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In ‘23 Hours to Kill,’ Jerry Seinfeld Is a Comedy Machine That’s Broken Down

His Netflix stand-up special illustrates the limits of observational humor when you reveal nothing about yourself

Early on in his new stand-up special, Jerry Seinfeld levels with us. “You know me,” he tells the crowd at New York’s Beacon Theatre. “C’mon, you and I know each other on a certain level — electronic, though it may be — for many, many years at this point. We’re going through life together — a beautiful thing. You know what I’ve done. You know what I’ve made. You know how I live.”

But do we know Seinfeld? 

It’s a question worth asking about our relationship with any celebrity. Even if we’ve memorized every episode of Seinfeld and studiously kept up with every season of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, that’s not the same thing as knowing the 66-year-old comic. And while watching 23 Hours to Kill, which is now streaming on Netflix, I thought about how little Seinfeld actually reveals about himself during this, his first new special in 22 years. A lot has changed about Seinfeld since I’m Telling You for the Last Time — he’s been married for more than two decades, has three kids, including one in college — but on stage, nothing has fundamentally been altered. This man has been in our lives for more than a generation, but I still feel like I know almost nothing about him.

As a piece of stand-up — the only metric I imagine that matters to Seinfeld — 23 Hours to Kill is a smooth, solid piece of professional entertainment. Bounding on stage to the brassy, big-band strains of “Come Fly With Me,” Seinfeld has fashioned his set as a classy piece of old-school Vegas showbiz. Every joke is polished, every punchline is impeccably delivered. Like with Frank Sinatra, part of Seinfeld’s appeal is his king-of-the-world swagger, his deserved confidence that he can do his job as good as anyone right now doing it. Many of the special’s bits will be familiar to those who have seen him live or on late-night talk shows. But even so, there can be pleasure in watching Seinfeld go through them with mathematical precision, setting ‘em up and knocking ‘em down.

But despite the seemingly momentous fact that it’s been so long between Seinfeld specials, what’s strange about 23 Hours to Kill is that this hour doesn’t feel particularly … special. The Beacon is gorgeous, and Seinfeld is spry and focused, dressed in a sharp suit. But beyond some well-executed jokes, 23 Hours to Kill doesn’t take many risks or offer any deeper perspective on, frankly, anything.

To be clear, I wasn’t expecting Seinfeld to somehow magically come up with a set that would address our uncertain times. (The special was recorded long before the pandemic.) But while it’s unfair to criticize 23 Hours to Kill for its inability to read the room, so to speak, the show does cast into sharp relief the frustrating anonymity of the man who conceived it. Jerry Seinfeld has repeatedly told us that he’s not a confessional comedian — that he’s not one for pathos or sentimentality. The laugh is all. But during the special, I never much felt like I was engaging with a relatable human being. He’s just a machine who dispenses zingers at regular intervals.

When I say “relatable,” I’m not talking about the fact that he’s far richer and more successful than I will ever be. (Seinfeld actually gets into that a little bit in 23 Hours to Kill, noting that everyone’s life sucks, even his… and then, after a perfectly held pause, adds, “Perhaps not quite as much.”) What I mean is that his reliable brand of observational humor would work better if what he observed had the cutting clarity of the truth. But throughout the hour, his jokes are far too generalized: Cellphones sure are addictive. Hyped restaurants are rarely that great. Hoo boy, marriage, am I right??!?

One of the great audience misconceptions is that a live performer — be it a musician, a theater actor or a stand-up — only does that one show that you’re seeing. We conveniently forget that they repeat the exact same performance dozens of times, for vastly different crowds, over a span of weeks, months, maybe even years. Rather unintentionally, 23 Hours to Kill is a reminder that every show has routine in it — certain beats are hit every time, particular shifts in tone or mood are marked by predetermined pivots. Seinfeld’s set is so specifically designed, with each joke primed to hit its intended target, that it’s tailored to a big crowd collectively but not to anyone in particular. (Yes, I, too, as a human being, find elements of talking on the phone to be amusingly odd. As a member of my species, I agree that porta-potties are disgusting.) Just about every social custom and modern convenience that Seinfeld dissects in 23 Hours to Kill is accurately derided, but what’s missing is any sort of connection to the guy saying it. This is the same show Seinfeld has done again and again.

On the 10th season of Comedians in Cars, Seinfeld complained a lot about a new breed of stand-up in which comics bare their soul to the audience. “They wanna have a broader palette of emotion,” he said dismissively. “You could do that when you’re young. But to get people of your generation, with kids and problems, to come out and pay money to see you, it better be funny  —  ‘cause I got the ‘pathos’ part covered at my house.” In theory, 23 Hours to Kill ought to prove his point — especially because we’re in the midst of a plague. The world is tough enough right now — let’s all just enjoy some jokes. But the bloodlessness of the whole affair ends up being alienating. He doesn’t have to wear his heart on his sleeve, but there’s almost no heart at all amidst the steely bam-bam-bam precision.

This comes through particularly clearly during the special’s second half, which Seinfeld opens by announcing, “I wanna take you into Jerry’s little world and give you a little perspective on what’s going on in my personal life.” After railing about inane bits of trite everyday conversation, the uselessness of the United States Postal Service — yeah, this special is not well-timed — and the wonder of Pop-Tarts, he teases us with the possibility of getting to know the “real” Seinfeld. That doesn’t happen. Instead, we’re treated to the most basic rumination on marriage and parenting that have been espoused by approximately a billion comics before. 

It’s not that the jokes aren’t funny — they’ve been constructed in such a way that you know when to laugh. But, rather, they’re so simplistic that I didn’t for a second believe that they were based on anything that happened to the actual person Jerry Seinfeld and his actual spouse Jessica Sklar. And if they are, they’ve been scrubbed and manicured over months of roadwork so that the dirt of the real events has been wiped clean. On Seinfeld, the Jerry character was a neat-freak to a hilarious degree. The Jerry in 23 Hours to Kill is equally fastidious to his detriment — he doesn’t allow any real-life mess to creep into his humor.

There are all types of comedians, of course, but the best and most interesting modern stand-ups dig into the specificity of their lives to give their jokes edge. John Mulaney wouldn’t be half as funny if we weren’t aware of his lethal need to be liked — just like Ali Wong gets a lot of laughs from detailing her dislike of motherhood. They reveal intimate, vulnerable parts of themselves and then make it funny, enticing us to hear more about their personal lives.

As funny as Seinfeld has been over the years, he isn’t much of a storyteller — he can’t give us the sense of a life lived. So when he declares in 23 Hours to Kill that he’s never been happier than in his 60s, explaining that he feels liberated by the ability to say no to things he doesn’t want to do, it’s just a comment, not tied to anything more substantial about who he is. His college-bound daughter is compared to a baby alligator, but there’s no warmth, no affection, in the analogy — and, I don’t think this is coincidental, therefore not much wit. All we get is a meticulous joke construction — it’s what he’s good at it, without the intangible, unguarded bits of life that presumably inspired the joke in the first place.

The closest Jerry Seinfeld gets to sentiment during 23 Hours to Kill is admitting that, even though he is fabulously wealthy and doesn’t need to be doing stand-up anymore, “I am thrilled to be here. I love it here.” Pointing down toward the stage, he declares, “This could be my favorite spot in the entire world, right here, right now.” 

I don’t doubt for a moment that he means that. Seinfeld’s commitment to perfection — to workshop material until it’s flawless — is impressive, an illustration that his love of his craft is more important to him than money or fame. But soon after, he says something that I think is even truer. “This is, in fact, my favorite type of intimate relationship: I love you, you love me and we will never meet.” That impersonality is 23 Hours to Kill’s defining feature and its greatest limitation.