All Joking Aside

It's well known that stand-up comedians are among the most miserable bastards on God's green earth. What a wound it must be, the need to make people laugh, to stand pinned in the never-to-be-dimmed spotlight of one's own vanity, clicking and ticking with gags, bits, asides, routines and one-liners, living and dying by the noises made by a mob of drunk, unmerciful strangers. "You looked like you were having fun," offers somebody in the new documentary Comedian, after Jerry Seinfeld wraps up a short, exploratory set at a small club. "That's my job," returns Seinfeld, grimly.

Yes, it's a rough, old business, even if you're at the top. And who is at the top? Well, Bill Cosby, as it turns out. Cosby's is the name breathed in awe by the big dogs of stand-up. Chris Rock tells Seinfeld that he just saw Cosby perform -- "two and a half hours . . . all new material!" -- and Seinfeld gulps. Because Comedian, you see, is largely the story of his attempt to craft a whole new act in the wake of Seinfeld the TV show, an attempt that involves taking the stage late at night and unannounced in clubs across the country and testing, testing, testing. Humiliation is inevitable -- desirable, actually, as only the heat of mortal embarrassment is fierce enough to temper and refine the material. We see the comic shuffling his notes onstage in New York City, mid-act, totally lost. "Is this your first gig?" asks a helpful audience member. And after playing Levittown or West Orange or some other unamusable outpost, Seinfeld comes off shaking his head: "That is a tough, tough fucking gang they got out there . . ."

It tickles one to hear swearwords coming from this man. The Seinfeld of Seinfeld could never have been roused to profanity; peevishness, fretfulness, mild vexation -- these were the extremes of his ill humor. In the conspicuously godless universe that was that show, Seinfeld himself occupied the role of bored deity, remote but immanent, frittering away eternity by immersing himself in tiny worldly things. The Seinfeld of Comedian cuts a far more human figure: The filming is mainly via hand-held camera, dark and grainy, twitchy with nightclub jitters, and the great man is frequently shot from below, displaying a lot of nostril and incipient jowl. His craft obsesses him (after the success of Seinfeld, he could, after all, have given up everything and retired to the Caribbean) and the fugitive gleam of perfection, of pure stand-up, has become like a taste in his mouth. "It is so fucking hard to get comfortable -- there's little glimpses, little moments," he laments in the back of a dark limo after yet another gig, another barely experienced urban landscape sliding past. Work, work, work -- it's all these stand-up people do. They can't stop, they're hooked. Even Jay Leno's still out there, polishing his act, working on his timing. The attraction is fundamental, existential even: Stand-up comedy, Seinfeld's fellow performer Colin Quinn says, "is not justice. There's no justice. But it's close to justice."

Justice is certainly pulling the strings in the tale of Orny Adams, the apprentice comic who is the other subject of Comedian. As Seinfeld, perched on the glittering heap of his celebrity and repute, anguishes about whether he can still "do it," young Adams is just plain desperate to get up there. This kid (almost 30, but still a boy) is stand-up to the jangling roots of his being: the eyes popping with ambition, the incessant mouth, the neutrally trendy, oddly undeclared manner of dress, the uncomfortable spectacle he provides of charisma consuming itself before your very eyes. "What time is it in LA?" he wonders. "Why can't I be happy for five minutes?"

Adams is an inspired choice of focus for this film, particularly when his career trajectory suddenly goes vertical (Seinfeld's own agent adds him to his roster of talent and he makes his debut on Late Night with David Letterman). Adams has a "bit" about lupus, and his fears of getting lupus, to which he is unaccountably attached -- its nothing but a sort of comedic security blanket for him, not remotely funny. At any rate, he plans to open his Letterman appearance with it. The Letterman people, mysteriously and at the last minute, decide that psoriasis is a better or safer source of humor than lupus, and it is at this moment that one feels just a trickle of pity for Adams. "Psoriasis!" he exclaims. "I never even knew what psoriasis was before this morning!" Fearfully he repeats the word in his dressing room, the menacing, serpentine syllables of it -- psoriasis . . . psoriasis -- as if it might rear up like a curse and throttle his whole act. The unstoppable Adams, of course, gets through this and makes his long-desired appearance on Letterman, but nothing can fill the hole for him. We catch him after the show in his hotel room, where success has already broken down into its constituent parts: a cigar butt, a half-finished glass of champagne and a crisis call to the ever-nurturing agent.

The pursuit of fame versus the pursuit of excellence: Comedian's downbeat climax comes when Seinfeld, seeking enlightenment, pays a visit to Bill Cosby. Sere, ponderous, the sage Cosby receives his disciple backstage before leading him out into the theater where Cosby himself will perform that night. "This is a comfortable size for me," he says as they gaze up into the celestial ranks of empty seating. Cosby, who in this context has the presence of Obi-Wan Kenobi, reminds Seinfeld that the younger man has already achieved much, that he can stand beside Muhammad Ali and Willie Mays as someone who "played the shit out of his game." A small measure of serenity is gained. And just as quickly lost (Seinfeld goes straight back on the road), because the world of stand-up comedy permits no peace. Comedian nails it here: Comics are filmed before shows, muttering the weird poetry of their set lists ("Lupus. Cell phones . . ."), they are filmed rushing down the street, the soundtrack playing ghostly wisps and fragments of their own routines. No rest for the wicked, apparently.

If you're lucky, the same theater where you see Comedian will also be showing Jackass: The Movie, which, as you may have heard, is not actually a movie at all. Birthed by a successful MTV show, it's a series -- not even a sequence -- of dangerous, painful and obscene pranks performed by a troupe of trolls, wackos and out-of-work extreme sportsmen. There is no plot, and there are no actors; the nearest thing to a script comes in lines such as, "Hi, I'm Johnny Knoxville, and now we're going to test my rocket skates." It's also a phenomenon, and a potent one -- I saw it on a rowdy Saturday night, and the squad of burping, high-fiving jocks in the next row settled into a congregational silence as soon as the film started.

The opening credits, it has to be said, are awesome: The whole Jackass crew -- Knoxville, Steve-O, a midget named Wee Man and other assorted idiots -- are inside a giant runaway shopping cart barreling across some sort of blasted bridge, filmed in epic slow motion to an orchestral score, flailing and howling and punching one another in the head before finally crashing into an enormous fruit stand.

Much of what follows is just as good: I didn't laugh when they gave themselves paper cuts between their fingers and toes, or when they made and ate an ice-cream cone of yellow snow, but "Golf Course Air Horn," "Ass Kicked by Girl" and the delicately surreal "Tropical Pole-Vaulter" produce hard, hard cackles. The pole-vaulter is particularly effective: Complete with headband and tiny 1970s-style shorts, he appears suddenly on a crowded beach, racing toward a volleyball net with his pole raised like a lance. This is one of the Jackass reliables, the figure of frantic incongruity, earnest and singular, springing to life and doing his thing, kayaking around a city fountain or skateboarding on his stomach down a bowling lane. Other reliables are pain -- produced, for example, by an electrical stimulation pad attached to the perineum or "gooch" -- and anything relating to the anus or its products. Now and again the set pieces have a purity that many of today's conceptual artists must envy: "Mousetrap," for example, features a man in underwear and mouse ears scuttling across a floor covered entirely with snapping, skipping mousetraps.

Like old-time geeks, the members of the Jackass crew take their hits and keep going -- they know what they're doing. Part of the effect is a sort of calculated hysteria: Every gag is accompanied by a soundtrack of "oohs" and "aahs" and "fucks" and gurgles of joy from the other jackasses. Compare the educated, tributary chuckle of Jerry Seinfeld when someone tells him a good joke -- the professional compliment, as it were, that he pays it -- to the leering, bestial, out-of-control laughter of Jackass and ponder, if you have the time, what a highly sophisticated nation this is.

James Parker is the Prospect's film critic.