In a small club like the Comedy Cellar, laughter bubbles and percolates around the room like a backyard water feature. At the 2,400-seat Concert Hall of the Kennedy Center it breaks like waves on a nearby shore. The room swells, and the slow rush of it rises into the air and trails off, like a balloon released to fate. It’s a very soothing noise. Minus the words coming from the comic at the center of the 100-foot-wide stage you could fall warmly asleep to it.
Jerry Seinfeld looked great Saturday night. In his sharp charcoal suit and close-cropped hair, he seemed never to stop moving. He had so much stage space and he knew how to use it. It was less stand-up comedy and more leap-around comedy. It’s more energy I’ve seen out of most comics, and Seinfeld (can it be true?) is 58 years old. I’ve never been part of an audience so happy to be seeing the person it came to see (one passing reference to Newman and the whole room erupted). That Seinfeld’s opening bit was about what a pain in the ass it was for all of us to come out to see “Jerry” (so bizarre that he’d assume we’d all collectively refer to him with his first name; my telling you I saw “Jerry” Saturday night would be as disarming as if I told you I was going to see “Ciccone”) only seemed to make us love him more.
He is a pro, an expert, an artist. And his comedy is very, very broad.
I forgot about this. He had a whole long, long, belabored chunk about being married. According to Jerry, men aren’t good listeners, and women remember everything. That sort of hack stuff. But Seinfeld’s enough of a pro to write unhacky material about such tried and true comedic subjects, that what would in lesser comics’ hands be hackwork becomes in his something virtuosic.
In other words, he’s a broad comic who’s earned unquestioned credibility. As opposed to a Carrot Top or Rita Rudner, who are broad comics who seemed at some point to’ve lost their credibility. I want to figure out two things:
- What the nature of Seinfeld’s breadth is and how it works within his act.
- How Seinfeld and other comics come to work this material, i.e. whether it’s a conscious choice to go broad, or it’s the material Seinfeld has to work with and whether or not it’s broad is not his concern (but it turns out it’s broad enough for such an enormous audience).
In other words, does he go broad because he has to work the Kennedy Center, or does the nature of his personal comedy happen to be broad? It’s a question of agency and intent, and without a sit-down interview I can’t find an answer.
I can, though, get at the first thing the nature of his broadness. Here’s a bit from the other night, about the changing role of the telephone:
Caller ID! It’s very tense!
Why should they be calling me knowing I’m me without me knowing that it’s them?
I should be calling them without them knowing it’s me.
That would give me the advantage.
Why do we think like that?
Years ago the phone would ring and somebody in your house would go “I’ll get it!”
You haven’t heard that in a long time.
Now the phone rings, people go: “Nobody move!
“Who the hell is 513?”
Compare this to a bit I heard just the night before, from John Mulaney, also on telephones:
Some days my phone’ll ring and I’ll be like, Huh… 615?
What the fuck is that area code?
[mimes answering the phone]
“Pensacola Highway Patrol?!
[makes a shocked and delighted face at us]
“Yes I would like to appear in court for those traffic tickets!
“I’m gonna have an adventure.”
Here are two different comics going in two different directions with the same basic subject: people’s anxieties regarding caller ID. That he touches on, and through his bit illustrates, such anxieties is what makes Seinfeld a broad comic. Broad comedy is nonfictive. It involves speaking truths that most people can’t or won’t speak. (In this way should comics pay a kind of tithe to people in advertising and politics—without so many disseminated lies they’d have very little material. Witness the career, of late, of Jon Stewart.) Witness the common audience reactions to Seinfeld’s act: “It’s true! It’s so true!” or “That’s exactly how I feel!” It is such a relief to have such things aired in public. We are so grateful for it, and our laughter is the price we’re happy to pay.
I don’t mean to expose broad, truth-telling comedy as easy in any way. It’s not. Any schmuck can expose truths, the hard part is doing it in a way that makes a crowd of strangers laugh. There’s an art to it. This art is manifested in Seinfeld’s characteristic wordplay: “Why should they be calling me knowing I’m me without me knowing that it’s them? I should be calling them without them knowing it’s me.” Contrary to whatever appearances you may see, that shit decidedly does not write itself.
What I’ll unfortunately have to term narrow comedy (because alt comedy doesn’t quite do it) is, on the other hand, fictive. It develops character and creates something new. This is the direction Mulaney takes popular anxieties: he turns them around, or on their heads. What most of us would reflexively see as a thing to be dreaded and shunned becomes for Mulaney an adventure. And what illustrations he then paints and acts out become fictive fantasies, as opposed to Seinfeld’s naturalistic dramas.
Broad comedy, in its exposure of truth and its attention to detail (Seinfeld, Saturday night, on what’s found on the floors of movie theaters: “three Goobers that’ve been soda-welded there since The Shawshank Redemption“), illuminates the path we see before us. Narrow comedy forges its own path. We’re welcome to follow the comic if we’d like, but we don’t have to. Then again, if the comic is as good as John Mulaney, we can’t resist.