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Like some of the biggest names in comedy before him — Bill Cosby, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy — Jerry Seinfeld has transcended his stand-up origins. Thanks to the phenomenal success of NBC-TV's "Seinfeld," he's a household name. He can sit in his apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side with his wife, two kids, and all the cars, cereal, and tennis shoes his residuals can buy — the man who invented the show about nothing is more than entitled to do nothing, if that's what he feels like. And he's certainly free of the obligation to go up in front of an audience every night and peddle his jokes for a few laughs. But obligation and compulsion are two very different things, and that's why, a couple of years ago, Jerry Seinfeld chose to go back to stand-up, putting his reputation and self-respect on the line to develop a brand new act. Luckily, a couple of handheld cameras operated by director Christian Charles and producer Gary Streiner were there to capture the process on film — the result is Comedian, an honest, engrossing documentary about what it's really like to be a stand-up comic. The film's central plot follows Seinfeld as he tests and refines new material and discusses the finer points of comedy with his fellow yuksters, including erstwhile "Saturday Night Live" player Colin Quinn (evidently one of Seinfeld's good friends), Robert Klein, George Wallace, Bill Cosby, Ray Romano, Jay Leno, and Chris Rock. Meanwhile, Charles and Streiner also keep their lenses trained on Orny Adams, a neurotic, obsessive up-and-comer whose desperate need for validation is the only thing bigger than his ambition. The two comedians' paths are paralleled for contrast — Seinfeld pops up on the Letterman show and thrills an ecstatic crowd with a carefully crafted performance; Adams gets his chance at "doing Dave" and scores a few laughs despite his obvious nervousness and rough transitions. Both men are funny, but it's easy to tell which one is the accomplished professional and which is the hopeful who's still rough around the edges.

*          *          *

However, Orny Adams' story quietly falls by the wayside as the film progresses (look for a little bit of closure in the DVD's "Where is Orny Now?" featurette), turning Comedian into the "Just Jerry!" show. Not that there's anything wrong with that — despite the fact that the film's pacing and structure feel more deliberate when the two storylines are running side by side, seeing more Seinfeld on screen isn't a problem. Comedian's greatest strength is its intimacy, jumping right into the action and showing us a side of Seinfeld that we've never seen. Cracking up with his friends in the basement of a smoky comedy club, fretting nervously before a show, swearing, admitting his awe of über-comedian Cosby — this is no prissy sitcom character, but rather a real, complex person who loves his art, despite its demanding, capricious nature. Viewers will have more sympathy for Seinfeld while watching him lose his place and fumble for a line during an early performance than they ever did when he and his TV cronies were whining (hilariously, of course) about the minutiae of daily life. Miramax's Comedian DVD offers even more glimpses behind the Seinfeld façade. The set of five deleted scenes (with optional commentary) includes one very telling sequence in which an extremely pessimistic Seinfeld is sure his performance at a fancy benefit dinner is going to bomb; cut to a few minutes later, after he's completed the set to big laughs, and he's over the moon. (Ahh, the psyche of an artist.) Other extras include Adams and Seinfeld's complete Letterman appearances; the "Where Is Orny Now?" follow-up featurette; an advertising/promotion gallery (trailer, posters, action figures, etc.); scribbled set-list notes from Seinfeld, Adams, and Quinn; and DVD-exclusive Jiminy Glick interviews. (For non-Comedy Central watchers, Glick is Martin Short's clueless entertainment reporter alter ego; the bits here aren't as funny as some of the ones that have aired on his show, but they're still worth watching.) Rounding out the features list are two commentaries — one a standard chat-fest by Charles and Steiner, the other a very insider-y bull session with Seinfeld and Quinn. Crisp English Dolby Digital 5.1 audio and a nice full-frame (1.33:1) transfer. Keep-case.
—Betsy Bozdech

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