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Review: Jerry Seinfeld is Still the Master of Comfort Food Comedy on ’23 Hours To Kill’

By Aditya Mani Jha 5 May 2020

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The introduction to 23 Hours to Kill, Jerry Seinfeld’s new Netflix comedy special, asks the audience to consider what is by any standards an excellent question: are billionaires (Seinfeld’s net worth, at last count, is just a smidge under a billion dollars) amused and irritated by the same things as the rest of us? After all, so many vintage Seinfeld problems will never happen to billionaires: they won’t be stuck in line at a Chinese restaurant or held hostage by an eccentric soup vendor (restaurants will be bought, vendors de-licensed and kicked to the curb). The cold opening features Seinfeld being air-dropped out of a chopper and straight off the bat, he admits, “You and I know each other at a certain level, over many years. You know that I could be anywhere in the world right now. If you were me, would you be up here, hacking out another one of these?” It’s a classic Seinfeld sleight-of-hand, passing the buck right back to the audience. The coup de grace follows:  “Everybody’s life sucks. Your life does, and so does mine.” An ironic pause and then, “Okay, maybe not quite as much”.

And just like that, Seinfeld, the preeminent precision-artist of 90s comedy, flattens the green mountain between us and him. It’s yet another inexplicably neat trick from the man who’s never had to tackle the big stuff because of the sheer mileage he has coaxed out of little moments like these — you might look upon this as a failing, but to borrow a phrase Seinfeld thoroughly lampoons later in the show, it is what it is.

It’s capital-C clean comedy (is there another comedian who Netflix can plausibly rate 7+? A question for the analysts), it uses the word “sex” exactly once and it ends on a distinctly abrupt note, at once too late and too early.

Here’s the lowdown on what Seinfeld talks about during this hour-long special: there’s about 15 minutes on food (on the buffet: “why don’t we take people who are already struggling with portion control and put them into some kind of debauched Caligula food orgy of human consumption?”), 15 on the linguistic vagaries of small talk (of course) and a solid half-hour about heterosexual marriage (starting with his own 19-year-old marriage). It’s capital-C clean comedy (is there another comedian who Netflix can plausibly rate 7+? A question for the analysts), it uses the word “sex” exactly once and it ends on a distinctly abrupt note, at once too late and too early. In other words, it’s fresh material that closely resembles a well-curated greatest hits package from the world’s most famous comedian.

Would you have it any other way? The answer will dictate how much you enjoy 23 Hours to Kill. As always, Seinfeld hits the high notes when he’s talking about small, intimate cruelties. Like when he says marriages, or at least the most solid ones, last because of a shared and profound hatred of just about everybody outside of the married parties (a) he’s right and b) that’s beautiful). “A man in a marriage will not survive if he does not have a strong brain-to-speech guard gate control system,” Seinfeld says with his famous vertical-stiff-arm hand gestures. “When I’m with my wife who I love dearly, and a thought enters my head, the first thing I think is, ‘Well, I know I can’t say that!’ Maybe I can say I heard someone else say it. Then she and I can share a warm moment together agreeing what an idiot that person must be!”

Less effective are his extended sequences on screen addiction. Yes, Jerry, iPhones are called that because it’s half ‘I’ and half the phone, thus making a complete self. (Good stuff, and no, never heard that one before, why do you ask?) It feels forced, like someone from market research said Jerry has to reach out to people born after the seventh season finale of Seinfeld. It’s not his turf, not with this material anyway — and the 2017 special Jerry Before Seinfeld, for one, understood that perfectly, hewing close to his core concerns.

Towards the end of the hour, Seinfeld has this absolutely dynamite bit about golfing dads. “In the fantasy of the golfing father, the family will come running out to hear the exciting stories of his golfing adventures. In reality, no one is even aware that he has left or returned, from eight and a half hours of idiotic hacking through sand and weed while driving drunk in a clown car through a fake park.” At his best, Seinfeld is keenly aware that while he used to be the guy poking fun at the golfing dad, in the real world, he is the rich, complacent golfing dad now and his comedy has to subtly shift gears accordingly (no sudden movements, thank you). But, and I think you’ll agree with me here, all dads have the occasional golfing dad moment every now and then — 23 Hours to Kill is by no means immune to this universal truth.  

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