When Jerry Seinfeld announced plans to stage a comedy fund-raiser for victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, he was not worried that stand-up routines might seem too trivial in the wake of the deadly events that shook the nation.
"It's always been too trivial," declared the comedian who made his fortune on a sitcom about nothing.
"That's what makes it funny. It was never important. It's not meant for social change. It's meant for fun."
Seinfeld was echoing what Tom Hanks had said in leading off a parade of movie and rock stars in an earlier high-profile benefit. "We are not healers," Hanks noted during last month's "America: A Tribute to Heroes." "We are merely artists, entertainers, here to raise spirits and, we hope, a great deal of money."
The humility seems genuine in both cases, and refreshing, given that it comes from entertainers who command $20 million a movie or $1 million an episode. But there is a difference between the movie star and the stand-up comedian: One reads lines written by others, while the other writes his own material -- and it's often, even in Seinfeld's case, a commentary on society.
That -- and obvious matters of taste -- are what has made comedy so tricky in the weeks since Sept. 11, whether for David Letterman or Jay Leno or Seinfeld and the rest of the comics he lined up for "Stand-Up for New York," a benefit at Carnegie Hall on Monday night that raised $1,859,400.
The issue by then was not so much whether it was acceptable to tell jokes while rescue crews are still digging for bodies and while bombs are falling overseas. No less than Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, kicking off the concert nine days after he appeared on "Saturday Night Live," said that was OK. "I'm here to give you permission to laugh," he told the audience. "And if you don't, I'll have you arrested."
The issue, then, was whether to tackle the current events -- or avoid them. The comedy veterans of the lineup -- Alan King, Bill Cosby, George Wallace and Seinfeld himself -- did the latter.
The white-bearded 73-year-old King acknowledged the moment, saying, "It's like entertaining the troops," but quickly added, "which I did in the Spanish-American War," segueing him into a barrage of old geezer jokes, like how he was at the age "where my prostate is bigger than my ego."
But others dived into the news, with Chris Rock even musing on why people are ambivalent about America. "America's like the uncle who paid my way though college," he said, "and molested me."
The risks of such an approach are obvious. But it's equally obvious to an audience if the comedian is pretending there's no 500-pound gorilla outside the concert hall -- if not on the stage.
So should comedy soothe or unsettle? It's no simple either/or, but Seinfeld's night provided arguments for the benefits of each.
When he disclosed plans for the fund-raiser, Seinfeld downplayed all the talk about the post-Sept. 11 adjustments required in all aspects of American entertainment.
"The entertainment industry, like every other creative aspect of the culture, always has to be responding moment to moment to people's taste and feelings, and they succeed or fail at that all the time, even in normal times," Seinfeld said two weeks ago.
"Most movies and TV shows -- sometimes people feel like they don't relate, it's not current ... 'I don't like that show, so it dies.' Reacting to the cultural mood is what entertainment is. ... This is a major shift that happened very suddenly, so it will require an immediate shift. But that's the job."
Some peers no doubt would see Seinfeld as underselling the possibilities of comedy when he called it "never important," simply "for fun." Yet one of the greatest film comedies argued that there were few higher callings than providing a good laugh, especially in hard times. The film director protagonist in Preston Sturges' 1941 "Sullivan's Travels" is intent on documenting the suffering of the Depression masses ("I want to hold a mirror up to life") until he sees inmates get relief -- by howling at a Mickey Mouse cartoon.
"That's my job, to lighten the load," said Wallace, offering a set of familiar bits Monday: You've seen all those 'Men at Work' signs around town, right? "Have you ever seen men actually working?" he asked. And later, "How come you never see Boy Scout cookies?"
With the right smile from the comedian, who has no doubt used the lines a zillion times on the road, a willing audience went along even with those.
But the contrast in approach could not have been greater with the two comics who surrounded Wallace, both of whom scrambled in recent weeks to work up fresh post-Sept. 11 routines, trying out bits at local comedy clubs. "I'm not going to start trouble here, but ...," began Colin Quinn, the former "SNL" "news anchor" who worked his set around the events.
What was that about authorities saying there was "a 100 percent chance of retaliation" by Osama bin Laden? "If it's 100 percent, it's not a chance," Quinn noted.
He teased New Yorkers who seem intent on telling stories of how they "almost" went to the towers the day of the attacks, he suggested how Germany was eager to join the American coalition ("just let us push a button for old times' sake"), and he talked about how this seemed to be the first politically correct war. "We bomb them -- then throw food at them."
By the time Rock came on, after Wallace, he was ready with his own variation on that bit, but doing it one better, making it specific -- he envisioned a 50-pound bag of food falling on some poor, starving 40-pound Afghan.
Rock also pondered why there were only religious extremists, not extremist bakers. He suggested that rap mogul Suge Knight might be the person to go after Bin Laden. And he wondered whether he or his affluent audience, which included former President Clinton and billionaire Donald Trump, were really ready for war. Were they ready to go to Brownsville, even, the inner city?
"We support the war, but we're not ready," Rock said. "I'm not even ready to be a crossing guard." Rock paces the stage, he flashes smiles and he cackles, but he is there to push his audiences, usually about race or sex relations -- and here about terrorism and war. Inevitably, it didn't all go over, especially his rant about how "we worship money in America." Is it too crass for him to mock the reports of how "the Dow Jones is down!" after the World Trade Center went down?
When Cosby came out after Rock, in a "Hello Friend" sweatshirt, he did not even tease the audience with the topical. Instead, he sat in a chair and shared some of the greatest long routines in stand-up history. He became a child right there, going back 60 years, to a time when he listened to trouble-making demons in his little tummy ... profound stuff, yet funny. Yet not nearly as funny as his final dentist bit, which made a point of not making a point -- except that Cosby still could, at 64, bring tears to an audience's eyes by pretending to be in that dentist's chair, his lip numb from the footlong needle, dribbling water, trying to speak to the doc, making a complete fool of himself.
When Seinfeld announced the fund-raiser, he confessed to one motive beyond charity. "We're all very excited about performing with Mr. Cosby," he said.
So his own act of courage Monday was coming out after the comedy legend. Still looking boyish for his 47 years, Seinfeld spoke of trying to figure out "what the hell is going on." As he suggested weeks before, though, he didn't mean in the big world beyond -- he meant in our silly everyday lives.
He joked about drug commercials that give you no idea what the drug is for ("Ask your doctor about Cram-It-All!"). And why do women draw dark lines around their lips? "On behalf of the men of planet Earth -- we're aware you have lips." And "Why are the credits so long at the end of the movie?"
Seinfeld has the lines down, well-honed, after a recent nationwide tour, and the audience is on the side of "your strange little TV friend," as he called himself.
If he seemed on the surface like a pleasant Sunday afternoon ... well, that's what he promised. And though Seinfeld might pooh-pooh such a notion, there's a mission in his safe, near-banal madness.
"The important thing about tonight is not just that you came here and did this -- because you had nothing to do. That's why we're here. We had nothing to do, either," he said near evening's end.
"I think it's important you have something to talk about tomorrow. Because people need to fill in what really amounts to be a great amount of dead air."
He was joking, naturally, but he did sound vaguely like what Beckett's despairing character Vladimir says in "Waiting for Godot," where he and his buddy Estragon successfully complete another few minutes of banter, and life.
"That passed the time," Vladimir says.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times