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The best part of Netflix’s Seinfeld special isn’t the jokes

Jerry Seinfeld: 23 Hours to Kill is his first all-new material since 1998

Jerry Seinfeld stands onstage in front of a blue curtain, wearing a black suit, pointing off to the left and yelling about something. Photo: Jeffery Neira/Netflix

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There’s always been a musicality to Jerry Seinfeld. You don’t need to own all nine seasons of Seinfeld on DVD to recognize how he tees up a joke: the first observation, the slightly annoyed repetition, then HAMMERING HOME THE POINT BY SHOUTING. In his stand-up comedy, and even in some Seinfeld scenes where he’s holding court (usually in the kitchen), there’s that forced quaver, the way his voice nearly breaks when he expresses some observational bit of frustration. It says, “Yes, I’m annoyed by this, but I’m not really angry, just pretend-angry.” Each syllable comes dangerously close to slipping off the falsetto balance beam.

After 30 years of hearing that Seinfeldian patter as background ambience in pop culture, calling these rhetorical swoops “soothing” means grossly undervaluing them. Netflix releasing 23 Hours to Kill, Seinfeld’s first special of entirely new material since 1998, nearly two full months into the coronavirus quarantine isn’t merely a distraction, it’s a panacea. Listening to that voice — that aural hyperlink to younger, freer days — as he riffs for minutes on end about (I kid you not) the invention of Pop-Tarts is a frothy massage of the amygdala, a pleasant, warm soma bath.

Early in the one-hour set, Seinfeld does a whole bit about how much of a pain it is to get to a theater. Who has the tickets? How are we meeting our friends? Where are we parking? When are we eating? “Going out,” Seinfeld claims, is an enormous pain in the neck, and the minute you get anywhere, you know eventually it’s gonna be “time to head back.” The gags still work, despite our current shelter-in-place regimen, because being honest to the point of obnoxiousness is just what this man was born to do. (Eventually, we’ll feel the societal weight of needing to make plans again.) But more specific to the Jerry Seinfeld phenomenon is how the segment wraps up.

After questioning why in the hell any of us go through the effort of leaving the house, he asks “If you were me, would you be up here?” It’s a self-aware laugh line that proves Jerry understands the ways his audience projects their fantasies onto him. He’s insanely rich, he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to, and, quite frankly, he rarely does.

This isn’t the case with his most famous colleagues. Seinfeld co-conspirator Larry David built an entire public persona around “I don’t wanna be bothered with work and effort,” but 10 seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm proves he actually does put in the hours. (Though the show may seem completely spontaneous, it takes a lot of work to look that laid back.) Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s seven seasons on Veep are recent enough that we may forget her five on The New Adventures of Old Christine. Jason Alexander hasn’t had a rock-solid hit lately, but he’s keeping up steady work in TV guest shots and in theater. If Michael Richards hadn’t bombed-out with a repugnant racist incident in 2006, who knows what he’d be up to.

But Jerry Seinfeld? The actual “Seinfeld” of Seinfeld, the 1990s sitcom phenomenon that fundamentally changed comedy, television, and societal discourse? He’s done (say it with me now in that cracking-voice, faux-shout) NOTHING in the interim! Oh, sure, he inspired a few Bee Movie memes, and wrote a children’s book. But apart from talk-show appearances and Saturday Night Live cameos, he’s been largely invisible since Seinfeld ended. His biggest contribution to comedy has been producing Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, and the entire point of that series is that he’s just doing what he’d be doing anyway — kibitzing with friends. There just happens to be someone with a camera present during the kibitizing. AND I BET THE CAMERAPERSON DOESN’T EVEN GET COFFEE!

Jerry Seinfeld stands onstage, seen in profile, with his hands splayed out as he grimaces. Photo: Jeffery Neira/Netflix

So it’s great, truly, that Jerry Seinfeld got off his ass to write some new material. The Netflix special was taped at his residency at New York City’s Beacon Theater, which began in 2016-2017, then became a once-a-month gig in 2019. (It’s similar to what another of Long Island’s favorite Jewish sons, Billy Joel, has been doing down the road at Madison Square Garden.) Neither I nor any of my friends saw one of these Seinfeld concerts, but our parents all went. Seinfeld, 65 during the taping (66 as of a few days ago), has the senior demo directly in his sites, given how he keeps his topics familiar, unoffensive, and almost startlingly apolitical.

Weird though it may be, an average episode of Seinfeld from 1993 feels more “modern” than 23 Hours to Kill. The new special is clean enough to keep even the most easily offended people feeling unruffled. Other than some thoughts on being grossed out by public toilets, there’s nothing in here that wouldn’t be considered PG. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — Jerry Seinfeld has never had to lean on profanity for a cheap laugh — but Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer’s hijinks back in the day occasionally showed blood pumping in their veins, via sexual topics or explosive anger. Nothing in 23 Hours to Kill gets a smidge over 98.6 degrees, suggesting once again that anything on the old show with fire to it was Larry David’s domain.

But Seinfeld still strikes funny, and the way he hits familiar notes is more than a nostalgia act. His relentless style of examining minutiae and social fakery delighted audiences back in the 1980s, and it still does now. Admittedly, the first half of the special is, almost to the point of parody, straight-up “D’ja ever notice?” and “What’s the deeeeal?”-type schtick. There’s a whole George Carlin-esque wordplay bit about saying something is great is basically the same as saying it sucks. If you burst that bubble with the thinnest needle of logic, it makes no sense, but when Seinfeld is up there jamming on this kind of ridiculousness, it all comes together.

The second half is devoted to a set of surprisingly creaky men-are-from-Mars, women-are-from-Venus gags that are light-years away from being fresh. It’s amusing to watch Seinfeld discuss how his wife complains about the climate control in his car’s passenger side, but if this wasn’t the world-famous, understandably beloved Jerry Seinfeld giving this spiel, you’d think you were at a club in the Poconos in 1983. Clean comedy about the family unit is a tough nut to crack, but compare the back half of 23 Hours to Kill with (and I recognize the irony in what I’m about to say here) Bill Cosby’s Himself, and there’s absolutely no competition.

In the middle of his kvetching about marriage, however, he does his impression of his wife’s impression of him. It’s much zanier humor than we expect from Seinfeld; he makes a goofy face, his voice gets low, his eyes bug out. It’s art. Also, there’s a weirdo gag at the beginning where he actually (as the behind-the-scene footage proves) jumps out of a helicopter and into the Hudson River.

That business alone could be a whole routine, given how surprising it is. But this kind of stagey, stunty physical comedy lacks what people want from a Seinfeld routine — the Seinfeld voice, the comfort of nostalgia. The familiarity of his cadence is the best thing about this special. Listening to him prep an observational gag recalls a thousand cuts to commercial during late-night Seinfeld reruns, those little snippets of stand-up that would play as bumpers between the show and the ads. A full hour on stage is a lot for a man operating in such a hoary mode of humor, but it’s the tune that I hear in my head when I think about comedy. Maybe those 30-second transitions, and the reassurance of normality they bring with them, are Seinfeld’s true legacy after all.

Jerry Seinfeld: 23 Hours to Kill is streaming on Netflix now.

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