The phrase “observational comedian” is totally redundant.
Comedians, by definition, are social sorcerers who breathe in observations and exhale jokes. Sure, some of them, such as Reggie Watts and Kate Berlant, get onstage and completely go their own way, but observational humor is the default mode of what comedians do.
George Carlin was an observational comedian.
So is Dave Chappelle.
Somehow, though, a lot of highly placed opinion-havers long ago concluded that Jerry Seinfeld is “the master of observational comedy”—which would pretty much make him the master of stand-up comedy, full stop.
Seinfeld’s just released Netflix special, 23 Hours to Kill, reveals why that consensus was reached so long ago.
Like Seinfeld himself, it’s the product of another era.
The style of comedy that made Seinfeld famous well before he cocreated one of the all-time great sitcoms—the style canonically considered the essence of observational humor—consists of noticing things and complaining about them. That’s why the caricature of Seinfeld often involves starting sentences with the words, “What is the deal with . . .” and ending those sentences with the words “airplane food.” It is as paradigmatically of the 1980s as synth-pop, cocaine, or movies where Michael Douglas plays an Angry Sex Dad.
On 23 Hours to Kill, Seinfeld remains pathologically committed to leaning into this style. In a voice that often veers perilously close to the whiny pitch of someone doing a Seinfeld impression, he reels off a lengthy list of studied complaints. These are well-polished yet creaky jokes that even a master’s touch can’t save. The setlist for this show could easily read:
- What is the deal with going out
- What is the deal with having friends
- What is the deal with getting old
- What is the deal with my wife
And so on . . . .
The goal of “What is the deal with” comedy is relatability. It’s an awesome magic trick when a comic seizes upon some everyday element of life you’re likely aware of but could never quite put your finger on, and accurately diagnoses everything that sucks or is great about it in a memorable, easy-to-relay-to-one’s-friends kind of way. In recent decades, however, a lot of conversation around stand-up comedy has turned to just who is making these observations, and to whom they’re supposed to be relatable. For instance, “Women be shopping” comedy has largely fallen out of favor as audiences came to prefer hearing what a woman might observe about her own retail therapy habits rather than what some chinless scrub has to say about his well put-together girlfriend.
One might think that these shifting views on who in society gets to make which jokes about whom would be something Seinfeld is more dialed into after spending years with comedians in cars obtaining coffee.
There is scant evidence, though, of any lessons learned in 23 Hours to Kill, which contains an entire ill-advised chunk exploring what the deal is with postal workers, who ride around in “mentally handicapped jeeps” and obsess over piddling pennies. It’s a tone-deaf, punching-down bit for a ludicrously wealthy comedian, and it would’ve played that way even before the coronavirus galvanized our late-breaking gratitude for the postal service.
But Seinfeld has been clear that he is now just as aggrieved about what some call “political correctness” (and others call “not being a dick”) as he used to be about airplane food.
If 23 Hours to Kill has a unifying theme, it’s that Seinfeld has been slow on the uptake in more ways than one. Throughout the hour, he approaches a wide range of modern topics as though nobody has ever covered them before. Society so thoroughly adjusted so long ago to texting in place of most phone calls that any jokes about the phenomenon of this conversion sound downright Mesopotamian. What is the deal with when those ellipses appear as someone starts to text you but then abruptly stops forever? We’ve all already discussed it! All of us! The New York Times discovered this in 2014!
If Seinfeld wants to get jokes about modern ephemera on the record, he should try being more prolific than his one-special-per-decade average.
It’s not that tried-and-true subject matter is or should be off-limits. Comedians will be making great jokes on the topics of relationships and food well after we’re all dead. But those comedians had better have an awareness that the red meat of this subject matter has been picked clean already, and dig deep for an original take.
At a time when late-night talk-show writers struggle to make fresh jokes about what people have been talking about on Twitter that day, Seinfeld is out here making medium-to-okay jokes about why he doesn’t want to hear the specials at restaurants.
Seinfeld, then, is the ultimate product of the pre-social media era: refusing to update his style, adapt to the times, or acknowledge the world outside of his bubble.
“All fathers essentially dress in the clothing style of the last good year of their lives,” he observes toward the end of 23 Hours to Kill. “Whatever a man was wearing around the time he got married, he freezes that moment in fashion history and rides it out to the end.”
It’s a solid observation that he successfully turned into a funny joke. But then his very next joke is about being aggrieved at the prospect of having to clean up after himself in a movie theater.
“Oh, okay,” he says, mockingly. “Maybe I’ll bring my orange jumpsuit and a wooden stick with a nail in it too.”
It’s more tone-deaf, rich-guy humor, told in the exact same style he’s been using since the moment he became a famous comedian about 40 years ago.
And he’s going to ride it out to the end.
What’s the deal with that?