The best “character” in the documentary “Comedian”, which follows TV star and gazillionaire Jerry Seinfeld as he returns to the comedy circuit with all-new material, is not Seinfeld himself, but an unknown comedian name Orny Adams. At 29 years old, Adams is already starting to stress about “not making it” and relentlessly wonders out loud if he’ll ever “make it” or be as famous as Seinfeld, who he meets during a gig at a comedy club. Instead of listening to the veteran comedian give advice, Adams stares obliviously at Seinfeld, frothing at the mouth as he waits impatiently for his turn to speak.
There is, of course, one inherent problem with “Comedian.” Seinfeld claims he has shrugged off all the trappings of stardom and having enough money to give Bill Gates a run for his set-for-life status. But here’s some little tidbits that Seinfeld and the documentary never addresses: How can Seinfeld be just another face at the comedy clubs again if he gets standing ovations just for stepping on stage, and he flies to gigs on a private jet? These are two things your average up-and-coming comedian don’t get or have. So it’s a little pretentious for Seinfeld to say that he’s essentially become “just another comedian out there” again.
Seinfeld aside, the most intriguing moments of “Comedian” has to do with the improbably named Orny Adams. Adams is a fast-talking, energetic, and completely miserable man. It wouldn’t be correct to call Adams arrogant, because his assumed arrogance isn’t built on a sense of superiority, but rather based on the knowledge of his own self-loathing. Adams is so mired in his self-generated misery, his self-doubts, and his inability to appreciate just about anything that has gone right in his life, that we know without a doubt that even when he finally “makes it” (if he ever does) that he’ll still be the same shell of a man he is now. Meaning he won’t be any happier. This point is seen by everyone in the docu, even super agent George Shapiro, who also represents Seinfeld. When offered this insight, Adams thinks they’re all crazy and out to get him.
Much of “Comedian” comes off as a vanity project, with the cameras following Seinfeld through the dim corridors and back stages of New York City comedy clubs where Seinfeld has gone to hone his new material. The self-doubt that Seinfeld and his fellow well-known comedians express confirms that comedians, as a group, are the most insecure people in the world. There’s Jay Leno, who refuses to spend a single cent from his “Tonight Show” earnings. And Garry Shandling, who wonders out loud if his old material will be trumped by Seinfeld’s new materials when the two men have to go on the same stage in the same night.
Unfortunately I knew all of this going in. “Comedian” doesn’t really tell me anything new. What it does tell me is that when a star as big as Seinfeld, or Ray Romano, or Jay Leno shows up at your club’s doorstep and asks to go on without having booked a gig beforehand, he usually gets his way. Again, this isn’t something an “average” comedian can do. By the very notion that Seinfeld can just show up at a comedy club and ask if he can just go on to do a “quick set” means that the whole premise of “Comedian” — to show a star returning to his roots to “start all over again” — is a bit of a stretch.
The really good sections of “Comedian” all involves the self-destructive Orny Adams, who dreams of big bucks, stardom, and being recognized in restaurants, but has no idea why he wants all those things. After Adams performs a successful set and gets invited to an important comedy festival, he calls everyone he knows on his cellphone. Instead of being joyous at having been accepted into the festival, Adams starts to whine and moan about the people he couldn’t reach by phone to tell them the good news. The fact that the world doesn’t revolve around his ups and downs, it seems, is too much for him to bear.
The whole point with the Orny Adams character is just how out of touch with reality he is. In another funny scene (to us, the viewer) Adams takes a moment to collect his thoughts, before turning to the camera and wonders out loud what “people in L.A.” are saying about him now, and what sort of “deals” they have installed for him. All of these intimate moments with the brash Adams would be endearing if the man himself wasn’t so self absorbed and lacking in anything resembling humility. After Adams performs badly at a gig, he goes outside the building to rant and rave about what a miserable bunch of human beings the audience was. Of course, it never occurs to him that maybe he just wasn’t funny that particular day.
Not surprisingly, “Comedian” would be just another stale vanity project without our daily injections of Orny Adams, who I am now convinced is just a character, like Paul Reubens’ PeeWee Herman — only less likable.
Christian Charles (director)
CAST: Jerry Seinfeld, Orny Adams, Bill Cosby, Jay Leno, Kevin Nealon, Colin Quinn, Chris Rock, Ray Romano, Garry Shandling, George Wallace