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Karl Puschmann: Seinfeld takes on Seinfeld

'Jerry Before Seinfeld' was never going to deep-dive into Seinfeld's soul but it does offer one telling insight.
'Jerry Before Seinfeld' was never going to deep-dive into Seinfeld's soul but it does offer one telling insight. NZH

WHAT'S the deal with Jerry Seinfeld? That's the question his new comedy special attempts to answer by taking a nostalgic look back at how Jerry the comedian became Seinfeld the phenomenon.

The trouble is, Seinfeld isn't really one for feel-good nostalgia. His curated persona is one of an aloof and untroubled fellow who routinely insists he "doesn't have feelings" and often shrugs with believable sincerity, "I don't care" when criticised or praised.

This is also the guy who gave the writers on his 90s mega-hit sitcom only two rules; "no hugging, no learning" and says in this special that his first words were, "leave me alone".

And now he's doing nostalgia?

The other hiccup is that his comedy is not defined by deep dives into his psyche to deliver routines full of tawdry confessions. No. He's always been laser-focused on observing and reporting back on how other people live their lives. And now he's opening up the vault?

Well, no. Aside from being a neat little bit of wordplay, Jerry Before Seinfeld proves that the only thing he's truly nostalgic about are jokes. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

But if you were expecting an intimate and personal portrait of the comedian as a young man then you'll need to curb those expectations.

This is more of a Greatest Bits show than anything else. An opportunity for Seinfeld to retell the jokes he retired after Seinfeld in the special I'm Telling You for the Last Time.

Yes, they've been repackaged, tinkered with, amended and updated, but even casual fans will recognise certain bits from either his stand-up or various scenes from the show.

This doesn't mean they're not funny. They remain hilarious. The work of a master craftsman who has honed his craft to the nth degree.

From the compact stage of New York's cramped comedy club The Comic Strip, his comedic birthplace, he runs through the material with an energy, passion and, yes, performance, that will surprise all those who missed his recent Auckland show.

To sell the theme he retells the very first joke he ever told from the very same stage he told it on. It's a bit about the raw deal lefties get in life.

It contains all the elements we now refer to as Seinfeldian; a microscopic investigation into a mundane observation anchored by some tricksy word play. In this instance the negative connotations of the word "left".

Seinfeld admits the bit's "all right" after he tells it and he's not wrong. It's all right. But it got him going back in the day. What's impressive is that his familiar cadence, comedic rhythms and obsessions were there right from the start.

The stand-up is interspersed with home movies of child Jerry playing, early stand-up spots and the odd archival photo. He revisits his childhood home on - not in - Long Island, as well as the exact spot in - not on - the city where he decided he was going to become a comedian.

Those interjections there, about being on Long Island and in the city, form the basis of a killer bit he tells early on. The concept's stretched to breaking point, with the words "on" and "in" landing repeatedly in quickfire succession. It's the first of many side-splitters in the special.

It may fail as an insightful and unguarded look at how Jerry became Seinfeld but these jokes and bits remain gold. The past is shown but it remains distant. There's nothing new to learn. Maybe there was nothing there to begin with. That's probably what he'd like you to believe.

But there's one moment that rings true. Leaving the comedy club the camera pans down over a street completely covered in scrawled-on A4 sheets of paper. Seinfeld sits cross-legged in the middle.

On these bits of paper, he says, are every joke he's ever written going back to that first "left" routine in 1975. He's treasured every bit since then in a plain cardboard accordion folder.

Sitting there amongst his life's work you get the only real insight into what makes him tick. This, not the baby photos or the video footage of those early routines, reveal not just who Jerry was before Seinfeld. But also who he is.

"It was all about the material, the bits, the stuff," he says. "I didn't really care if they liked me or not. To me it was like, do they like the material?"

"You like it? Fine." he says. Then, in typically dismissive Seinfeld fashion he shrugs and says, "You don't like it? That's fine too."

He laughs but in that instant I couldn't help but think of an infamous line from his sitcom creation George Costanza.

"It's not a lie if you believe it."

Topics:  comedy jerry seinfeld netflix

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