'Jerry Before Seinfeld': Jerry tells the origin story of his life as a comedian

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large
Jerry Seinfeld (Photo: Netflix)

Jerry Before Seinfeld means it’s Seinfeld before Seinfeld, before he became the star and co-creator of one of the most popular sitcoms in history, when he was just a good standup comedian. But Jerry would hate that I wrote “just a good standup,” because for Seinfeld, being a good standup performer is, as he explains convincingly on this Netflix special, the only ambition he’s ever had — the only thing he’s ever really wanted to do or be in life.

This hourlong presentation, streaming now, is primarily a film of Seinfeld performing at New York City’s Comic Strip nightclub, with some home-movie footage of him as a youthful joker thrown in to elaborate on points he makes during his onstage routine. The whole enterprise accumulates to form an autobiography, a professional document on how Seinfeld became Seinfeld.

Before begins in the late 1970s, when he first began telling jokes as a pro. He takes you through his joke-writing process even as he’s actually performing those same jokes. It proves wonderful to experience — or, for many of us, to re-experience — Seinfeld’s greatest hits, bits like the socks lost in the dryer, or boredom as experienced by a little kid, or the reason a couple decides to have a baby.

You won’t see me writing down any punch lines here, because a lot of the funniness derives from Seinfeld’s delivery: his timing and his tone of voice, the way he lets his vocal cords fray and fry when he wants to express any extreme of emotion. But of course, Seinfeld is more famous for not expressing extremes of emotion; one reason he’s such good company, such a comfort, is because he’s always even-tempered onstage. Even when he’s describing some fraught moment in his past, he’s regaling you from a safe distance — the moment’s terror or anxiety has passed. Humor, for Seinfeld, is angst experienced in tranquility.

Seinfeld refers, from the stage of the Comic Strip, to this summation of his life as “Little Jerry’s Comedy Adventure,” which could have been the title of the Netflix show. (He develops a good riff on binge-watching Netflix shows too.) I’m old enough to have been around when Seinfeld was telling these jokes for the first time on TV, on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and on other talk and variety shows. I thought, going in, that I might be a little bored, hearing him run through his old stuff — “all of the material I did for you tonight,” he says near the end. Instead, it was such a pleasure to sink down into these jokes with Seinfeld, such a treat to be carried along by such a confident professional. It’s rare to be treated this way by any piece of current entertainment; enjoy his achievement here.

Jerry Before Seinfeld is streaming now on Netflix.

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