Why comedians like to play with themselves
Last night, The Wife wanted to watch something sharp and funny, and — as is my wont — I asked if she’d like a slice of Seinfeld. Seinfeld episodes, akin to The Beatles songbook, cover nearly every subject under the sun, and with that confidence I asked her to pick a topic, any topic. Fortuitously enough, we were ladling out dinner at the time and she happened to say “soup”, and I got to introduce her to The Soup Nazi. (Season 7, episode 6, available in India on Amazon Prime).
Watching Seinfeld with someone who isn’t besotted by the series — or, really, anyone who doesn’t know the lines verbatim — is invariably interesting because of the hiccup brought on by Jerry Seinfeld’s performance.
Surrounded by gifted and comedically brilliant actors in Jason Alexander, Michael Richards and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Seinfeld can barely keep a straight face during the elaborately plotted hi-jinks. His role is that of an audience surrogate, snickering at the madness around him just like we would be. That style, of characters taking a beat to laugh and react — as opposed to relentlessly hurling sharply honed wisecracks at each other — is echoed in the modern dramedies we watch today, but still: nobody is likely to single out Jerry’s performance as the best thing about Seinfeld. Nobody.
I speak of Seinfeld because of a new HBO series called Crashing, streaming in India on Hotstar. Do not mistake it for the British comedy of the same name (created by the great Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and available on Netflix), a show I wrote about earlier in this column and something, I repeat, that you’d do well to look up and giggle at.
This new American series is created by comedian Pete Holmes, who plays — you guessed it — a version of himself. This Crashing, with fresh episodes out each week, is about a clueless comedian finding himself out of his marriage and his home, and watching him scavenge for sofa-space and scraps of wisdom at the mercy of more established comics. Directed by Judd Apatow, it is a fairly pleasant watch, featuring a bouquet of quirky comedian guest stars like Artie Lange and TJ Miller, essentially telling us that no matter how screwed we think our lives are — comedians have it harder. Or, at the very least, weirder.
Comedians playing themselves. This happens enough to qualify as a trope, a stuffed subgenre all its own, and it has produced a few bonafide bits of brilliance. Think, if you will, of the sublime awesomeness and cinematic whimsy of Louie, the misanthropic force of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and, of course, the fourth-wall-shattering genius of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which used to break off during its own theme song to ask the audience if they liked the tune.
Why, though, do we care so much about the lives of comedians? They aren’t at all relatable to the common viewer, and — as with Pete Holmes in Crashing — there is an overfamiliar air of “seen this, laughed at that” with the setup itself. Yet we still watch, hoping for more. I feel this is partly because of the sadistic desire on our parts to watch a kind of “Pagliacci For Dummies”, to laugh at the sadness of clowns, sent in for our cruel amusement. Less morbidly, however, I believe it is endlessly fascinating to ponder where exactly comedy comes from, and what makes a joke a good one.
A fine joke is a marvellous thing, with sleight of hand and swift misdirection leading you away from the coup de grâce of the punchline. What makes that magic click? Damned if anyone can provide a straight answer, and it is indeed entertaining to watch professionals try and try and try. Few people steal from life as often and as shamelessly as comedians, and even fewer people are judged as constantly and as unforgivingly. We watch from afar because we dare not step into their shoes. If theirs is a television genre marked by self-indulgence and martyrdom, so be it. Comedians have to play themselves because nobody else will.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on livemint.com and fortnightly in print