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A mean-spirited, cynical Jerry Seinfeld is not what we need right now

Jerry Seinfeld’s new Netflix special, “23 Hours to Kill,” is an out-of-touch and at times mean-spirited affair that, by simply existing, promises to show a certain amount of growth and personal development from the standup.

After all, the comic’s last special of original material came in 1998 — before his marriage, before becoming a father, before such ventures as “Bee Movie” and “The Marriage Ref.” And while Seinfeld has folded in material about married life and fatherhood, he also expresses, as a 65-year-old man, an unabashed unwillingness to change – at one point, he actually says he doesn’t want to grow or learn. Fittingly, the joke that opens the evening is not a new one for him. It’s a very old one, but its tone tells us a lot about how Seinfeld has in fact evolved, if not grown up.

“This is ‘out,’” Seinfeld begins the one-hour-show, after praising his audience for navigating their schedules and plans with their annoying friends. “People talk about going out. ‘We should go out. Let’s go out. We never go out.’ Well, this is it.”

If this sounds at all familiar it’s because it is more or less verbatim the cold open to 1989’s “The Seinfeld Chronicles,” the ur-text of “Seinfeld,” where Jerry, pompadoured and in a more modest venue than the Beacon Theatre, tells the crowd, “Do you know what this is all about? Why we’re here? To be out. This is out. And out is one of the single most enjoyable experiences of life.”

The younger Seinfeld finds the humor in the fact that once you’re out, you want nothing more than to go back home.

“Wherever you are in life, it’s my feeling, you’ve gotta go,” Jerry said circa 1989.

Seinfeld circa 2020, shown arriving via helicopter, has come to a more cynical conclusion, stating definitively that:

“Nobody wants to be anywhere. Nobody likes anything. We’re cranky, we’re irritable and we’re dealing with it by constantly changing locations. And so, we come up with things like this, what we’re doing right now. This is a made-up, bogus, hyped-up, not necessary special event.”

I mean, he said it, not me. Seinfeld can afford to undersell himself and, something newer for him, to curse. He’s now worth millions and has nothing to prove, admitting his distance from the plebeians in the balcony while, at the same, resting on his laurels as the prototypical observational comic.

His social critiques here steer into the banal and hackish — smart phones control us, women manufacture problems, men can’t please their wives. While those jokes are toothless, his words do have an incisive clarity when they point to a more original and jaded world view.

The comic discourses on the fine line between “suckiness” and “greatness,” indicating how the experience of a buzzed-about fancy restaurant can make for a worse meal than a bowl of Lucky Charms and Pepsi. (Seinfeld, an inveterate eater of cereal here conveys an obscure-to-much-of-the-country dislike of molecular gastronomy.) He notes his disdain at being encouraged to pick up after himself at a movie theater. He asserts his belief that children are gunning to replace their parents. He posits that cramped urban centers like New York only exist so that its residents can more easily judge and criticize each other — this last observation, if one knows of Seinfeld’s expansive secondary residences, is a slap in the face.

These views are not necessarily aberrant for Seinfeld, but they exude a whiff of status that was missing from his salad days. If the rotating slate of vanity projects were not enough to convince us that Seinfeld has lost the common touch, the special affirms that he believes his darkest insights may be the most relatable. The kernel of this new, archer philosophy is best summed up by the rewrite of the old joke about going out.

30 years ago, Seinfeld righly asserted the need for a certain flux in our lives, registering it as a kind of joy. Following three decades of change, all he sees in a night out is a dissatisfaction with the world. Hitting at a time when many of us want nothing more than to leave our homes, the message has curdled somewhat. But then, it was bitter to begin with.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at [email protected]

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