The title and opening sequence of Jerry Seinfeld’s new Netflix special, 23 Hours To Kill, is meant as an amusing homage to James Bond, even though the time reference actually defines the rest of the comedian’s day outside of the one hour he’s telling jokes onstage. But why waste any more time trying to decipher why or how Seinfeld would even want to compare himself to Bond in the first place when you’re not looking for action or sex appeal from Jerry. Just jokes. Killer jokes. So…
The Gist: A few months after the Seinfeld finale aired on NBC in 1998, the sitcom star performed a live stand-up special on HBO, I’m Telling You for the Last Time. (It’s worth noting that you can currently stream this special on Netflix, too.) 23 Hours to Kill marks his first “new” special in 22 years, even though it’s his second special for Netflix; 2017’s Jerry Before Seinfeld found the comedian revisiting his “oldest” jokes and material before he became a household name in primetime, and sharing stories, home movies, and archival footage of his young late nights in comedy.
So what’s in this hour, then? An hour of carefully crafted bits and greatest hits from his past 22 years of touring, filmed last fall at The Beacon Theatre in New York City, where he has performed a monthly residency for most of the past four years, only halted this spring by the coronavirus pandemic.
What Comedy Specials Will It Remind You Of?: What’s the deal with Seinfeld? He’s like every other observational comedian the United States has produced over the past 40 years, but more successful than any of them. Even if David Brenner or Andy Rooney probably wondered “what’s the deal with” a lot earlier and more often than Seinfeld ever has onstage. Not that there’s anything wrong with still thinking of Seinfeld in this way.
Memorable Jokes: So here’s the deal with Seinfeld. For the past two decades, he has performed in NYC comedy clubs, on the road in clubs and theaters, and on late-night TV shows, and if you’ve seen him at any point along the way, then you’ll likely remember at least one joke he tells in this new special in 2020.
The documentary Comedian, which followed Seinfeld as he started going back onstage with nothing in 2000 to build a new hour of material for a 2001 tour, includes his musing to a comedy club audience why anyone would still need to audibly instruct voice-mail callers about the beep in the 21st century, with the same phrasing mostly intact all these years later. Similarly, his humblebrag now, “I could be anywhere in the world right now!” also made the two-decade leap, although this time he’s raking in Netflix money to say it; in Comedian, he merely worked that weekend at the Cleveland Improv.
Seinfeld’s nostalgic takedown of Pop-Tarts, for which he broke down his writing process for the bit back in 2012? It’s still in there!
The “gay French king” scrolling flamboyantly through his cell phone contact list? You know, the bit Seinfeld cited as an example of political correctness run amok in 2015, which led to oh so many hot takes about Seinfeld no longer performing to college students, as if he were even ever remotely thinking about booking a campus stop anytime this century? You bet that’s still in the act.
And he’s still using his technology chunk as a heavy counterweight to his mocking of the United States Postal Service, although with the Trump administration threatening to KO funding for the Constitutionally-protected federal mail operation, it’s not quite as funny in 2020 as it was when he told the bit on The Tonight Show way back in 2014. It’s also not so accurate, if you want to get into the weeds on why and how Congress underfunded the USPS, which I know you don’t right now, and that’s OK. Just know it rings a harsh tone. Seinfeld’s wife knows what I’m talking about, and so will you after watching this hour.
But his opening salvo, first delivering play-by-play commentary inside his audience’s minds about their planning for the night out to see him, then segueing into how any planned outing may fail to live up to expectations, ends with a proclamation that “sucks and great are pretty close,” with Seinfeld offering up several examples to make his point. He’s got them right where he wants them. Then again, they’re right where they wanted to be.
Our Take: All of which makes Seinfeld even more of a throwback, an anachronism, an “OK, Boomer” kind of act that scoffs at even a sincere attempt at criticism. Which he has mentioned before on his Netflix series, Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, saying: “That’s what’s so funny to me about when you get a negative review, which we all get from time to time. And you want to say, they’ve already voted. I’m sorry you didn’t like it. But the vote is — we took a vote that night. And out of 2,000 people — I know you have this job at the newspaper — but it doesn’t mean anything.”
Nevertheless, we persist.
Because Seinfeld cares so much about the craft of stand-up as a performing artist, we should care about and honor or critique the craftsmanship. And because he cares so much, the riskiest thing he does in this hour doesn’t take place onstage; he’d already jumped out of a helicopter in a wetsuit into the Hudson River months before the recorded stand-up performance (end credits footage reveals him practicing off a high-dive platform). Everything he says onstage, in stark contrast, needed years if not decades of rehearsing and honing, thousands of shows in clubs and theaters before he’d commit an hour of them to a special or album. Unlike most everyone else in stand-up in this century, who churn out new hours every couple of years to sell in concert tickets, albums and streaming specials, Seinfeld can afford to only put out his Greatest Hits.
Never you mind that the very notion of an observational comedian holding onto the same observations for decades sounds implausible during an era wherein everyone and anyone can offer up immediate opinions on everything and anything via social media. We imagine Saturday Night Live giving up on any sketch ideas based on that Monday’s news just because all of the other late-night comedians have taken their cracks at it by Tuesday. And yet here’s Seinfeld, continuing to tell jokes he wrote in the year Y2K. Before 9/11. When you could still smoke in restaurants and comedy clubs.
But streaming platforms have taught us, and Seinfeld most of all, that audiences are more than happy to watch the same Seinfeld reruns from the 1990s over and over and over again, to the tune of bidding wars to stream nostalgic sitcoms like the one he and Larry David dreamed up about all of the trivial nothings in our everyday life and turned them into comedy gold.
So Jerry may troll us by noting at 65 (he just turned 66 last week): “I don’t want to grow. I don’t want to change. I don’t want to improve at anything.” He may tease us by hinting that he’s done driving other comedians to get coffee or making comedy specials, and since it took 22 years to film this hour, could you blame him for not wanting to work so hard til he’s 88? He doesn’t even have to work this hard now. But he can’t stay away from the stage. He can’t stop telling jokes. Even if they’re oldies but goodies.
Our Call: STREAM IT. It might have made more sense for Seinfeld to reverse the order of his two Netflix specials, putting out this hour in 2017 and waiting until now for his career retrospective. Watching Jerry Before Seinfeld may feel more comforting in this moment than watching 23 Hours To Kill. But whether you think he’s great or he sucks, well, you’re not far off from the truth, either way.
Sean L. McCarthy works the comedy beat for his own digital newspaper, The Comic’s Comic; before that, for actual newspapers. Based in NYC but will travel anywhere for the scoop: Ice cream or news. He also tweets @thecomicscomic and podcasts half-hour episodes with comedians revealing origin stories: The Comic’s Comic Presents Last Things First.
Watch Jerry Seinfeld: 23 Hours To Kill on Netflix