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.
“There was no drama in my life, or in my family, or in my world,” he says before setting up a jokey comparison with Richard Pryor. “Would I have been funnier if I grew up in Peoria in a whorehouse raised by prostitutes? Absolutely! But this is what I had to work with.” The narrative he essentially wants to tell here, and throughout the rest of Jerry Before Seinfeld, is one of a regular everyman whose rise to comedy stardom wasn’t plagued with the hardships commonly associated with the profession. “It was a nice family,” he concludes before returning to the stand-up portion. “I just didn’t want the normal thing.” Concurrently, a pan of a teacher’s note regarding little Seinfeld’s misbehavior in class hones in on a single written line: “Jerry does a little too much fooling around.”
Interestingly, Jerry Before Seinfeld proves it is definitely not a “normal thing” when compared to analogous comedy films — be they stand-up specials like Marc Maron: Too Real, one-person shows like Chris Gethard: Career Suicide, or documentaries such as Hannibal Takes Edinburgh. Unlike these three recent examples of their respective sub-genres, however, Seinfeld’s first special with Netflix “does a little too much fooling around” with the boundaries established by each. And while such experimentation can be a wonderful thing, as evidenced by Maria Bamford’s beautifully eccentric Old Baby earlier this year, Jerry Before Seinfeld‘s structural banter doesn’t quite hit the mark. It’s almost as if Seinfeld couldn’t decide exactly what he wanted this to be.
These criticisms not withstanding, Jerry Before Seinfeld shines whenever it lets the comic be a comic. A huge swathe of the material he performs on the Comic Strip Live stage is dated. Seinfeld makes this crystal clear to his audience whenever he explains a particular joke’s significance to his early career, or tries to provide some context for outdated references or notions. Fans of Seinfeld, the comedian who starred in it, and comedy in general will appreciate these nostalgic deep dives, and this may very well have been the film’s sole purpose. For just as Fuller House and other classic show revivals have proven to Netflix and other outlets, nostalgia can be a profitable commodity.
Jerry Before Seinfeld is now available to stream on Netflix.