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What to learn from the frugal simplicity of Jerry Seinfeld’s humour

The other day, Joe Biden, the former U.S. vice-president, issued a fierce and angry attack on Donald Trump. He said that the United States is on "a very dark path" and called on important people to take a stand.

There was nothing unique about the speech, really. It simply reflects the anger and distaste that is in the air in that country.

But, you know who is not on "a very dark path" and who is not taking a stand? Jerry Seinfeld, that's who.

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Jerry Before Seinfeld, which has been streaming on Netflix for a few weeks, is a fascinating experience to watch. Seinfeld, now 63 and immensely rich, built his stand-up career and classic TV show around a very particular kind of comedy. It's wry observation and it is as intensely funny as it is an intense avoidance of anything political or dark.

The frugal simplicity of Seinfeld's humour is a wonder to behold and it is a tonic to enjoy it. It is the best kind of escapism because the humour is, itself, a deliberate act of escaping morality, anger or controversy of any kind.

The special, part of a package deal Seinfeld made with Netflix, is ostensibly about Seinfeld's early years as a comic, before he was at the centre of a iconic TV series. It promises insight into the "real" Jerry Seinfeld by allowing him to chronicle his early life. It does nothing of the sort. Instead, it is a perfect rendering of Seinfeld's skill in observational humour and turning "nothing" into laughter.

It's 20 years now since Seinfeld was the biggest hit on TV. Rewatching it now, absorbing this Netflix special or Seinfeld's tiny, slight Web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, you realize how enormously influential he has been. The nonchalant, laconic quality of his humour influenced the NBC version of The Office, Parks and Recreation and countless other series.

What's striking about Seinfeld now is how empty of emotion it is. And how startlingly egocentric the characters are. They are callous misanthropes and they know it and don't care. There are some people, moralistic scholars of the popular culture, who would probably argue that the celebration of callousness was so influential that it was instrumental in shifting the U.S. culture to the point where Donald Trump could be elected president.

That's a tempting position to take, but it's dubious. It's rather like blaming cultural shifts on people who simply want to be likeable and funny.

"I'll tell ya the whole story, I'll tell ya how it happened," Seinfeld says at the start of the special. But that doesn't happen in the way most comedians tell their life stories. There are no inner demons revealed, no bitter failures or lost battles. Just stuff about growing up, happy and secure, on Long Island, and then making a living from crafting jokes about that secure life.

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At the same time, there is truth in what he delivers. He points out that growing up as a little kid in the 1960s meant a life very different from what kids experience now. His parents were ignorant about nutrition, like most people then, and no kid was required to wear a bike helmet. There is a long segment about breakfast cereals, something that he drew upon in Seinfeld the NBC series. Like the cereals he celebrates and mocks, the material is literally insubstantial. But it's very funny.

In the special, he stands on a small stage in the small comedy club where he started his career in 1976, and entertains a small audience. There are interludes in which he sits in front of what was his parent's house and talks about writing jokes. Sometimes he talks to other comedians, briefly, and sometimes there is blurry footage of Jerry Seinfeld the happy kid and happy, wisecracking teenager.

Nothing is revealed, really. And that is the point. He says of his childhood, "My first words were 'Leave me alone.'" One suspects that's not a joke. He means it. In terms of personal authenticity, he wants to be left alone to avoid it.

Jerry Before Seinfeld is both funny and fascinating – it illustrates how not to be on "a very dark path" or to "take a stand" and in so doing it illustrates how to stay sane in a very dangerous time.

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