'Jerry Before Seinfeld': TV Review

He's still master of his domain.

Jerry Seinfeld returns to his stand-up roots in a breezy Netflix comedy special.

Everybody starts somewhere. For stand-up comic and sitcom icon Jerry Seinfeld, that place was Comic Strip Live, the Manhattan club that for years has been the go-to venue for aspiring comedians looking to hone their setups and punchlines. The club is treated like a crash-course academy, with audition lotteries to determine who gets to go onstage at what time, and "passing" grades given in the form of a prime nighttime slot. (Other notable Comic Strip alumni include Aziz Ansari, George Carlin, Louis C.K., Patton Oswalt and Sarah Silverman, among many, many others.)

Seinfeld is one of the venue's most prestigious graduates, and there's a bittersweetness watching him, in Jerry Before Seinfeld, return to the Comic Strip stage with its brick-backed scenery and vaguely claustrophobic feel (the walls and ceiling always seems like they're expanding and contracting based on the in-the-moment success of a given joke). If Seinfeld's noticeably older and wizened in the ways of someone who's had great success and has nothing left to prove, that doesn't mean he lacks for energy and insouciance.

His act, which fills up about 50 minutes of the special's hourlong run time (home movies, archive recordings and newly filmed bits around Manhattan make up the rest), is a combination of old jokes and new, many of them revolving around Seinfeld's recollections of his childhood and apprenticeship years. It makes sense that a comic best known for starring on a television series about "nothing" would begin his set with a semantic argument about the proper usages of "in" and "on." "You don't live in Long Island, you live on Long Island," he says while talking about his Massapequa adolescence.

It's always the little things with Seinfeld, the quirks of discourse, personality and taste that seem inconsequential — about "nothing" in particular — but which, on closer analysis, reveal something cutting and profound about human behavior. "This cereal should have been called 'The Hell With Everything!'" says the comic as he goes into the minutiae of the children's breakfast staple Cookie Crisp, an unexpectedly roundabout and very hilarious way of touching on mankind's tendency to cynicism. 

If there's a flaw to Seinfeld's artistry, it's in his own quirks of personality. His exasperation with the world at large can seem studied at times, a gimmicky palliative to take the offending edge off his humor. You can sense he'd prefer to keep his audience comfortable — as in a late-act segue into the current political climate that almost, but not quite equates a certain commander-in-chief with insanity. His overall point, to use a bit of parodic Seinfeldian parlance, is "Whyyyyyyyy…would anyone want to be president?!?" But instead of going broad as a way of honing in on a deeper human truth, Seinfeld just stays at the macro level and the joke becomes watered down and diffuse as a result.

Some hit, some miss. That's the stand-up's perpetual dilemma. In one of the special's interstitial scenes, Seinfeld sits among pages and pages of the jokes — laid out to fully cover a Manhattan side street — that he's written on legal-size paper and kept in the same folder since the 1970s. There's always another bon mot, and the occasional dud humor in Jerry Before Seinfeld in no way detracts from the larger pleasures of watching this peerless comedian pay tribute to his roots.

Producer: Tammy Johnston
Director: Michael Bonfiglio
Starring: Jerry Seinfeld, Jimmy Brogan, Mark Schiff
Premieres: Tuesday (Netflix)