The genius of truly great comedians is that you never know what they’re going to say or do next. Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks, Joan Rivers … they all bled a restless energy that made them magnetic, mercurial, almost menacing on stage.
I would put vintage-era Jerry Seinfeld in that category, too – which makes his new Netflix special, “Jerry Seinfeld: 23 Hours to Kill,” all the more disappointing.
Whether talking about food, cellphones, relationships or the U.S. Postal Service, this felt like a 1 percenter struggling to find anything new to say about life, because he won’t truly address how much his life has changed since the mid-1990s.
What did “23 Hours” prove? That hunger and desire are a comedian’s best friends. And that it’s impossible to do observational comedy about normal life when your vantage point comes from the 23rd floor of an Upper West Side apartment. (I actually have no idea what floors the Seinfelds live on at The Beresford building, but I’m pretty sure they’re not in the basement.) In short, the best comedy material probably comes when you’re living on the edge, not in a Hamptons summer retreat.
In the space of one hour, I laughed twice and smiled once – which is about the same rate as I manage at funerals. Seinfeld looks fantastic at 65 (he’s turned 66 since the special was recorded last fall), but I kept thinking that, if this is really the best material he has accrued over the past 20 years, maybe he should think about retirement.
That may sound incredibly harsh, but we are talking about the king of comedy here – a man who could make women and men meow back in his ’90s pomp.
Don’t believe me? OK, so before you watch “23 Hours to Kill,” give yourself the pleasure of watching or rewatching his 1998 stand-up special “I’m Telling You for the Last Time” (also on Netflix) – for me the funniest hour of stand-up ever recorded. The only man who killed more than Seinfeld at the time was Saddam Hussein.
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In that 1998 show, Seinfeld effortlessly segued from the Wolf Man shaving in an airplane restroom to food expiration dates; space travel (“There is no more male idea in the history of the universe than ‘Why don’t we fly up to the moon and drive around?’”) to dry cleaning (“‘Dry clean only’ is definitely the only warning label that human beings actually respect”).
I could tell you 10 great gags from “I’m Telling You for the Last Time” off the top of my head, but would struggle to recall any from “23 Hours to Kill.”
I tell a lie; I remember two good ones. While talking about Porta Potties, Seinfeld tells the audience, “Never marry someone who comes out of one of those bathrooms and goes, ‘It’s not that bad in there.’” And when a woman in the audience yells out, “We love you!” Seinfeld has a great response: “Thank you, sweetheart. I love you too. This is, in fact, my favorite type of intimate relationship: I love you, you love me – and we will never meet.” Even so, that line would have resonated more if Seinfeld were still the free and single man he was until his mid-40s, and not the now-contentedly married man with three kids.
“23 Hours to Kill” divides up into two sections. In the first, we get Jerry’s latest observations on life: How life sucks; how friends suck; how food sucks; how restaurants suck … you get the picture. Now, if this were coming from Larry David – Seinfeld’s creative partner on the sitcom about nothing that made them hundreds of millions of dollars apiece – I think a curmudgeon like Larry could sell that routine. But Jerry Seinfeld? Give me a break.
My favorite moments came when Seinfeld offered teasing glimpses into his own fabulous life. “Your life sucks. My life sucks, too. Perhaps not quite as much,” he says early on, after reminding the audience that “You know for a fact that I could be anywhere in the world right now!” Yes, Jerry, go on, tell us more ... but no, what then follows is a middle-of-the-road bit about the closeness of the words “great” and “suck.” And all I could think was “Great, this sucks.”
“23 Hours to Kill” ultimately begs the question: Why is Jerry still doing this when he is perpetually keeping the audience at arm’s length from what his life is really like – $17,000 coffee makers, garages stuffed with Porsches et al.? At no point did I find myself thinking he was offering us anything but another sitcom character called Jerry Seinfeld, except this one was much whinier and shtickier than that hilarious one back in the ’90s.
‘Jerry’s little world’
For the second half of the set, Seinfeld invites us into “Jerry’s little world,” where he promises “a little perspective on what’s going on in my personal life.” Again, though, very little of this rings true. It’s all as comfortable as a worn-in sofa, and at no point did I hear Fat Tony’s voice from “The Simpsons” saying in my head: “It’s funny because it’s true.”
Seinfeld spends way too much time making trite generalizations about relationships, which basically boils down to “Women, eh? Can’t live with ’em…” and “Men, eh? What are we like?” I really wouldn’t have been surprised if, at some point, he offered up the “revelation” that women are from Mars and men are from Venus. His actual big declaration was that marriage is “two people trying to stay together without saying the words ‘I hate you.’” Wow, thanks Jerry, we’ll let you know when Dr. Ruth is on vacation.
I was desperate for Seinfeld to be angry about something in his or our world other than Pop-Tarts, that he make some observation that came from the heart and not the head and really let us into “Jerry’s little world.” The guy is 66 and his eldest kid is still a teenager. Why not mine more of that part of his life? (In fairness, he does have one OK gag about his lack of parenting skills.)
And what about his mortality? Showbiz friends like Garry Shandling have passed away (at the very age Seinfeld is now). Doesn’t that have any impact on him that he’d like to share in his own unique way? And while Seinfeld has never been a political comedian, does he really not have anything to say about the current state of the world, or the anger increasingly being directed at people like him for their lives in gilded cages?
Twenty-odd years ago, Seinfeld was making jokes about being on the “wrong” side of the curtain on flights when the air stewardess drew it to keep the undesirables out of the first-class section. He was a lot funnier when he was sitting in the same place as us – especially when he refuses to tell us what’s really happening on the other side.