On Comedy: Meet a Looser, More Personal Seinfeld

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Jerry Seinfeld in his first special in years, “Jerry Before Seinfeld.”

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Netflix

When Jerry Seinfeld started criticizing political correctness in comedy a few years ago, some nodded their heads and others rolled their eyes, but nearly everyone was baffled. Why would the squeaky clean, rigorously inoffensive comic even care?

The reason, I suspect, is that Mr. Seinfeld pays close attention to his audiences, both what they laugh at and how their tastes change. While few think of him as a radical innovator, he has been ahead of the times — or at least someone who catches up fast. Besides helping pioneer observational humor and the vogue for film and television shows about stand-up comics, Mr. Seinfeld, 63, anticipated our culture’s obsession with the process of comedy with his 2002 documentary, “Comedian.” While keeping a busy performing schedule, he dabbles in other forms, like web series (“Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”).

So it’s not a surprise that Mr. Seinfeld is joining comedy’s Netflix moment, following his peers in signing a deal, in his case for two specials, which essentially matches his output for the last several decades (he made cable specials in 1987 and 1998). This represents a shift in his focus, from stand-up as an evolving performance to the dominant model today, with elite comics regularly putting out new specials. The first show in the deal, “Jerry Before Seinfeld,” which starts streaming Tuesday, is deeply nostalgic, with footage from his childhood and a pocket history of his early material. But aesthetically, it inches closer to current fashion, a subtle move away from impersonal, immaculately polished comedy. It’s still quintessential Seinfeld, poking fun at cereal and air travel and prepositions, but his set is looser, intimate and more biographical, a rebrand for the podcast age.

Taking place at the Comic Strip, an Upper East Side club that was redesigned for the special to look more like it did in the 1970s when Mr. Seinfeld was just starting out, this special is organized as an explanation of his roots. What’s different from his previous work is the shrinking of critical distance (“What’s the deal with”) as he builds many premises on his own experiences. He still has a gift for deconstructing language, in phrases like “losing your appetite” or in the quirks of modern marketing (he marvels at the chutzpah of naming a cereal Life). But his route to these riffs is filled with slightly unexpected details from his life.

Mr. Seinfeld, who earned $69 million last year, putting him at the top of Forbes’s list of the highest paid comics, has long seemed thoroughly middle of the road in his style and taste, a jeans-and-Superman-action-figure kind of guy. In recent years, he transitioned to suits, but in this special, he emphasizes his blue-collar beginnings. Without a trace of complaint or hardship, he describes happily living in cramped apartments, earning nothing doing comedy and sledgehammering walls for $25 a day.

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