"Comedy workshop," said the marquee outside the Tempe Improv. The comedian working in the shop wasn't named, but the crowd was lined up hours before showtime even so. The Unknown Comic it wasn't. No, 13 years after he christened the venue, Jerry Seinfeld, quite probably the biggest star in American comedy during the past decade, was back onstage there, trying out some new stuff.
Up until the start of a hiatus from performing about a year and a half ago, Seinfeld observed, "I was HUGE!" Coming on after a quick warm-up by Mario Joyner, who did funny but conventional stuff about airplanes and family dysfunction and the like, Seinfeld demonstrated by contrast what made him huge in the '90s -- the almost fanatical originality of his comic notions.
He's a sworn enemy of the well-worn gag. During a routine about prescription drug commercials, someone in the surprisingly rowdy Saturday night audience helpfully mentioned Viagra. "How would one make a joke about Viagra?" he asked rhetorically, as if this were an idea as outlandish as time travel. When audience members asked where Kramer and Newman were, Seinfeld pointed out with gentle mock-condescension that these people, unlike him, were, strictly speaking, fictitious.
What also showed, especially at the beginning of his longish set, was the star's rustiness. Seinfeld's act, which was being discreetly videotaped for an upcoming movie project, was low-key, especially at the beginning. Though never less than amusing, neither the material nor the performance was as inspired as that on I'm Telling You for the Last Time, Seinfeld's smashing concert recorded shortly after the end of his sitcom. Things picked up in the second half of his Tempe show, but even then, he seemed playfully nettled by the numerous interruptions from the audience, once sarcastically muttering that he'd hate to get on a roll or anything.
But the effect that all this created wasn't disheartening; it was akin to seeing a great veteran pitcher, a Randy Johnson or a Nolan Ryan, on the first day of spring training. The speed and concentration need a while before they're up to his usual standards, perhaps, but you'd never mistake him for anything other than a master. And much of the new material truly was hilarious, particularly the stuff about the obnoxiousness of awards shows and of weddings, about his fixation with watching and reading sports coverage of games he's already seen, or about his own reasons for finally deciding to get married -- his inability, at the age of 46, to go on pretending to be fascinated with his dating conversations.
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Many of his riffs involve verbal paradoxes, such as the oddity of the phrase, "I'm not just blowing smoke up your ass," that are Carlinesque, but Seinfeld's style is different. George Carlin works himself into a passionate lather about the inherent inconsistencies of language; Seinfeld's tone is high-handed, almost academic. At times he's almost like some sort of comedy Buddhist, holding forth about how thin the line is between "sucks" and "great," and finally declaring it to be nonexistent: If you drop an ice-cream cone, that sucks, but what do you say when it happens? "Great!" Even though he's one of the least political or "socially conscious" of major comedians, this detached approach makes Seinfeld's comedy intellectually stimulating, and this seems to be how he wants it. At one point in his act, someone in the audience remarked, "It's true!" of one of his gags. The delighted comic replied, "Sometimes I'd rather get an 'it's true' than a laugh."