NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T here are only two opinions people have of anything anymore, Jerry Seinfeld notes in his latest Netflix standup set, 23 Hours to Kill: “It’s great!” or “It sucks.” Seinfeld himself is great! He’s the most successful comic in the entire history of laughs. He’ll soon be the world’s first comedy billionaire (and one of only a handful of performing artists of any kind ever to reach that level). All of this is well deserved. But stretches of Jerry’s new special are . . . let’s just say, not great.
Forty years ago the man was making jokes about breakfast cereal. Today he’s making jokes about . . . Pop-Tarts. People who say “It is what it is.” Portable restrooms (“I don’t know how they’re even allowed to call it a bathroom”). Cup holders. Some of this stuff is so bland it deserves to be shipped out to Vegas.
Pop-Tarts, Jerry notes, can never go stale because they were never fresh in the first place. Every person in the audience has to be shifting in his seat. Er, were Cookie Crisp jokes ever fresh in the first place, Jer? “When they invented the Pop-Tart, the back of my head blew right off,” he says. “We couldn’t comprehend the Pop-Tart, it was too advanced!” That’s how Jerry launches an ode to shelf-stable pastry that lasts about as long as Seinfeld was on the air.
Bringing things into this century, Seinfeld does a so-so bit on cell phones (“When that battery gets low, you feel like your whole body is out of power”) that culminates with Jerry hurling himself flat on the stage of the Beacon Theater in Manhattan. Jerry is 66. He shouldn’t have to throw himself on the floor to get a laugh. At another point he does some business that involves twisting himself into his mic cord. Grueling stuff.
Seinfeld does deliver a few quotable lines, such as when he marvels at how phones managed to kill conversation: “When they gave you the option to talk or to type, talking ended that day.” He’s also got the number of how the camera function caused human civilization to revert to pictograph-based communication. He wishes someone had asked, “Are you sure this is a good idea? You don’t think this one feature, all by itself, could result in so many pictures, videos, posting, comments, and clapbacks that the entire life force of the human race just drains out like a piss puddle by the side of the road?”
Venturing into the dark like that doesn’t come easily to Seinfeld, though he’d be more interesting if it did. That’s the main reason why his pal Larry David has become by far the more important and on-target comic talent, in ten genius seasons of his curmudgeon odyssey Curb Your Enthusiasm. Seinfeld gets enticingly mean when it comes to the post office, though: “This dazed and confused distant branch of the Cub Scouts bumbling around the streets in embarrassing shorts . . . They always have this emotional, financial meltdown every three and a half years that their business model from 1630 isn’t working anymore.” Sharp.
One bit is more cutting than it was when Seinfeld recorded the special last year. Flying outside of New York City, he notes that the country is mostly empty. So why are so many of us here? “Let’s pack in here tonight, uncomfortable, on top of each other, traffic, congestion,” he says in disbelief. This city might be a lot less congested next year than it was last year, though. Seinfeld argues that we live here out of spite: “Human beings like to be close together because it makes it easier to judge and criticize the personalities and activities of these humans.” Either that or our jobs are here, but it turns out that a lot of them can be done remotely. Iowa, get ready, we’re coming over.
Seinfeld continues to shy away from getting personal, but in some of his best bits he delves into the frustrations of his marriage. Apparently he argues with his wife a lot: A family vacation is “what I like to call ‘Let’s pay a lot of money to go fight in a hotel,’” he says. He marvels at how a person who could give birth to three children without anesthesia seems to suffer if the temperature is three degrees shy of the optimal level, and he’s exasperated with the female habit of laying speech traps. “Ladies, your husband wants to make you happy. He’s workin’ on it,’ he says, almost screaming. “He does not know how to do it.” At least marriage gives you something to talk about. When he was single he found married people to be “pathetic and depressing.” Today, married for 19 years, “I have no single friends. I find their lives to be meaningless and trivial experiences. . . . Whichever side of marriage you’re on, you don’t get what the other people are doing. I can’t hang out with single guys, you don’t have a wife, we have nothing to talk about.”
Having kids is another dividing line, and though he doesn’t talk about his three children much, they do inspire one of his most inventive lines. Raising a kid, he says, is a bit like raising a baby alligator. It’s cute when it’s small, but at some point you say, “I think we gotta get this thing the hell outta here!” Maybe in a few more years Seinfeld’s act will turn as grouchy, petty, and misanthropic as David’s. If so, Jerry might revert to being one of the best standups instead of merely the richest.