Comedian (documentary)

Though his onstage demeanor suggests a casual, nonchalant attitude toward life, Jerry Seinfeld actually has an amazingly strong work ethic.

This is the man who took his eponymous sitcom off the air in 1998, at the height of its popularity, to keep it from overstaying its welcome.

Later that year, he retired all his old material, vowing never to do it again and to come up with a new act from scratch.

“Seinfeld” could still be producing new episodes today. Jerry could do his old jokes for another 20 years. But the man has a thing for quality that is admirable and, to be frank, somewhat rare in the modern entertainment era. (Admit it: You’d do any kind of TV show for $1 million an episode, even a bad one.)

“Comedian” is an entertaining new documentary that shows how Seinfeld is working to create that new batch of jokes. Stand-up comedy is designed to look effortless; what Seinfeld and his cohorts will have you know is that it’s grueling, agonizing work, fine-tuning jokes so that every word is perfectly chosen.

Seinfeld went back to the seedy comedy clubs of his early career, and the camera follows him. His pal Colin Quinn observes that Seinfeld’s fame can only get him so far: “You get a little bit of a break up front,” he says. “Then you still gotta be funny.”

Indeed, the standing ovations and wild cheers that greet Seinfeld can turn to cold silence if he stumbles in the joke-telling. One harrowing scene shows Seinfeld completely losing his train of thought in the middle of his act. The audience is forgiving, until someone hollers, “Is this your first gig?” You’d think watching a multi-millionaire squirm would be more enjoyable, but Seinfeld is such a beloved figure that it’s hard to see him suffer.

Fortunately, most of “Comedian” is filled with better moments, offering true insight into the nature of comedy and how it comes to be.

Contrasting with Seinfeld’s coolness and likability is a young comedian named Orny Adams, a whiny, abrasive comic who wants so desperately to be famous that he blows off constructive criticism and obsesses over everything to the point of being permanently unhappy. Seeing his career charted alongside Seinfeld’s just makes Jerry all the more endearing.

Not only is our Mr. Seinfeld funny; he’s also, by all appearances, a great guy. For his fans, nothing could be better than seeing how it all comes together.

B+ (1 hr., 21 min.; R, scattered harsh profanity.)