One of the first entertainment comforts I turned to when quarantine began was stand-up comedy. It’s perfect for stressed-out, can’t-focus viewing, given that specials tend to be short (45 minutes to an hour), entirely lacking in complex plotting, and geared only toward making you laugh. The release of Jerry Seinfeld’s latest special, 23 Hours to Kill, which dropped Tuesday on Netflix, feels especially apt for a moment when looking at the news for five minutes can trigger waves of anxiety. Nobody is less topical and more joke-focused than Seinfeld, the king of observational humor who for generations has existed to break down minute social details in painstaking and hilarious fashion.
Even Seinfeld seems aware of the notion that his comedy, at this point, should mostly be perceived as a public service. “I could be anywhere in the world right now! Be honest, if you were me, would you be up here hacking out another one of these?” he asks early on in the set, which was recorded at New York City’s Beacon Theatre long before social distancing was on anyone’s mind. But that’s the comfort in watching Seinfeld’s act—despite the bottomless riches he still earns in residuals from his sitcom, he can’t help but take the stage and offer his latest musings on texting, the post office, and baseball-stadium hot dogs.
Viewers should expect no more of Seinfeld. His brand of comedy went somewhat out of style in the 2000s, supplanted by the raw, confessional approach of Louis C.K. and the more challenging and surreal work of the “alt-comedy” world. Through it all, Seinfeld has remained himself, consistently touring with a mix of new observations and old favorites, resistant to the en vogue concept of having to trot out fresh material on every tour. 23 Hours to Kill is his first completely original special since 1998, but it’s not exactly cutting-edge stuff—it has a whole block of jokes about Pop-Tarts and frozen orange juice.
Many viewers will find solace in that sameness. I’ve watched many old episodes of Seinfeld while isolating at home, delighted (as always) by its precise plotting, perfect cast chemistry, and its sense of being frozen in amber, set in a sitcom version of ’90s New York that has otherwise passed into memory. So I certainly got several hearty chuckles out of Seinfeld’s new material as he opined on the horrors of public toilets and how everything in life is either “great” or it “sucks.” So much of 23 Hours to Kill could be pulled right out of the interstitial comedy-club scenes on his 30-year-old sitcom, and there’s joy in seeing an older pro still earning big laughs.
Any effort to deviate from behavioral minutiae falls flatter. “All right, let’s change gears at this point,” Seinfeld announces about halfway into the set. “Those are things I see in the outside world—now I want to take you into Jerry’s little world, and give you a little perspective on what’s going on in my personal life.” Hearing this, I jolted upright on the sofa, ready for some serious comedic whiplash. Was I hearing things right? Was Jerry Seinfeld, whose interest in psychological self-examination onstage usually amounts to asking “what the deal” is with various social procedures, actually about to get real with us?
Not so much, no. Seinfeld’s version of “perspective” on his personal life amounts to a 25-minute ramble on the niggling difficulties that come with wedded life, what a pain it is to argue with one’s spouse, and how marriage “is two people trying to stay together without saying the words I hate you.” If Seinfeld has gritty personal details he wants to share with audiences, that’s clearly going to have to wait for a future special. Perhaps it’d be one in which he sits on a stool under a single spotlight, smokes cigarettes one after another, and growls his way through his personal shortcomings—but that would be quite a Bizarro Jerry, if you will.
The extended marriage segment of 23 Hours to Kill feels distilled from the book jacket of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus—a ’90s throwback that’s mercifully gone out of date. It also adds a sadly sour tinge to an otherwise enjoyable evening, as Seinfeld struggles to excavate the same deft punchlines he deployed so smoothly in the first half hour. But that failure is evidence of exactly what audiences need from Seinfeld. Some artists must evolve to survive, but he never has, and any efforts in that direction tend to baffle more than entertain. If you’re looking for an hour of distraction in a world that really demands it, Seinfeld is here to help. But the man has his limits.