Jerry Seinfeld's reason why a millionaire would go through the rigors of stand-up comedy is one of the lesser, but still important, joys of the satisfying documentary "Comedian."
"I really want to do what I love to do," Seinfeld says near the end of the film, a revealing examination of the world of stand-up comedy that follows Seinfeld as he puts together a new act virtually from scratch. That Seinfeld, who really doesn't have to do this - or anything else - for a living, would go to such lengths proves the man's devotion to his craft.
Director Christian Charles and producer Gary Streiner, who worked on Seinfeld's American Express commercials, show that stand-up comedy isn't as easy as it looks, even for those who make it look easy. Seinfeld is wracked with self-doubt and confusion, because he doesn't know if there is anything of substance to the material he is working on, or if the audience will laugh at it.
Seinfeld appears nervous and pensive before performing. He doesn't escape hecklers or inattentive audience members, at one point blowing up at someone talking while he's working. "Is this your first gig?" a woman asks Seinfeld during a performance at one of many New York comedy clubs where he tries out material.
"This is how comedians develop material," he responds. "As you can see, it's quite painful." Those thinking this is a concert film or a biography of Seinfeld will be disappointed, although some of Seinfeld's trademark humor on the minutiae of life is on display. Rather, this is an intimate portrait of a man at work.
"I don't know why I find this is so hard," Seinfeld says, dismissing the fact that it had been two years since he was last on stage for an extended period of time.
"Comedian" contrasts Seinfeld with up-and-comer Orny Adams. If Adams is really as arrogant, self-centered, selfish and insecure as he is made out to be, he's also not so different than other comedians.
Although there is interesting talk between Seinfeld and fellow comics Jay Leno, Robert Klein, Bill Cosby, Chris Rock, Ray Romano and others, the genuine moments belong to Seinfeld and former "Saturday Night Live" performer Colin Quinn as they sit at a table in a club. The pair hashing out how to mine jokes out of the notion of the think tank represents the only true look at how a joke is created ("Do they fire you because you're just not thinking?"). There are no scenes of Seinfeld creating and writing material on a notepad at his posh Manhattan apartment.
"Comedian" isn't shy about the reality of the business when you're talking about a Seinfeld, who bounces from one club to another in New York in his Porsche, or flies around the country in a private jet. Armed with handheld digital cameras, an edgy jazz score to match the notion that comics are like jazz musicians themselves, and the access that Seinfeld helps provide, Charles and Streiner put together a film that comes close to re-creating the funny-but-serious environment of stand-up comedy.
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
"Comedian" Directed by Christian Charles; produced by Gary Streiner; photographed by Charles and Streiner; edited by Chris Franklin; sound by Valerie Junge; music supervised by Franklin; executive-produced by Jerry Seinfeld. With Seinfeld, Orny Adams, Colin Quinn, Robert Klein, Ray Romano, Chris Rock, Garry Shandling, Jay Leno, Bill Cosby and George Shapiro. A Miramax release; opens Friday, Oct. 25. Running time: 1:21. MPAA rating: R (for language).
Allan Johnson is a Chicago Tribune staff writer.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun