Pop CultureJune 25, 2024

Review: Jerry Seinfeld brings complaint comedy to Spark Arena


A comic once beloved for being an amiable jerk is suddenly mad at everyone. Duncan Greive watches the ups and downs of an icon at 70.

One of the many golden nuggets in flawless ‘90s comedy Clueless comes when Alicia Silverstone’s Cher dismisses a boy with the perfect kiss off, “he listens to complaint rock”, referring to grunge music, which was already on the wane. The film came out in 1995, around the time Jerry Seinfeld was at his apex cultural power, his wildly original self-titled “show about nothing” typically involved he and his friends as the villains – the complaints were about them, rightly so.

Thirty years later and Seinfeld is on stage at a not-quite-full Spark Arena, and his complaints are about the outside world. His style has changed from the laconic, laid-back delivery familiar from the show’s intros to a hoarse half-yell, which persists throughout the opening 20 minutes. It’s almost all complaints. 

He starts out whinging about phones, disliking it when other people show him theirs, or the condition of their cases. Next up is news, meaning TV news, for not being “new”. Then artificial intelligence, for making humans even more stupid. Then streaming, for choice paralysis, because what was wrong with TV before? So far, despite occasional flashes, it’s pretty hack.

Things pick up a bit in some extended stuff about vacationing, with a grouchy affected persona. The best lines come when he drops in some self-awareness: “I don’t know the place I went to. Some fancy place, you can probably imagine.” That he is what Bloomberg called “the last TV billionaire” is extremely well-known; it makes his efforts at relatability – like a gag about how people talk about TV shows at work (what office is this, Jerry?) ring deeply hollow.

Tfw haven’t worked in an office in 25 years

He’s much better when his unreal existence is front and centre. One of the best gags from opening act Mario Joyner had him look longingly at the water set up on a very spare stage. “That’s Jerry’s water, I can’t touch that,” he joked, then checked his watch “he don’t like you to go on too long – he’ll dock you.” Seinfeld acknowledged this himself with an extended bit about all the new furniture flowing through his house, which he’s learned not to ever comment on.

The business of arena scale comedy is strange – three of its biggest stars, all of whom created iconic and still brilliant shows in the ‘90s and ‘00s, seem to find the passage of time and changing values irritating to the point of being unable to resist lumbering, unsubtle commentary. Ricky Gervais and Dave Chappelle have fixated on trans issues in what are persistently the most leaden parts of recent sets, while Seinfeld has talked longingly about missing a “dominant masculinity” and “the extreme left and PC crap, and people worrying so much about offending other people.”

He’s also been vocal about his support for Israel and Jewish people since the October 7 massacre and subsequent war in Gaza, visiting Israel in solidarity in December. Unlike on previous dates in the US and Australia, the show was not interrupted by pro-Palestine protests (though they were outside, with custom Sionist flyers), but the tension, the possibility, was present in the air. At other shows, he’s responded to heckles, framing their protests as being antisemitic.

As a 70-year-old Jewish man born less than a decade after the end of the atrocities of the second world war, it’s not surprising that his position toward Israel differs from many young progressives, Jewish and gentile alike. 

In the room, that backdrop and his recent edging toward an anti-PC perspective was less present in the material, particularly as the show went on. There was a fun, guileless riff asking why Frankenstein wore a sports coat, and it really flew during a long section written from horses’ point of view, pointing out how rude it is to show up to ride them in an SUV, and wondering why we continue to measure in horsepower, only to make them seem weak. 

It’s gentle observational material, much like the comedy club work which ran ahead of the show Seinfeld itself. Rewatching recently, I was struck by how infrequently the show really offends contemporary mores, striking given the volume of episodes and when it was created. It suggests that perhaps his critiques of the modern limits placed on comedy are overstated – maybe he’s just not trying as hard now as he was then.

When he does try, it’s still extremely good. The final third of the show is the strongest material of the hour. It’s anchored in what he really knows – the experience of being a husband and father, a little later in life than most. Some truths remain universal, no matter how rich you are. He’s not a fan of current parenting – “when did we get so into it?” – detailing what sounds like a minor wedding ceremony for his kid each night. Most parents can relate. He expresses disdain for the end of gutterballs for children at bowling – which, fair.

These are complaints about the world changing, but they’re grounded in theatres of legitimate debate, and not targeted at anyone in particular, beyond a culture with which he acknowledges complicity. That works better, as it does when he concedes how much of his current joy simply comes from complaining. “I’m a very happy person hating everything I do throughout my whole life,” he says.

This self-deprecation is a much better posture for him than just yelling about mundane facets of modern life, about which he does not seem particularly engaged. Cultural reference points include Shelley Duvall, the Titanic, Friends and an extended bit about cemeteries. Maybe that’s really what this is all about. A once all-world comedian realising that his time has mostly passed. Ironically the best moments of this patchy but still very funny show feature him retreating to a prior and more innocent posture.

He’s cracking jokes about jet skis and visors (“finish your hat!”) and describing the interior of his relationship. Close your eyes and it could be 1995. Then he trudges off stage, and it’s 2024, and there’s something new to complain about.

Keep going!