This past Wednesday, I hit a creative writing plateau. With each paragraph I composed, I slammed my fingers on the “delete” button as if it were a whack a mole game at a carnival. If I had chosen to keep the amount of pages I scrapped, I would have printed out a scroll longer than Jack Kerouac’s initial draft of On The Road. Dejected by my mind’s inability to salvage a single entertainment article pitch, I discovered that the only antidote would be for me to laugh.
I nestled under my bed sheets and popped on Comedian, a 2002 documentary starring Jerry Seinfeld. To my surprise, Comedian is not a comedy film, although it certainly has some funny moments. It explores the other side of stand-up comedy; that is, the preparation, politics, nerves, and creativity. Arising from my mattress after the film’s credits, my belly didn’t ache like it did after watching the amusing observation oracle’s 1998 HBO special I’m Telling You For the Last Time. But I did walk away with a few lessons.
The first takeaway is that natural talent only a forms a fraction of a comedian’s success. The Seinfeld chronicle of a reinvigorated career is that of an emotional endurance battle— one on par with the physical anguish of the Tour De France. At one point in the beginning of the film, Seinfeld is unable to remember a new routine. As he scourges his notebook for a recollection, a woman pithily asks: “Is this your first gig?”
The film also features comic Orny Adams as he tussles to make it in show business. Seinfeld mentors the 29-year-old protégé even though they’re essentially walking through the same wasteland together. The former is an up-and-coming comic hungry for his first bite of fame; the latter is struggling for a second course of it, hoping he can still remember the taste.
Adams, who has been on the stand-up circuit for roughly a decade, feels like success is owed to him: “Let me just give a little advice to the industry,” he says, giving a cocksure glance to the camera. “Stretch before you go up on stage. Because when you come running after me, I don’t want you to pull a muscle.” For Seinfeld, even the low maintained gigs have high stakes. Before a showing at a small comedy cellar, Seinfeld squeamishly sits in a dark corner of the backstage room as he paces around, the palm of his hand inseparable from his forehead.
Seinfeld’s grand return to the Late Show stage wasn’t an Osiris-like rebirth; it was the reward of trudging out and editing material for months on the road, half convinced that his act wasn’t worthwhile. His body language appears smooth and comfortable despite a post-performance revelation: “It felt like my first Tonight Show, in that I came off stage and I have really no idea what happened.” The higher he climbs, the more humbled he becomes – see his agape mouth at Bill Cosby’s rigorous performance schedule after hearing it from Mr. Jello Puddin’ Pop himself.
As an entertainment journalist, I have never performed at an open mic night or exchanged verbal barbs with a heckler. Nor have I been on the road, pressing my cheek against the tour bus’s windowpane in an attempt to squeeze in a few hours sleep before another performance. Suffice it to say, Seinfeld and I don’t share everything in common. But in the middle circle of the comedian/entertainment writer Venn diagram lays issues and responsibilities of any aspiring creative person: learning to synthesize constructive feedback, possessing the scrap or die mentality that it takes to thrive, and playing the game without losing your marbles. This past Wednesday, like a comedian shying away from the stage, I mistakenly chose to shut down instead of stand up.
Perhaps writing this essay about not being able to write was a step in the right direction, a way to clear the cobwebs. If you don’t take my word for it, I’ll leave you with this jewel from the omniscient Bill Watterson, who named his Calvin and Hobbes comic strip after two esteemed philosophers: “Shutting off the thought process is not rejuvenating; the mind is like a car battery – it recharges by running.”