Jerry Before Seinfeld begins and ends not with Jerry Seinfeld, but with the late night talk show host who helped propel him to national stardom. “My next guest is a young comedian who is making his very first appearance on The Tonight Show,” says Johnny Carson. “Would you welcome him, please: Jerry Seinfeld!” During the six-minute routine, the fresh-faced comic quickly sails through some mic trouble with a bit about weather reports. Nearly 40 years later, however, both Carson’s introduction and Seinfeld’s stand-up feel less like entertainment and more like informative bookends. This is the whole point of Jerry Before Seinfeld, which Netflix bills as the star’s “first stand-up special in two decades.” Seinfeld (and Seinfeld) fans will love it for sure, but its approach to comedy and the comedian leaves it hard not to want more.
That’s mainly because we’ve already seen this. In his 2002 documentary Jerry Seinfeld: Comedian, the comic attempts to rebuild his stand-up career after Seinfeld comes to an end in 1998. “What begins as an indulgent vanity piece,” Ann Hornaday wrote in her Washington Post review, “ends up as a fascinating portrait of creativity at its most compulsive.” Hornaday isn’t wrong. By following the format typified by most documentaries, Comedian manages to tell Seinfeld’s story while sprinkling in bits of stand-up as needed. It most assuredly is not a concert film, but that’s fine since Comedian‘s professed goal has little to do with making audiences laugh by employing Seinfeld’s greatest hits. Jerry Before Seinfeld endeavors to tell a similarly documentary-like story about its subject, but the resulting portrait is more frustrating than fascinating. It does play like a vanity piece.
The first trailer teased something like Comedian, beginning with a more concise version of the Tonight Show introduction and opening title card. All of the jokes previewed reference Seinfeld’s story of being a young comic, crafting his first jokes at Comic Strip Live during the 1970s. Many of these cuts are interspersed with one-on-one interviews, Ken Burns-esque photo pans and old family film reels — much like a documentary would do. But Jerry Before Seinfeld is not a documentary at heart, mostly using these biographical bits to complement a special focusing on the jokes that made Seinfeld a stand-up star. To be fair, neither the trailer nor Netflix ever suggested otherwise, though some viewers may become confused when the film’s first pre-shot, scripted segue begins near the 10 minute mark. “Nobody cared!” Seinfeld shouts at his Comic Strip Live audience after telling a story about chasing ice cream trucks as a kid. “These were good times.” Cue the slide show.