‘Jerry Before Seinfeld’ Mixes Fresh Seinfeld Material With the Benefit of Hindsight

When it comes to comedy, nobody has been pounding more pavement and chasing the holy grail more aggressively in 2017 than Netflix. The streaming giant that has built its name on the backs of dramas like “House of Cards” and “The Crown” made a definitive choice to try and corner the comedy market, and although there have been some pretty bad blunders (“Disjointed,” “Friends From College”), Netflix remains undeterred in its lofty ambitions. Along with pushing forward with more comedic TV shows, Netflix has inked costly deals with standup juggernauts like Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, and most notably Jerry Seinfeld in order to beef up the service’s comedy image. Seinfeld’s massive, $100 million deal will see the legendary comedian record two standup specials on top of a 10th season of his acclaimed web show “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” while also bringing the first nine seasons to the platform.

Considering the syndication checks the comedian has raked in for his 90s hit sitcom “Seinfeld,” it’s a wonder the man even entertains the idea of continuing to work. A lot of celebrities with Seinfeld-esque fortunes are content to retire to a secluded area with no less than five barbed wire fences separating them from an adoring public. Yet Seinfeld presses on. “Jerry Before Seinfeld,” his first special for Netflix, sees the influential comedian re-visiting his humble comic beginnings, intertwining new material with some of his classic observations, the hilarity of which is heightened by hindsight.

Seinfeld has often talked about his love of superheroes, so it’s quite appropriate then that his first Netflix special function as a sort of origin story for the prolific jokester. Returning to the Comic Strip Live, the club that in 1976 gave a budding Seinfeld his first real booking, “Jerry Before Seinfeld” is part standup special and part career retrospective. It makes sense that Seinfeld would want to approach his first Netflix special this way. Usually, creative people are so busy creating they don’t get to appreciate the masterpieces they’ve made. This special offers Seinfeld an opportunity to step back and do just that, from musing about the first time his parents watched his act to remembering being paid in lots of hamburgers and very few actual dollars.

The hour-long special never feels dull or repetitive, an especially impressive feat considering a lot of these jokes we’ve heard before, either in Seinfeld’s world famous sitcom where he works through material on-stage, or in various specials over the years. But Seinfeld proves why he’s the stuff of comedy legend, rifling off those jokes and a ton of fresh ones so quickly and effortlessly, it’s hard to tell which are new and which are nostalgic re-hashes.

It’s a real treat for students of the comedy game to watch a young Seinfeld in action, even though most of the footage is close to ungodly, like someone downloaded it using some kind of Youtube conversion freeware. He surrounds himself with legal pad upon legal pad of all of his jokes, every single one, from 1975 until a few hours before he hit the stage. An older and wiser Seinfeld even shares some of his very early material, before he found his authentic voice, and boy does it fall flat. Not even Seinfeld was funny when he first started, a consolation many comics will take with them to that next soul-crushing coffee shop open mic. “I only had one joke that worked,” he recalls.

Ultimately, the special has a lot of hits and a few misses, not unlike most Seinfeld specials. It’s just an inevitability that comes with the territory. Seinfeld’s humor is built on quirky observations, and not everyone is going to pick up on all of them or share that quirk. Still, “Jerry Before Seinfeld” satisfies the most stringent of Seinfeld devotees, dishing out the right amount of one-liners and nostalgia to quench a comic thirst.

Jerry Before Seinfeld” premieres on Netflix Sept. 19.