Oct 30, 2002 at 12:00 am

In a documentary like Comedian, assembled from videotaped slices of the lives of current stand-up comedians and featuring Jerry Seinfeld, you might expect a lot of laughs. But comedy (like any kind of magic) often depends on misdirection — and so does irony. This film dishes out not the tears but the fears of the clown, overwhelming the chopped-up morsels of stand-up routines and glimpses of a backstage mutual admiration society (peers like Chris Rock, Robert Klein, Garry Shandling, Jay Leno and Bill Cosby) and family.

The occasionally grainy, underexposed and unintelligible digital video of novice director Christian Charles catches Seinfeld as he takes the mic at New York City’s Comedy Cellar: “What am I doing here? I made it. I had my own show,” the comic rhetorically questions the audience. Seinfeld knows precisely why he’s in the cramped basement club, like several in which he’ll work out his first new stand-up routine in two years: This is what he calls “the smelly gym” of comedy. He fumbles through an outline of his material, rifling through his brain for a lost punch line.

“This is how comedians develop their material,” a journeyman who would be king of comedy, Orny Adams, explains. “As you can see, it’s quite painful.”

Adams reveals the tricks of the trade, opening up journals and manila file folders full of jokes for the camera, deconstructing the art and science of “crafting an act.” He reviews his videotaped performances as a professional athlete would: “It’s painful watching yourself on tape,” he states, wincing.

Ironically, this pain is a main ingredient of Comedian. The self-pitying Adams takes himself — and us — to the point of insufferable distraction with his frantic self-absorption.

Seinfeld broods, “You’re never really comfortable. You may think you are, but you never really are.”

There’s an aggravating flaw in this feast of irony: Rather than acting as a foil, the story of ambitiously up-and-coming Adams’ rise challenges that of Seinfeld’s humbler reinvention.

James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].