THE SPECIAL “Jerry Before Seinfeld”
WHEN|WHERE Starts streaming Tuesday on Netflix
WHAT IT’S ABOUT Back in 1976, a 22-year-old kid named Jerry Seinfeld performed at the Comic Strip on Second Avenue, and he has done reasonably well ever since. This special — his first for Netflix — takes him back to the Strip, where he tells some of the classic jokes that were first performed here. (A little bit of new material is also promised.) Included in between the stand-up: some old home movies and shot of a small street filled (literally) with yellowed legal pad paper on which is written every joke he ever told (and maybe a few he didn’t). Seinfeld also takes viewers to the spot where he decided to become a stand-up, the corner of Madison and 57th.
MY SAY “Jerry Before Seinfeld” is essentially Jerry-Before-Fame-and-Fortune, when he was a young adult from Massapequa pursuing a dream with an expanding file folder of jokes. The jokes are classics, reasonably timeless, and as long as there’s candy, sugar-based cereals, political mascots, notary publics, magicians, cotton balls, sports uniforms, old people and, of course, socks, these jokes will work. They did 40 years ago, and they’ve aged well. Of course, Jerry has to be the one telling them. They are what you might call “bespoke” jokes, tailored so specifically to the man who wrote them that their pleasure would evaporate like water drops on a hot griddle if anyone else dared tell them.
Someone in the audience asks him about the Mets, specifically “what’s wrong with the Mets,” and you can see the joke coming all the way in from Citi Field. We know it so well, and love it so well, that the punchline forms in our head even before he says it: The Mets’ team members don’t matter because “you’re really just rooting for their uniforms!” (Ba-dummm)
The small audience in the Comic Strip laughs — not perhaps because they’re hearing it for the first time but because they remember where they were when they heard it for the first time.
Watching Seinfeld knock out the oldies-but-goldies is indeed watching someone do what they were born to do. He’s a master technician who cuts through the material at a high rate of speed, while using pantomime to fill in the blanks or give the punchline a steroid boost. He rolls right along, giving the audience no chance to realize just how familiar the material is. It’s an old George Carlin trick of speeding so fast that you’re not quite certain what you just heard, but it sure sounded funny anyway.
Netflix and Seinfeld promise intimacy here, but that’s an over-promise. Seinfeld doesn’t do “intimate” well, or as he says in one of the special’s more memorable lines, “I can talk to all of you, but I can’t talk to any of you.” Nevertheless, a little bit of the real Jerry — the pre-billionaire Jerry — does still emerge. Some years ago, Billy Joel said, “My perspective comes from a Long Island point of view,” and Seinfeld’s comes from one, too. Massapequa of the ’60s, with the malls and cars and nice, four-bedroom, one-bath Capes, and that big city to the west infuse the spirit of this material. (He even opens with an L.I. standard: “You live on Long Island, not in Long Island.”) The jokes are so clean that you suspect he wrote them with his parents, Kal and Betty, very much in mind.
With all this as evidence, “Jerry Before Seinfeld” is really a misnomer. Jerry has always been Jerry, and didn’t go all that far from home, either.
BOTTOM LINE Seinfeld-before-“Seinfeld” fans will especially enjoy this congenial, familiar hour special.