JERRY SEINFELD is working again. That's the good news in "Comedian," a highly watchable documentary that follows the comedian's attempt to develop new stage material.
But the movie -- a digital documentary made by Christian Charles and Gary Streiner -- is enjoyable only as far as it goes. Despite amazing access to Seinfeld backstage, we don't get a peek into the real man. Nor do we see more than bits and pieces of his act. When he goes to a Washington venue, for instance, we see almost nothing except him going on and off.
We do see the agonizing process of being a comedian, however. Seinfeld is stepping outside of his celebrity comfort zone. After all, "Seinfeld," the TV sitcom he developed and starred in, was not only wildly successful, it infused American popular culture with its postmodern humor and stock phrases.
So, one can't help but admire him for working to earn laughs the hard way -- face to face with real audiences. Success is frustratingly incremental. It takes sweat and labor to come up with a few minutes of jokes and routines that work with most audiences. And when a comedian fails to connect with his audience, even with the goodwill of the crowd, he stands to "die."
As this movie shows in Seinfeld's passing conversations with such famous comics as Colin Quinn, Chris Rock and Jay Leno, real men (or women) don't lean on old material -- the stuff that works. They work out their new material, little by little. And they risk failure at any moment.
"Is this your first gig?" quips a female audience member with a British accent as Seinfeld struggles onstage to remember his train of thought.
As a matter of fact, before she thinks to insert herself into Seinfeld's act, he has been using his apparent absentmindedness to great effect.
Unlike most other comics, who'd segue quickly to something, Seinfeld refuses to proceed until he can think of what it was he was just talking about. He ponders and ponders. He's pushing the envelope here. Playing with the tension. And then Ms. Union Jack opens her mouth.
The movie's called "Comedian," not "Seinfeld." It has another player: Orny Adams, a hard-working funnyman, almost 30, who has spent most of his adult life trying to become famous.
They are two comedians on either side of success, both working hard. It's an interesting dynamic. Both are obsessed with refining their material to the nth degree. And both are gripped with anxiety and fear onstage, even though their manner before a crowd suggests they're perfectly in control.
But what different people they are. Throughout the film, Seinfeld seems Teflon-coated, always guarded. He's acutely aware of the camera, despite his casual demeanor. And it's up to us to deduce what's going on in his head. By stark contrast, Adams is consumed with telling the camera about himself, his anxiety about making it big, his belief in his genius, and his need for constant assurance.
"What time is it in L.A.? Who's talking about me?" he says to himself, without a trace of self-mocking irony. He continues the running commentary on himself as we watch him sweat through an appearance on David Letterman's show, a power meal with Seinfeld's manager (who signs him), and his campaign to win an appearance at a Montreal comedy festival. It's easy to like Seinfeld, who's laid back and courageous. But it's almost impossible to stand Adams's overbearing narcissism. Maybe success does come to those who deserve it.
COMEDIAN (R, 82 minutes) -- Contains obscenity. At the Cineplex Odeon Wisconsin Avenue.