovator, he has been ahead of the times – or at least someone who catches up fast. Besides helping pioneer observational humour and the vogue for film and television shows about stand-up comics, Seinfeld anticipated our culture’s obsession with the process of comedy with his 2002 documentary, Comedian. While keeping a busy performing schedule, he dabbles in other forms, like web series (Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee).
So it’s not a surprise that Seinfeld is joining comedy’s Netflix moment, following his peers in signing a deal, in his case for two specials, which essentially matches his output for the past several decades (he made cable specials in 1987 and 1998). This represents a shift in his focus, from stand-up as an evolving performance to the dominant model today, with elite comics regularly putting out new specials.
The first show in the deal, Jerry Before Seinfeld, which started streaming this week, is deeply nostalgic, with footage from his childhood and a pocket history of his early material. But aesthetically, it inches closer to current fashion, a subtle move away from impersonal, immaculately polished comedy. It’s still quintessential Seinfeld, poking fun at cereal and air travel and prepositions, but his set is looser, intimate and more biographical, a rebrand for the podcast age.
Seinfeld (right) and David Letterman in Seinfeld’s web series ‘Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee’ (Sony)
Taking place at the Comic Strip, an Upper East Side club that was redesigned for the special to look more like it did in the 1970s when Seinfeld was just starting out, this special is organised as an explanation of his roots. What’s different from his previous work is the shrinking of critical distance (“What’s the deal with…”) as he builds many premises on his own experiences. He still has a gift for deconstructing language, in phrases like “losing your appetite” or in the quirks of modern marketing (he marvels at the chutzpah of naming a cereal Life). But his route to these riffs is filled with…