Is Seinfeld a Joke?

His unfunny show Marriage Ref raises the question: Has the one-time king of comedy become the punch line himself? Nicole LaPorte assesses his post-Seinfeld career.

03.23.10 6:50 PM ET

His unfunny show Marriage Ref raises the question: Has the one-time king of comedy become the punch line himself? Nicole LaPorte assesses his post- Seinfeld career.

In the 2002 documentary Comedian, Jerry Seinfeld, mused to fellow comic Colin Quinn, “I have no idea what the curve is, of when it’s gonna… feel like it used to feel.”

Coming off Seinfeld, one of the biggest shows in television history, Seinfeld was returning to his standup comedy roots, and finding the adjustment both humbling and painful.

In response to Seinfeld, Quinn said: “When you’re killing, and you’re up there killing, and you’re miserable. That’s how you’ll know.”

“I think Jerry knows he’s not a great actor,” said one comedy writer. “Don’t forget, he was fired from Benson. He was the delivery boy. He was bad.”

With his new show, The Marriage Ref, one hopes that Seinfeld is at least happy, because he is not killing. The show—which had a strong, post-Olympics start in the ratings, but has since settled into middling numbers—has been eviscerated by critics. In The Newark Star-Ledger, Alan Sepinwall described the show as “celebrities being smug, mocking ordinary couples with arguments so obviously ridiculous and one-sided that they would seem justified picking on the wrong side, and cackling at each other’s lame punch lines as if they were all attending the Friar’s Club Roast... Painful, pointless, obnoxious…” Time’s James Poniewozik wrote that Marriage Ref “proved that, if you are Jerry Seinfeld, NBC will put any program you want on the air, and will give you no network notes. For the sake of my fond memories of the sitcom Seinfeld, I am going to make myself believe that Seinfeld knew this, and was deliberately punking the network.”

Fans’ fond memories of Seinfeld are perhaps what’s most at work in the uproar that Marriage Ref has caused, not just among critics but in the Twitterverse—“Seinfeld’s acting has improved to the point where I almost believe he thinks The Marriage Ref is funny,” was one popular Tweet—and point to the challenge facing sitcom stars who need to reinvent themselves after being branded by a hit show.

“America wants you frozen in time,” said Judy Carter, author of The Comedy Bible. “It’s very disturbing to see our stars age, to see them change, to see them as real people. We like our nostalgia… Because of that, it’s very hard to be perceived in a different way. Seinfeld will always be Seinfeld. He’s not Meryl Streep, who can become different people. He’s always the same.”

No one seems more aware of this than Seinfeld himself, who, when Seinfeld went off the air in 1998, made the unusual decision to not pursue another sitcom—or TV, period—but to instead return to his standup roots to work on new material. (NBC did not make Seinfeld available for comment for this story.) As Comedian showed, it was a difficult, often humiliating process. “What am I doin’ here? I made it! I had my own show! I’m back here!,” he says to one audience in God Knows Where America, who cheer wildly when he takes to the stage, but seem unsure of how to respond when Seinfeld is uncharacteristically not in command and visibly foundering. At one point, one person shouts, “Is this your first gig?” It’s not clear if the question is a joke.

Driving Seinfeld’s dogged dedication to his craft is a profound sense of love—and fear. “I’m scared that I won’t be able to do it anymore, if I don’t keep doing it,” he said in Comedian. “That it might leave me.”

That fear persists. Seinfeld remains one of the hardest-working standups; as ubiquitous as Bill Cosby (another chronic performer) in out-of-the-way comedy clubs in Peoria.

“He tours all the time,” said one agent. “He really took to the road, and he works a lot. All over the country. People like Chris Rock do a big tour every three years. But Jerry is out every weekend, from Thursday through Sunday.”

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Unfortunately, however, he’s judged more by the eclectic creative choices he’s made when he’s off-stage, including his biggest post- Seinfeld role, as the writer and voice in the 2007 animated feature Bee Movie. The film, which performed so-so, had many fans who’d been waiting years for a Seinfeld redux scratching their heads.

As Wayne Federman, a comedian and writer for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, said: “There are very few people in show business who get to do exactly what they want to do, and Jerry Seinfeld is one of them.”

Why, the logic went, would a man who made a reported $85 million last year; whose mode of transport is a helicopter; and whose $35 million estate in East Hampton has its own baseball diamond; come back to the spotlight to make a movie about a bee?

Comedy purists defend Seinfeld, respecting his decision to not attempt to top his last act by doing the obvious thing and land another sitcom. (That route rarely works, anyway, as Seinfeld’s fellow cast members—with the exception of Julia Louis-Dreyfus in The New Adventures of Old Christine—have demonstrated.) Only a few stars are able to make lightning strike twice by staying in the format—Bob Newhart, Ted Danson and, recently, Courteney Cox, come to mind.

“Jerry is very Zen smart about show business, knowing what he can do and what he can’t,” Federman said. “He’s a standup at heart. He’s in the tradition of comedians who throw away whole acts and create a whole new one… Seinfeld works on bits, gets jokes to work. He’s a dedicated comedian. That’s his thing.”

But others wonder how much of Seinfeld’s reluctance to do more on TV and in film stems from the fact that Seinfeld can really only do one thing: be Jerry Seinfeld.

“Seinfeld was successful because he was just being him,” said one agent. “Maybe there isn’t that other side. Maybe he really is just a standup and that’s what he embraces… Maybe he’s afraid. I don’t think there’s enough to judge.”

“I think Jerry knows he’s not a great actor,” said one comedy writer who did not wish to be named. “Don’t forget, he was fired from Benson. He was the delivery boy. He was bad.”

On The Marriage Ref, Seinfeld isn’t bad, but he’s clearly uncomfortable. On the show’s half-hour teaser, he let fellow judges Alec Baldwin and Kelly Ripa do most of the riffing, while he sat back and laughed encouragingly. It is not the way we expect our King of Comedy to behave, and he seems to know it. And tellingly, he’s not the star of the show, seeming to understand that he’s not in his comfort zone. In this genre at least, it still doesn’t seem to feel like it used to feel.

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.