Here are some of the topics Jerry Seinfeld and Jim Gaffigan talked about Thursday night at the United Center: Marriage, brunch, holidays, kids’ movies, horses, circuses, cemeteries, golf tees, pets, having kids, submarines and Pop Tarts.
Here are some of the issues that don’t come up: war, poverty, politics, racism, inequality.
It’s not a knock, and unless you’ve been under comedy rock for the last three decades, it shouldn’t be particularly surprising. They don’t explain. They don’t write around themes; They do not take a break for a few years to come back transformed, touting a new thesis. These aren’t that kind of stand-up, and although you know that, of course you see them on a four-city tour, sharing a huge arena, along with the Beatles (Seinfeld) and the Rolling Stones (Gaffigan, a shade darker). In the face of casual rant, it’s hard not to think that lack of timeliness can feel like its own mission statement these days.
This is not the zeitgeist. Social outrage was often felt extremely distant.
Still: “Everybody’s sick of everything,” he said early in the Seinfeld set.
“It’s a misguided disgrace of small, everyday quasi-tragedies,” he winks, and before you say, “Yes, that was his television show,” two hours of Seinfeld and Gaffigan back to back turns into a two-man march against universal ills in a place where nothing feels universal anymore at time. These men and their honed jokes are products of a shared monoculture, the kind where millions of people tune in at the same time every week to watch “Seinfeld.”
Coming out of the 1960s and into the 1970s, Steve Martin somehow escaped ignoring the world through sheer absurdity, without adding any overt politics to his laughter. Seinfeld and Gaffigan remain resonant and insightful — and, it was Thursday night, occasionally brilliant — because they know how to deliver lines and because the world is changing, but your kids still suck and shredded wheat still sucks.
Surrounded by stage lights, this band performing at Sinatra gave off an air of nostalgia; except for the mediocrity that this might imply – the hard-earned result of clear professionalism and thousands of stage hours. The cracks in their personalities look more like decay than growth: Rarely allowing much vulnerability in his behavior, Seinfeld sometimes spoke in a painfully hoarse voice and offered glimpses of his personal life. He said a holiday wasn’t his thing, adding sarcastically: “Let’s pay a lot of money to fight in a hotel room.” He sounded annoyed and stunned when a member of the audience – chillingly – stood motionless at the edge of the stage for a long time, then lunged forward and took a selfie: “Look at the arrogance of this person,” he told the sold-out house. And this was just minutes after he talked about the uselessness of cell phone photos.
Gaffigan said with his familiar Eeyore sigh that everyone thought he had cancer because he lost so much weight. In fact, it is an appetite suppressant. All these years, he said: “All I had to do was take a weekly shoot, which killed the passion in me.”
Seinfeld still sounds like Seinfeld, pinging from golf to the blandness of contemporary parents, keeping his set tight, lively and fast, but Gaffigan now lets so much darkness into his inoffensive wistful mood that after saying “I know I’m complaining,” it’s a lot about My Kids “I know, but they ruined my life,” he continued sincerely: “Is this too negative?” Born in Elgin, raised in Northwest Indiana, he said Chicagoans don’t recognize Hoosiers without their sweatpants on. He said he didn’t know what his wife meant when she accused him of gassing her: “I think you’re going crazy.” Darkness suits her.
Complimenting their sets and each other, Seinfeld and Gaffigan are a smart and welcome couple. (They joked about having a steel cage match with Steve Martin and Martin Short.) But neither of them play arenas that often, and you can see why. For Seinfeld, the cavernous United Center drains some of his chatty sincerity by repeating his jokes that aren’t really about anything at all. Gaffigan’s dopey reticence is sometimes swallowed up in such a wide space that it even sounds muffled than intended. It’s also harder to sustain a breathtaking burst of laughter when the audience is so dispersed.
I’ve seen this happen at arena comedy shows, but rarely, and these aren’t that kind of comics. They don’t explode. They do things that are fixed and definite: joke, joke, personal part, joke, joke. They don’t want to change your life. They just want you to worry about the little things.
Jerry Seinfeld and Jim Gaffigan continues Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the United Center, 1901 W. Madison St.; tickets start at $46 www.unitedcenter.com