When Jerry Seinfeld announced, shortly after the close of his monumental sitcom, that he was honing material for a new stand-up routine, few people were surprised. He was still a young guy with a lot of drive; clearly a Johnny Carson fade-away was not in the cards. But it had been nearly a decade since Seinfeld had pulled together new stand-up material, and he had some work to do.
Comedian, the documentary that follows his progress back to the concert hall, captures an early foray into the beer circuit. It’s a not-bad set, but Seinfeld is clearly still finding his legs. Following the set, he joins a table of stand-up veterans, and solicits their thoughts.
It’s like throwing a raw steak into a room full of pit-bulls. These guys are only too happy to tell him exactly why his material isn’t funny. In fact, not only is his material not funny, he’s not funny — not anymore. They take him apart, piece by piece, while Seinfeld sips his drink and gives the occasional physical indicator suggesting he might actually be listening.
Given a scene like that, it’s not surprising when a veteran comic downshifts and starts driving below the speed limit. They just naturally reach that point in life when they actually want to join The Sammy Maudlin Show: a couch with a rotating but limited cast of glad-handers and chortling sycophants.
Just how far removed is the world of the published writer to that of the stand-up comic? If this country’s self-designated national newspapers are any indication, not so far. As a comic in all seriousness, allow me to suggest, if I may, the National Post embodies the round table at the back of the bar, while the Globe more closely resembles Maudlin’s klieg-lit comfy couch. Exceptions allowed for, of course, but that’s basically the book review biz north of 49.
We can parse over the benefits and drawbacks of each model — the author pretty much loses either way, by my reckoning — but somewhere in this mess is the audience. Writers write to be read, and God help ‘em if they want to be read by reviewers and critics, ‘cos those jokers want to be read, too, often quite desperately. The best thing for any writer is to stand up and read directly to their public — their intended community. Most audiences are willing to meet a writer halfway; if, under those conditions, the prose falls flat, the writer has a pretty sharp idea what needs to be attended to. Everybody wins.
As for Mr. Alexis’ contention, my sense is his central worry is over a particular community that was probably never there to begin with — a great cloud of witnesses; intelligent interlocutors eager to greet the new golden child of letters: Salman Maudlin, perhaps. Sorry, bub, but if that's the "community" you're after, you're destined for either the couch or the table.
Everybody gets to riff off the written word these days: Marchand, Metcalfe, even me. Blame it on television. Blame it on the po-mo novel gazing that has hog-tied academia. Blame it on teh interwebz. Sure, it’s a bit of a rabble sometimes. But what are you going to do?
These days everyone’s a comedian.
Link love: Here, here and here is the National Post, doing what it does best. For further contrast here are my thoughts on a book I recently enjoyed; here is the Globe's suspiciously enthusiastic take, and here is the Post's enthusiastic take-down. Here ("John Who?") and here ("Alexis is being disingenuous") are two considerate responses to André Alexis. Now go watch Comedian, even if — especially if — you thought you were done with Jerry Seinfeld.