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September 29, 2017

‘Jerry Before Seinfeld’ mines comic gold from vintage material

New Netflix special is a reminder of how brilliant was the young Jerry Seinfeld

After more than 38 years, the memory still burns white-hot in my mind.

It was April 24, 1979, and British singer-songwriter Joe Jackson, then on his first U.S. tour, was headlining the old Bijou Café, the ultra-hip cabaret located on the north side of Lombard Street, just steps west of Broad.

My best friend Lance and I were there because we were both floored by Jackson’s debut album, “Look Sharp!” which still stands as a New Wave masterpiece. But before Jackson and his crackerjack backup trio (included bassist extraordinaire, Gram Maby) took the stage, there was an opening act to endure. Oh well, I thought, whoever it is hopefully won’t be on too long.

The lights dimmed and a disembodied voice emanating from the PA system requested that we “please welcome the comedy star of our show, Jerry Seinfeld!”

A nattily dressed 25-year-old appeared onstage, and for the next 20 minutes or so, he had me in hysterics with a set (totally devoid of X-rated language—an anomaly for that time) that riffed on many topics I had never heard addressed by the “grownup” comics who I had seen on the likes of “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Tonight Show” when I was a kid.

Seinfeld’s primary topic was growing up in the 1960s, but he didn’t speak of coming-of-age via sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, like so many of the slightly older comedians who were beginning to change the face of standup. Instead, he talked about stuff to which I could relate: toys like plastic soldiers (which, in the days before violence was not something kids were encouraged to vicariously experience, were a boyhood staple of millions), the time when automobile seat belts didn’t exist, and how everyone smoked cigarettes then.

He did it in a way that was funny – not only because he sharply delineated the inherent silliness of growing up in that era – but because his material was just so damned smart and fresh.

I was smitten (in the comedic sense), and subsequently wrote a review of the set for Today’s Spirit, a defunct small newspaper published weekdays in Hatboro, Pa. In it, I predicted certain stardom for the young comic from Long Island (10 years later, Seinfeld told me he still had the copy of the review I presented him upon his return to Philly).

I relate this tale because Netflix recently released a wonderful bit of time travel called “Jerry Before Seinfeld,” a special in which Seinfeld revisits The Comic Strip, the Manhattan chuckle hut where, in 1976, he launched his billion-dollar career.

The title is also a show synopsis, as the hour-long program combines Seinfeld talking about his life and career (more so the latter), with the resurrection of his earliest routines.

I had forgotten just how brilliant was so much of that “pre-historic” material. His bits on topics like “100 percent sugar” breakfast cereals and yo-yos being invented by Polynesian warriors for battle (he conjures an image of said fighters leaning out of airplanes and bonking their enemies on the head with them) are as hilarious today as they were when I first heard them.

And I’m certain that if I am able to hear them 40 years hence, I will still find them as strong as I did then and do now.

A coincidence of timing makes “Jerry Before Seinfeld” particularly au courant.

This Sunday, the six-years-in-the-making ninth season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” premiers on HBO. While we’ll never know for sure, it’s certainly logical to consider that Larry David’s own status as a comedy titan may never have been achieved had it not been for his groundbreaking collaboration with Seinfeld on “Seinfeld,” which directly led to “Curb.”

Which makes “Jerry Before Seinfeld” especially valuable to those interested in comedy history, as well as anyone who wants to laugh heartily and laugh often.

Here's an early Seinfeld routine:

Chuck Darrow is a veteran entertainment columnist and critic. Listen to “That’s Show Biz with Chuck Darrow” 3 p.m. Tuesdays on WWDB-AM (860),, iTunes, IHeartRadio, and TuneInRadio.

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