There has always been a musicality for Jerry Seinfeld. You don’t need to own the nine seasons of Seinfeld on DVD to recognize how he tells a joke: the first observation, the somewhat annoyed repetition, then MARK THE POINT AT THE HOUSE BY SHOUTING. In his stand-up comedy, and even in some Seinfeld from the scenes where he’s courting (usually in the kitchen), there’s this forced shaking, the way his voice almost breaks when he expresses a little observational frustration. He says, “Yes, I’m bothered by that, but I’m not really angry, pretend to be angry. Each syllable is dangerously close to the sliding of the falsetto pendulum.
After 30 years of hearing that the Seinfeldian caresses as a background atmosphere in pop culture, calling these rhetorical escarpments “soothing” means blatantly underestimating them. Netflix release 23 hours to kill, Seinfeld’s first special on completely new equipment since 1998, almost two whole months after quarantining the coronaviruses is not only a distraction, it is a panacea. Listen this voice – this auditory hypertext link to younger and freer days – while it resonates for minutes on (I’m not kidding you) the invention of Pop-Tarts is a sparkling massage of the amygdala, a soma bath nice and warm.
At the start of the hour-long set, Seinfeld does a lot of the pain of going to the theater. Who has the tickets? How do we meet our friends? Where do we park? When do we eat? “Going out,” says Seinfeld, is a huge pain in the neck, and the minute you arrive, you know it will be “time to go back.” The gags are still working, despite our current shelter system, because being honest to the point of being obnoxious is exactly what this man was born for. (Ultimately, we will feel the weight of society having to plan again.) But more specific to the Jerry Seinfeld phenomenon is the way the segment ends.
After wondering why the hell some of us are trying to leave the house, he asks, “If you were me, you be here? It’s a line of self-conscious laughter that proves that Jerry understands how his audience projects his fantasies on him. He’s incredibly wealthy, he doesn’t have to do everything he doesn’t want and, frankly, he rarely does.
This is not the case with his most famous colleagues. Seinfeld co-conspirator Larry David built a whole public figure around “I don’t want to be bothered by work and effort”, but 10 seasons of Calm your enthusiasm proves that he does put the hours. (Although the show may appear completely spontaneous, it takes a lot of work to watch this casual.) Seven seasons by Julia Louis-Dreyfus on Veep are recent enough that we can forget its five The new adventures of old Christine. Jason Alexander hasn’t had a rock solid hit lately, but he continues to work regularly in television and theater. If Michael Richards hadn’t exploded with a disgusting racist incident in 2006, who knows what he would do.
But Jerry Seinfeld? The real “Seinfeld” of Seinfeld, the sitcom phenomenon of the 1990s that fundamentally changed comedy, television and social discourse? He finished (say it with me now in that crisp, false cry) NOTHING in the meantime! Oh sure he inspired a few Bee movie memes, and wrote a children’s book. But apart from the talk show appearances and Saturday Night Live cameos it has been largely invisible since Seinfeld completed. His greatest contribution to comedy has been to produce Comedians in cars having coffeeand the whole point of this series is that it does just what it would do anyway: kibitz with friends. It just so happens that there is someone with a camera present during kibitization. AND I BET THAT THE CAMERAPERSON DIDN’T EVEN GET COFFEE!
It’s really great that Jerry Seinfeld got rid of his ass to write new material. The Netflix special was recorded during his residency at the Beacon Theater in New York, which started in 2016-2017, then became a concert once a month in 2019 (this is similar to what another Long Island’s favorite Jewish sons, Billy Joel, did it on the road at Madison Square Garden.) Neither I nor any of my friends saw any of these Seinfeld concerts, but our parents all went. Seinfeld, 65 when recording (66 a few days ago), has the senior demo directly on his sites, given the way he keeps his topics familiar, non-offensive and almost surprisingly apolitical.
Strange as it may be, an average episode of Seinfeld from 1993 feels more “modern” than 23 hours to kill. The new special is clean enough so that even the most easily offended people do not feel disturbed. Aside from a few thoughts about being flushed out through the public restroom, there is nothing here that would not be considered PG. Not that there is anything wrong with that – Jerry Seinfeld never had to rely on profanity for cheap laughter – but Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer hide in the daytime occasion showed blood pumping through their veins, via sex or explosive anger. Nothing in 23 hours to kill obtains a smidge above 98.6 degrees, which once again suggests that everything that was burned in the old show was the domain of Larry David.
But Seinfeld always strikes funny, and the way he hits familiar notes is more than an act of nostalgia. His relentless style of scrutiny of minutiae and social deception delighted the public in the 1980s, and continues to do so today. Admittedly, the first half of the special is, almost to the point of parody, straight “D’ja ever note? “And” What is the deeeeal? “- type schtick. There is a whole pun on George Carlin’s saying that something is great is basically saying it sucks. If you burst that bubble with the finest needle in logic, it makes no sense, but when Seinfeld is up there blurring this kind of ridicule, it all comes together.
The second half is devoted to a set of surprisingly creaky gags of men-of-Mars, women-of-Venus who are light years away from being fresh. It’s funny to watch Seinfeld discuss how his wife complains about climate control on the passenger side of his car, but if it wasn’t Jerry Seinfeld, famous and beloved, giving this game, you’d think you were in a Poconos club in 1983. A clean comedy about family unity is hard to break, but compare the back half of 23 hours to kill with (and I recognize the irony of what I’m going to say here) Bill Cosby Himself, and there is absolutely no competition.
In the midst of his reflections on marriage, however, he made his impression on that of his wife. It’s a much crazier humor than what we would expect from Seinfeld he makes an awkward grimace, his voice becomes low, his eyes jostle. It’s art. In addition, there is a bizarre gag at the start where he jumps (as shown behind the scenes) from a helicopter and into the Hudson River.
This business alone could be a routine, given its surprise. But this kind of scenic, mind-boggling physical comedy is not what people want from a Seinfeld routine – Seinfeld’s voice, the comfort of nostalgia. The familiarity of his pace is the best thing about this stage. Listening to him prepare an observation gag recalls a thousand cuts in the advertisement at the end of the evening Seinfeld reruns, these small extracts of stand-up which would play like bumpers between the spectacle and the announcements. An entire hour on stage is a lot for a man who evolves in such humor, but it’s the song I hear in my head when I think of comedy. Perhaps these 30-second transitions, and the assurance of normality they bring with them, are Seinfeld’s true legacy after all.
Jerry Seinfeld: 23 hours to kill is streaming on Netflix now.