Comedian

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Comedian

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Comedian

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After retiring his TV show in 1998, Jerry Seinfeld hit the road for his I'm Telling You For The Last Time tour, a kind of traveling bonfire designed to retire the accumulated jokes that had made his career. It was a bold move, particularly for Seinfeld, whose stand-up repertoire, however funny, never went particularly deep. Even at the height of his sitcom's success, the comedian would spin entire talk-show appearances out of bits that millions had already seen on his own program. A film by first-time documentarian Christian Charles (who worked with Seinfeld on a series of credit-card commercials), Comedian follows the comic as he attempts to rebuild a routine from nothing, appearing unannounced to close out nights of comedy at smoky basement clubs, trying out material one joke at a time. The question "Why?" comes up often, and while it's never answered, it's not taken lightly, either. Seinfeld acknowledges that he wouldn't have to work another day in his life if he didn't want to, so what drives him to spend his evenings road-testing material in front of a drunken audience at a miserable club in Levittown? Seinfeld talks about, and around, that question with fellow comedians Robert Klein, Chris Rock, Colin Quinn, Jay Leno, and others, without arriving at any answer other than an almost spiritual need. At one point, he observes that a comedian behaves at a level of maturity that roughly matches his or her time in the business—a 10-year veteran behaves like a 10-year-old child. As if to bear that out, Comedian also follows the career of 29-year-old Orny Adams, a polished, cocksure, career-minded stand-up who tapes each of his appearances and watches them with the intensity of a quarterback on Monday morning. Over the course of the film, Adams starts to find professional success and lands Seinfeld handler George Shapiro as a manager, but he bears a greater resemblance to Seinfeld's fictional bête noire Kenny Bania than to Seinfeld himself. A shameless self-promoter, Adams seems more committed to the profession of comedy than to comedy itself, and Charles sets him up as the anti-Seinfeld. Of course, the film itself has more than a whiff of self-promotion. The Adams thread gets dropped halfway through, and for all the theorizing on comedy, Comedian orbits around Seinfeld himself, though the subject almost demands other voices. Presenting its star as a mostly agreeable fellow (apart from the occasional peevish encounter with an overzealous fan), Comedian concentrates almost entirely on Seinfeld's professional life, a couple of shots of the wife and kid aside. As a portrait of a man at the top of his profession starting over, it's involving throughout, and funny, too. Its range proves too narrow to support the questions it raises, but it's memorable for the point it repeats again and again: For a true comedian, success or failure will always be determined by the ability to use a microphone and a bare stage to create laughter, one night at a time.

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