Jerry Seinfeld? Ha!

A friend of mine is a former stand-up comic as well as a stand-up guy. A family man, low maintenance in personality and as I said, an all-around good guy. Except we disagree on one thing. He thinks Jerry Seinfeld is the greatest comedian of our time. I disagree. He may be the greatest straight man, but not comedian.

I’ve read different takes on the definition of a comedian as well as a comic. Some so-called “authorities” say that the expressions are interchangeable. Maybe that is the best answer. Others offer explanations that are not definitions but rather examples. I define a comedian as someone who tells funny things and a comic as someone who tells things in a funny way. Those of us who are baby boomers fondly remember the 20th century comedic greats. I categorize Jerry Lewis as a comic as well as Red Skelton but Jack Benny and George Burns as comedians. Bob Hope is a comedian while Henny Youngman and Buddy Hackett are comics. A comedian is often a subtle performer who needs another actor to work off of. A comic can create his own funny situations to the benefit of those around him.

Looking back at what I just wrote, I guess I didn’t give much clarity to the separation of terms, either. Let’s use Jack Benny as an example. He was great playing both funny and dramatic characters in very well scripted scenes. That makes him a comedian. He mostly stayed within the role. Jerry Lewis, however, always seemed to break away from the boundaries of his character and overplay the part. That made him a comic. In fact, you expected Jerry to go off and do his thing otherwise the scene could too readily get maudlin.

Getting back to Jerry Seinfeld- he does not have funny facial features nor talk in a funny voice. If you listen to his stand up routines, you have to pay attention and think about what he says as he doesn’t help you much to get into the laughing mood. Compare that to a natural comic great like Guy Marks who would give you a stare before he opened his mouth and you already knew something funny was going to be uttered.

There are other contemporary comics like Dennis Leary and surprisingly Bob Saget who rely on using dirty words or naughty subjects to elicit laughs. Again, on their own they do not look funny or evince funny mannerisms that draw you to laughter.

On Seinfeld’s television sitcom show, he would often start the episode standing in a nightclub scene in front of a microphone making observations. I would sit there frustrated thinking that this was another minute or two wasted that could have been spent on the truly funny parts of the show. When he did a scene without his next door neighbor Cosmo Kramer or best buddy George Costanza or even the despised upstairs neighbor Newman, the comedy would be so-so. The one scene I do recall where it worked well without the benefit of the other actors was the one where he sits in a restaurant with the girlfriend of the week who alternates between looking gorgeous and hideous depending on the light reflecting on her. The horrified look on Jerry’s face sold the humor quite well but again he was playing the straight man.

And let’s face it- there is nothing funny about watching a guy sitting in a diner booth eating soup or cereal. It was only funny because Kramer or Costanza would show up and create the funny premise. If either one of those two were sitting by themselves slurping the soup with a raised eyebrow and Jerry was back in his apartment, you’d be laughing just in anticipation trying to guess what they were going to do next but not at all about Jerry.

And how about the famous scene where George goes to visit his mother in the hospital and is distracted by a patient behind the screen partition getting ready to take a sponge bath. Jerry is nowhere around and who cares? And when Kramer is interviewed on a talk show about his coffee table book about coffee tables? The list goes on and on.

Jerry should be credited with being a great judge of talent and what is funny. A good part of the show’s plots were from Jerry’s fertile mind. So, give him kudos for being the ultimate episodic comedy writer.

George Burns used to crow about the fact that he was the greatest set-up man, even better than Oliver Hardy or Bud Abbott. He also said that he had the easiest job in the world. All he had to do was ask a simple question to his wife Gracie Allen and off she would go causing the audience to go into hysterics. So, there is no dishonor in saying that Seinfeld is a great, great straight man. But would you spend a hundred dollars to go see a guy ask questions with no one to answer them? Not me. And that’s the straight truth.

One thought on “Jerry Seinfeld? Ha!”

  1. I agree 100%. I never watched many of the episodes because I never thought Seinfeld was that funny. Those that I did watch, kept waiting for some of the other characters to do the funny stuff.

    Your post is very complete.

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