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“We’re craving the nondigital even more these days, the authentically human interaction,” Jerry Seinfeld told the New York Times in 2012 about the value of live standup comedy in the age of technology. “We need to see some schmuck sweat.”
It’s ironic, then, that Seinfeld—who topped Forbes’ list of highest-paid comedians this year with a staggering $69 million—has finally joined so many of his peers atop the Netflix bandwagon, signing on for two specials this year, the first of which he performed at the legendary Comic Strip Live where he first cut his teeth in 1976. Given that some of his fellow top comics’ recent comeback specials have been lukewarmly received, it’s fair to say that Jerry Before Seinfeld could have gone either way.
Then again, Seinfeld fans know better than to worry about their hero unloading a 20-minute transphobic opening monologue. Instead, viewers of his new special get treated to a thorough examination of the use of prepositions as they pertain to different elements of city life. (You live on Long Island, but you go into the city, and you can either hop on a train or in a cab to get there. Oh, but “you take Uber, because there’s no money! It’s like free!”) It’s a bit treacly, sure, but it’s also the kind of G-rated, observational humor on which Seinfeld built his career, and the audience delights in the grammar lesson.
Jerry Before Seinfeld is dated by default, as the comedian revisits the material he crafted in his first five years of standup. Anybody even vaguely familiar with his record-smashing eponymous sitcom should recognize his bits about men being magnetically drawn to other men working on things in the neighborhood, or arbitrarily deeming the middle finger an offensive gesture. (“I try to remember I’m only one finger away from a compliment, so it’s not that bad!”) But the special’s biographical nature also allows Seinfeld to weave the story of his own beginnings into his time-honored gags, as well as several fascinating cutaways that give viewers some insight into the comedian’s upbringing.
“There was no drama in my life, in my family, or in my world,” he says during one of these cutaways, standing outside his pristinely manicured, one-story childhood home. “Would I have been funnier if I grew up in Peoria in a whore house raised by prostitutes? Absolutely. But this is what I had to work with.”
Such an admission aptly sums up Jerry Before Seinfeld, and really, its star’s entire career. It’s baffling to consider that two years ago, Seinfeld vowed to never play college campuses again because “they’re too PC,” considering the complete political contents of his new special amount to making fun of the mascots for the Democratic and Republican parties (“jackasses” on the left and “smelly, slow-witted circus animals” on the right) and proclaiming, “The president’s a weird job.”
Astute observation, Jerry—one of many made throughout the hourlong special (which, to its credit, never feels belabored or sags in the middle). He eases into his sharpest one-liners during the second half of his set, waxing philosophical on relationships (“If there were no flowers, Earth would be populated by men and lesbians”) and offering a surprisingly artful take on his own social anxiety at the prospect of making small talk (“I can talk to all of you, but I can’t talk to any of you”). The punchlines are too numerous to even attempt to list, and Seinfeld delivers them with relaxed precision and close attention to every syllable and voice inflection.
It’s disappointing, then, that Seinfeld ends his heroic, whip-smart set with a whimper instead of a thunderclap. It’s not even a punchline, but rather a “This is what I did, and this is how it got me from A to Z” summation. Then again, it’s hard to fault arguably the biggest comedian alive for returning to his roots for one night and basking in 40 years of achievement—all while maintaining the cavalier, unpretentious attitude that made him a household name.
Truth be told, Seinfeld’s ambitions are still admirably humble for having a reputation so massive. “To feel that your sense of humor is being validated,” he says, “I think that’s the only validation I’ve ever cared about as a human being.”
Bryan Rolli is a reporter who specializes in streaming entertainment. He writes about music and film for Forbes, Billboard, and the Austin American-Statesman. He met Flavor Flav in two separate Las Vegas bowling alleys and still can’t stop talking about it.