Jerry Seinfeld proves himself master of the observational domain
At the Orpheum on Friday, September 7. Continues September 8
Did you ever notice how observational comics get short shrift from die-hard comedy fans? Absurdism is fine, sociopolitical tirades are cool, and storytelling is all the rage. But the cognoscenti turn up their noses at performers who dare talk about the minute details of life, as if they’re any less relevant.
But to paraphrase Duke Ellington, there are only two types of comedy: good and bad. Jerry Seinfeld’s act gets denigrated by some, but the guy is just plain good. And if he wasn’t now out of the younger set’s price range, the hipsters would give him full credit for being master of the observational domain, rather than just another practitioner.
There’s a case to be made that Seinfeld and his ilk are actually consequential comics, despite not tackling serious subjects. And Norm Macdonald will make that case. In talking about Seinfeld and Brian Regan, the SNL vet told me earlier this year: “I certainly think these guys are important comedians because, in a way, the tiny, everyday things that we do in life, that’s what life actually is. So they may be the deepest of all….Because a man is what he does, rather than what he thinks or says.”
Seinfeld’s genius is his ability to deconstruct a given topic down to the molecule, approach it from every conceivable angle, and tie it all together in a neat bow. His opening bit on chairs and the human propensity to sit, while not new, is still impressive. He goes from our theatre seats back to the descent of man and winds up in bed, the only option that beats sitting.
The show is a performance from the moment the 58-year-old runs on-stage. Seinfeld doesn’t go off-script. But he doesn’t need to. His hour is full of ideas and language and act-outs; there’s no time for filler. For those who feel the need to get to know the real Jerry a little bit, you can watch his excellent web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. This, however, is a show and here the act is king.
Because his topics are trivial on the surface, it’s sometimes easy to forget his way with words. Not only are his ideas unique, he’s a gifted writer. He applies the perfectly crafted analogy to the mundane in a way that gets us to come around to his way of thinking. He describes the Cream of Wheat his mother used to make as “so thick it was like rowing in the hull of a slave ship". The endless serve-and-volley of a typical email exchange is “like eating a hero sandwich on a toilet". Facebook is a “trash receptacle of human time".
The only complaint, as I wrote the last time he was in town, is that he doesn’t turn over material that often, so any repeat guests have heard most of the bits before. But it’s like re-reading a good book: you get something new each time you go back to it.