Review: Jerry Before Seinfeld, Netflix

There is hope for stand-up hacks everywhere. In Jerry Before Seinfeld we get to see the earliest 1970s routines of superstar Jerry Seinfeld. And guess what. He is tackling the same subjects you might hear in a London comedy club any night in 2017. Being dragged around town by your parents as a kid, sport, socks that go missing, what is it with women and cotton balls, long-forgotten cereal brands. Yet in 1981, five years after making his debut Seinfeld was being introduced on TV by Johnny Carson. And the rest is sitcom history.

Of course, it helps if you have a forensic sensibility and can hunt out the tiniest comic details. When recalling going to the wallpaper shops with his mother Seinfeld describes her flicking through the pages of the enormous catalogue, "like the Quran."

There isn't much in the way of original footage here. Instead, we see him return to the Comic Strip club in New York and recreate one of those early sets. He may be a better stand-up here, and his fame may have bought him a bit of a head-start at the gig, but it's the nearest we can get to stand-up time travel.

And we also get see how Seinfeld was able to reconstruct the old set. He has saved all of his notes from his start "to today". He is shown sitting among the yellowing sheets of paper in the open air. I'm not sure what would have happened if there had been a gust of wind.

Elsewhere this fascinating documentary charts his early pre-fame life offstage. Alluding to Richard Pryor he says that tragically he was not brought up in a whorehouse by prostitutes but had an ordinary upbringing and had to carve his comedy out of that. On telling his parents he wanted to be a stand-up he calls it his "little gay closet moment" – "I want to be with other funny people now..." There's a great evocation of the camaraderie of those early club days when he meets contemporaries from back then around a table. Being funny gave them power. For the first time in their life, they recall, the geeks were the alpha males. 

There is some terrific insight into the psychological make-up of comedians, who can dominate arenas but be crippling shy offstage. Or as Seinfeld puts it during his gig, "I can talk to all of you, but I can't talk to any of you." This is a documentary that will appeal to anyone with a passing interest in stand-up, but it will also appeal to anyone who likes top quality observational comedy. Particularly people who have wondered what it is with women and cotton balls. 

Watch Jerry Before Seinfeld here.

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