The most successful comedian in TV history gives up his top-rating sit-com, scraps all his material, and goes back to being heckled as a stand-up in tiny bars. It's like a comedic year zero, but it's no joke - for the comic is Jerry Seinfeld and his return to the US comedy circuit is explored in Comedian, a new documentary premiering at the Edinburgh Film Festival.
What shapes the masochistic urge to attempt to make a room full of strangers laugh? That's what Christian Charles, an English-born New York commercials director, tries to answer in his grainy, jump- cutting film about Seinfeld's return to the basement clubs.
When people ask the 49-year-old Seinfeld what he's up to now, he takes great delight in saying, "Nothing". Well, he could afford to do just that: when Seinfeld decided to end the Seinfeld show in 1998, 80 million viewers watched the last episode. But he rejected NBC's enticements to continue the series, which ruled US ratings for nine years.
"Jerry told me that he was scared of what they might offer him next - a ride in the space shuttle might have done it," says documentarist Charles. "He just didn't want it to become a sad, stale old show."
Having worked with Sein-feld on his Amex ads, Charles was allowed unprecedented access to the media-shy comedian, filming over 16 months as Seinfeld tortuously works towards the definitive 45-minute set. Yet the result is a curious hybrid of vanity project and freewheeling documentary, though we aren't allowed into Seinfeld's private life. "A film about Seinfeld's life wouldn't have been interesting," insists Charles, "He's a pretty straightforward guy, there's no tant- rums, no freakish behaviour, no surprises. He's an observational comic commenting on the stupidity of life from the sidelines. That's what he does."
The compulsion to face the live audience was overwhelming for Seinfeld, says Charles, "stand-up is your own thing, completely personal contact with the audience, the purest form of comedy in a way."
After open-mic try-outs in New York, Seinfeld suffers a raucous crowd in Cleveland where the famously droll comic loses his cool. "They're like monkeys throwing shit out there," he shouts after a fiery baptism. Later, a shocked crowd watch the comic forget his new material and wait in vain for the smart ad-lib - Seinfeld is not an improv man and needs the script of the act that it takes him over a year to hone.
Comedian reveals the insecurities and loneliness of the comedy life. Yet when Seinfeld meets up with Jay Leno and Gary Shandling, old cronies from the comedy circuit become famous TV names, all they talk about is getting back to live comedy. "I think Jerry's going to turn into Bob Hope," says Charles, "He'll be doing stand-up in his nineties".
'Comedian' screens at the Edinburgh Film Festival, tomorrow at the UGC
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