But note the past tense, because Comedian's about Seinfeld tearing himself down to build himself back up. After his 1998 HBO special Seinfeld decided to retire all the stand-up material he's spent over a decade crafting (that material which puts food in a stand-up's mouth and pays a stand-up's rent, as Jay Leno puts it) and start again from blank-slated scratch. Comparing the world of stand-up comedy to a novelist's, this decision is equal to spending ten years writing a book and then a few days before submitting it to your publisher, flushing every last page of the damn thing straight down the toilet. Something as ostensibly simple as a half-hour long stand-up act take years and years and years to build; normal operating procedure is for every stand-up performance to contain tried and proven routines which buttress a sprinkling of new stuff here and there, included strictly on a testing basis. When Seinfeld explains his full-blown self-demolition to fellow comedians -- Ray Romano and Garry Shandling among them -- they're incredulous, refusing to believe a stand-up could do that to himself. With good reason it turns out, as we watch Seinfeld test new bits on unimpressed crowds who not only heckle him ("Is this your first gig?" asks a woman only half-sarcastic) but blatantly carry on conversations during his act, not even respecting him enough to listen to his jokes. This is the guy who glued nearly 100 million Americans to their seats to watch the last episode of the TV show bearing his name. What's that old maxim in show business about how quickly they forget?
There are big issues at play in Comedian for audiences willing to delve (including what it means to live in the moment and why we challenge ourselves). I'm betting most aren't interested in these themes (as evidenced by the piss poor critical and limp box office reception to the film), because most audience members find it utterly inexplicable a multimillionaire hundreds of times over could suffer so much for his art (and even have the nerve to make you pay to watch him do it!). Not to get all pretentious on you, but my feeling is if more people were artists themselves, they'd have a much greater deal of empathy for Seinfeld and his current pursuits. I am in no way trying to imply not being an artist is any less admirable or acceptable than being an artist, just noting that in this viewing experience (as with almost any containing an artist protagonist), being an artist enhances perspective. It's completely understandable if there's quite a many grocery store clerks painfully slaving away at their menial jobs for $8 bucks an hour who spit in disgust when Seinfeld complains about how bad a recent performance went, then takes off in his private jet (and it doesn't help that, in general, director Christian Charles overdoes the cheesy, jazzy, "introspective" music).
Comedian also follows a struggling, despairing, enormously obnoxious
(in an endearing and pathetic way) stand-up named Orny Adams. Adams shows us
endless notebooks and binders filled with jokes, then recounts dreams he has
of them attacking him. He considers giving up stand-up comedy, citing the buckets
of money his friends on Wall Street are making (friends with wives and families).
He gets major career breaks (such as appearing on Letterman) and remains as
miserable as ever. Thus Comedian's portrait here is of a man who thinks
he's obsessed with his career trajectory, when all that really matters to him
-- even though he doesn't realize it -- is making people laugh. We are asked
by the filmmakers to contrast his situation with Seinfeld's, who is in some
ways just as insecure despite being on the bipolar opposite of the "success"
spectrum. It's a part bleak, part invigorating statement: Comedian
proves that unlimited financial success doesn't mean much to those artists who
only take the work itself -- connecting with audiences -- seriously. I am reminded
of Seinfeld's routine about how the movie usher profession represents a full
life cycle. You rip tickets as a teenager and then you rip them again as a post-retirement
senior citizen. The same might be said of artists. You create, you grow, you
build, but with every new endeavor you're really just starting right back where
you were as a kid, brainstorming in your bedroom as you tried to fall asleep.