BY JONATHAN VALANIA “Comedians are the new philosophers,” the girl next to me whispered in my ear conspiratorially, like this had just occurred to her for the first time — at 24, she was roughly half the median age of the crowd at the Academy of Music Friday night where Jerry Seinfeld was staging a two-night/four-show big-ticket stand, endeavoring to put the lie to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum that there are no second acts in American lives.
I just shrugged and thought: Maybe back in the day. Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks — those guys were philosopher kings of comedy. The jokers in today’s deck, guys like Zach Galifianakis and Tim & Eric are more like trippy wizards, alchemizing everyday boredom into milk-shoot-out-your-nose bizarre-dom while ascending the throne in new kingdoms of the weird. But Seinfeld and his generation of comics? Not so much. Guys like him are just kvetchers with a two drink minimum, standing in front of a bare brick wall. Funny, to be sure, and also necessary, negating the nattering torments of everyday inanities — why, exactly, can’t you land this plane with my tray-top down? — with the cliched but no less caustic question: What’s up with that? But all told, no more or less profound than aspirin.
Seinfeld is the king of that miffed, shrugging brand of comedy, and though he hasn’t seemed relevant or for that matter been heard from in any significant way since before the Twin Towers were knocked down — punctuating the terrifying gear-shifting groan of the last century giving way to the next — he proved Friday night he is still capable of transmuting the maddening into mirth. Because, in much the same way linguists tell us that by naming things we achieve domination over them, by assigning punchlines to the the low-grade traumas of dry cleaning gone awry and the suckiness of airline food we rob them of the ability to irk us beyond the moment, or enlarge themselves into the scope of tragedy.
In the 90s, it would seem, our biggest worry was whether or not the President got a blow job, and when you got nothing to worry about, and nothing to lose, a show about nothing could define the zeitgeist. Seinfeld, like all wizened practitioners of the dark arts of show biz, understood well that the only unforgivable sin of a performer is to overstay his welcome. And so he pulled the plug, and got paid (handsomely), and left the stage for what-comes-next just in time, disappearing into the private realms of married-with-children domesticity somewhere in the tony gated netherworld of Long Island.
This exile would give him the material for his second act: railing against the ordinary madness of being the master of your McMansion. Restless and recharged, after a decade of being nothing more than somebody’s husband and somebody’s dad, he wants back in the game. He is touring again for the same reason we all plunked down top dollar to assemble in the gilded splendor of the Academy of Music Friday night: “We need the outness…we need to NOT be home.” Because, he continued, “your life sucks and my life sucks, probably not as much as yours, but it still sucks.” And so for the next 70 minutes he anointed the suck with the palliative balm of laughter.
For the most part, his second act casts him as a prematurely grumpy old man befuddled and bedeviled by the mesmerizing matrix of the modern world: the cluttered, word-clotted TV screens of 24-7 news (“we don’t want to read, that’s why we are watching TV!”), the risk of four-hour hard-ons inherent in Cialis ads (“See a doctor? I want to know just what he plans to do to get rid of it before I put on my poncho and waddle down there!”), and the vast wasteland of a million nudniks Twittering what they had for lunch (“Why say a lot of things to a few people when you can say virtually NOTHING to everyone?”).
He is 55, he said, and got married 10 years ago for the simple reason that he had in fact reached “the Jesus Christ moment of single life …that’s when you tell people you are still single and they say ‘JESUS CHRIST!” Marriage, he has come to learn, “is just two people trying to stay together without saying ‘I hate you.’ You don’t say those words, instead you say: WHY IS THERE NO SCOTCH TAPE IN THIS HOUSE!” He riffed on the stinky exigencies of baby-fatherhood: “Why would you invite somebody into your house that craps his pants and looks you in the eye while doing it?” And the mojo-killing perpetuity of matrimony crossed with middle-age: “You wind up floating around the house like a day-old helium balloon that can’t even hold up his own string.”
But arguably the funniest moment — a moment when he transcended the obligatory ‘what’s up with that?’-ness of his comfort zone — appeared to be improvised. On this at least, the nudging girl next to me and I could agree. Midway through his set, he looked over and noticed the magnificent Cecil B. DeMille-sized column holding up the left side of stage, then walked over and patted it with his hand, like a child in a petting zoo patting the broad flank of a zebra, looked it up and down and then declared: “That’s a nice one of those.” All that was missing was George Castanza, eyes lit up atop a thousand-watt grin, hands pressed on either side of his balding head in the universal symbol of ‘Holy cow, it’s a hit!’, exclaiming a little too loudly, as he is wont to do, “Gold, Jerry! That’s comedy gold!” Ah, those were the days.