Monday, June 20, 2011

From March, 2011: A review I wrote about Jerry Seinfeld in concert

Here's my review of the night. Performance was at Bass Concert Hall in Austin.

First let me explain why I love stand up comedy. In my opinion, it is the most pure form of entertainment. Think about what it is for a minute. It's a person standing in front of a bunch of other people, and with nothing but his own self, he is expected to not merely keep the crowd busy, but make the crowd have fun. And he's not doing it musically or with any other gimmicks (well, some comics do, but I think those are not pure stand up comedians). Just his voice and his body. That is the essence of entertainment. It's why, for me, stand up comedy is the ultimate challenge. Supposedly public speaking is, on average, the number one fear of humans. Stand up comedy combines that with the added element of an audience that literally has an implicit challenge being extended: make me laugh, now!. So now the comic is doing public speaking and is expected to be funny to a entire crowd of people for whom humor is a subjective thing to begin with. And there's no way to just instantly be good at it. So as a comedian struggles through the process of going from bad to good, he endures and then overcomes what must be the most awkward feeling a human can have: a group of people staring blankly at you after you just said something you thought was funny but isn't. Plus they paid money to be there. I've listened to a lot of comedians talk about their early experiences and it always sounds so brutal, yet they fight through it. It's just an amazing thing to me. Anyway, on to the review.

The opener was Mario Joyner. I didn't know his name previously but I did recognize him. He's been in a lot of Chris Rock's productions and has been around on t.v. a little bit both as an actor and a stand up comedian. He did a couple Seinfeld episodes in the '90s and also had a part in Bee Movie, so I guess that's where the Seinfeld connection grew from.

He was very funny. He jumped right in and had no problem entertaining a crowd that didn't come to see him. I did find it interesting that like Seinfeld, he was very professionally dressed, wearing a suit. It seems that Seinfeld is old-school like that, the mindset being that we are professionals, so let's dress like professionals.

Back to Joyner though. He, like Seinfeld, uses a lot of observational humor. He joked about flying, cell phones, relationships, hotel stays, midlife crises, GPS units, etc. Standard comedian fare. However, I was impressed that he actually made all of these things funny. Some topics have been beaten to death in comedy, but his jokes were still fresh.

It was also clear that he was following Seinfeld's wishes in regards to his material. Seinfeld is a comedian who works relatively clean, and Joyner followed suit, leaving out a couple words that he uses on his CD. And of course there's no shame in toeing the company line for something like that (Joyner even made one joke about the fact that Seinfeld runs a very tight ship), considering how much money he must be making for his 15 minute set . That being said, he still had a bit of an edge to him, which I appreciated. I like clean comedy, but I also still like comedians to joke about non-PC topics. Like Seinfeld himself says, the whole job of a comedian is to make fun of stuff, so even while being "clean," there's still going to be the possibility that a listener can get offended, but that's often where the best jokes come from.

Anyway, Joyner pretty much killed it. Everyone seemed to love him. I'm not sure how long he performed, probably 15-20 minutes. When he finished, they didn't do the typical "opener gives a nice introduction to the headliner" type thing. He just waved, walked off, and a couple seconds later, Jerry Seinfeld came sprinting onto the stage with no introduction. It caught me off guard. But fair enough, it's true that he needs no introduction.

So after the huge applause died down, he opened with a couple minutes of local humor (making fun of the burnt orange (or as Seinfeld called it, "light medium brown" ) that dominates the University of Texas campus and the fact that it's called "University of Texas AT Austin," not just UT-Austin) before moving into his standard material. I always enjoy those few minutes of local humor. It's like a special little treat that is only given to that specific audience.

Most people know Seinfeld was a comedian before he was a t.v. star. The whole reason he got his sitcom was because he had already found his "voice" as a comedian. I always find it interesting to see comedians evolve and settle into their particular "voice". Look at Jim Gaffigan for instance. He's been funny for years, but the first time I saw him on t.v. several years ago, he didn't use that little "this is what the audience must be thinking" voice that is now a huge source of his material and probably the thing he's most known for. Watch Dane Cook's first Comedy Central Presents special and compare it to what he does now. He's still the same energetic, likable guy, but he settled into his storytelling style and now sells out huge arenas. Listen to old Brian Regan recordings. He has a much different sound and style than he does now, and like the others I listed, now that he found his correct comic voice, he sells out theaters rather than clubs. It's hard for a comedian to find the right style of joke telling for them. Go to a small comedy club in New York where the comics are just trying to make a name. It's painful at times, because you can see them trying to project some image, some style, yet it just doesn't work. For whatever reason, there's just something undefinable within the art of stand up comedy that has to be there, regardless of the quality of the writing, or else they'll never make it big. Part of it is speaking style, some of it is just their cadence, some of it is even something like what they wear, and what kind of facial expressions they use. It all needs to work together, along with solid material, for a comedian to really be successful.

So Seinfeld had already made his way as a comedian and had one of the most recognizable and identifiable styles of any comedian out there. Everyone knows that Seinfeld is the "what's the deal with ____?" guy. What's my point? My point is that even now, with Seinfeld having already reached the peak of comedian-dom, his comic voice is still evolving. He still used observational humor, but he doesn't quite do it the same way. One thing that stood out to me was that he is a little more energetic and loud than I've seen him over the years. Not obnoxious loud (not even close), but just not as subdued as he used to be. He also now seems to take advantage of his own voice (actual speaking voice, not the big concept of "voice" I've also been mentioning) more. In other words, there were a lot of times where he had the crowd laughing and it wasn't from a written joke necessarily, but rather from just adding a few synonyms to the last word of the last joke he told, and just delivering them in his own funny way, which is funny in itself. And that's a big part of what I was referring to with the "voice" of the comedian. If a comedian knows exactly how his own cadence and speaking style contribute to the humor of his writing, they can get more laughs out of the same material. Dane Cook gets criticized for this all the time (unfairly, in my opinion). People complain that he's not even telling jokes, he's just talking. Well, the audience is laughing, right? They're laughing because he knows when and how his speaking style is funny. So Seinfeld has mastered that too, and like I said, it's a thing that's still evolving for him as he gets older and writes new material. He has more of an "old man complaining" vibe now, somewhat replacing the "bemused man observing" that he used to be.

And his complaints are still as funny and perceptive as anyone working today. He's frustrated with Blackberry users and how they'd rather look at their phone than listen to you ("Do we even know what rudeness is in this culture anymore?" ). He doesn't understand our culture's new emphasis on hydration ("When I was a kid I'd take one swig from the school water fountain and run for 28 straight hours. What happened?" ) No one ever told him that when he got married, he would spend every single day discussing his "tone" ("Do you know that my own regular speaking voice, the voice that I am using to talk to you right now, is not welcome in my own home?" )

He had several jokes about marriage ("Being married is like being on a game show, and it's always the lightning round" ), 5 Hour Energy ("If you're so tired that you need five hours worth of energy, you know what you need? You need to go to bed!" ), and Pop Tarts ("When they invented Pop Tarts, the back of my head blew right off!" ). (p.s. Brian Regan still has the best ever bit about Pop Tarts. See it here:

He had jokes on fatherhood and how useless his role seems sometimes ("Even still, sometimes I see the kids looking at me and it's like they're about to ask me "I'm sorry sir, is someone helping you? Mom, the horsie ride guy is here, do we need anything?" ), Ebay ("Why spend time talking to my family when I can spend all night on the computer bidding on someone else's garbage?" ), and OnStar ("If my keys get locked in the car, forget a two cent coat hanger. I need to contact a hundred million dollar NASA satellite to take care of this problem!" ).

He did long bits about the complexity and hassles of getting ready to go out, public restrooms, coffee, why humans are obsessed with sitting, cremation and burial, and the fact that all material things eventually end up as garbage (deep philosophical truths in that one, if you care to go there).

Long story short, he was incredible. As I watched him I felt like I was watching a consummate professional who is one of the best in the world at his trade. He performed for over an hour, and it was the fastest hour of comedy I've ever seen. I think he's funnier now than he used to be, again not because he writes better material, but because I think he has a better understanding of how his personal touch can make combine with his written material to combine for something even funnier. His comedic voice wouldn't work very well on Steve Martin's stand up material and vice versa, but his mastery of matching his own style of comedy to his (genius) writing mean he's still the best in the business. And you know what? He never once used the phrase "What's the deal with...." I'm not saying that's good or bad, just saying I was listening for it and it never came. Truth of the matter is that he doesn't actually say that, as far as I know. A lot of that stuff (including the idea of him with his agitated voice asking "who are these people?!?" ) came from a Saturday Night Live skit that was making fun of him several years ago. Here's the transcript of that skit:

So, the only downside of the show was that he did not do an encore. I know that sometimes on his tour he'll come back out for his encore and do a Q&A with the audience, and I was really looking forward to seeing something like that, but no luck this time.

Here are some clips from other places that include a couple of the jokes he did.

Iphones and Blackberries:


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