Hellooooooo, O2 man

The view from Row E, at the O2 Arena, or, as Jerry Seinfeld erroneously called it, “the O2 Center”, Friday night. Thanks to Richard Herring (who broke the no-photography rule and took this picture), the nice people who distribute his videos, and his girlfriend, who had a prior engagement, I found myself with this clear view of a stool and a mic stand at 8pm. I was excited. If I had paid £100, as many of the 14,000 people in the big barn had, it’s possible I would have been even more excited. (I’m not sure I’d pay £100 to see anybody, whether stand-up or band. Isn’t there a recession on?)

Seinfeld hadn’t played in London since 1998. There’s a chance he won’t be back any time soon. So it was a golden opportunity to catch him. It’s been over ten years since Seinfeld ended and we were all deprived of his big teeth, Brooklyn drawl and constant failure to actually act, although the box sets do provide eternal comfort in a Godless universe. (I actually love all nine seasons. All of them. Pick any episode you like, from any season, and I will like it. I used to hate the slap bass when it started, but I got over that. The rewards are too great to get hung up on an annoying musical sting.)

Anyway, this wasn’t about Seinfeld, it was about Seinfeld. Would he cut it as a stand-up, on his own, standing up? Yes is the non-surprise answer. He’s 57, he’s been standing up and observing life since 1976, keen to get back into the comedy clubs once the sitcom ended in 1998 and clearly more at home behind the mic than in front of cameras. Richard and I were very lucky to be in Row E – this is, I think, the closest to the stage I’ve ever been in an arena or stadium, not including the times I’ve been in the moshpit, or side-of-stage, as a journalist. As I noted when we sat down, if Row E had been the back row, it was like seeing Seinfeld in a small club. There just happened to be thousands of other people behind us. Way behind us. I’ve only ever seen Al Murray at the O2, and he filled it by being larger than life – and having giant beer pumps behind him. Seinfeld moved from left to right, but what you got for your £100 was a man standing in front of some curtains, talking, for around an hour and 40 minutes, non-stop. (Jerry was supported, fairly pointlessly, by his old friend and current Vegas resident George Wallace, whose catchphrase “People say some stupid stuff/shit” was repeated so often it was clearly a device to stall while he recalled the next joke.)

I’m not going to repeat any of Seinfeld’s gags, suffice to say, this was all observational stuff, as we’ve come to expect from the stand-up that used to bookend his sitcom. Much of it is sharp as a tack, some of it is unoriginal in subject but marginally more original in execution, and all of it is delivered in such an assured and economical manner, you can’t fail to have a good time. I laughed a lot. Many people around us didn’t laugh at all, especially – if I may generalise – the women, but smiled instead. On one or two golden occasions, a spontaneous arena-ful of appreciative applause broke out. Nobody whooped. I was glad about that. It’s great to see a stand-up on top of his game, albeit reciting very old material in places, and you’ve got to hand it to a man almost in his sixties for doing so much material about technology without simply denigrating it from an old man’s Luddite perspective – he’s a modern man; he does not necessarily mock the BlackBerry, he mocks the type of person that uses one. He does not pretend to not know how email works, he merely bemoans the fact that it is not delivered once a day like mail used to be, but all day long. Even the material on marriage and fatherhood seems fresh, because, as he makes clear, he’s a late adopter to these two institutions, having married at 45.

Thanks to the above laminated guest pass – something neither of us expected when we picked up our comp tickets – Richard and I had access to the inner sanctum backstage. (It’s called the Sky Bar, as it’s sponsored by Sky.) When Al played, the outer sanctum was the inner sanctum – it’s where Al was – but this time, an inner sanctum was created so that Jerry didn’t have to mix too heavily with the assembled freeloaders, just the higher echelon of freeloaders. I don’t know why this included us, and once we’d dared to enter the inner sanctum, it was pretty much empty. We were happy to have bumped into Simon Amstell and Richard Bacon outside while we tried to actually find the lift that took you to the Sky Bar, but that – or so it seemed – was the full compliment of celebs. Then Clive Anderson turned up, which was nice. We were happy enough with the turnout at this point, and the beer was free (if still served in plastic bottles, even in the inner sanctum). Then, as if by magic, all the real comedy celebs appeared – it seems that they had been watching the show from some exclusive box or something, not from the scummy rows of seats where Rich and I had been. But they were welcome to it. I loved it in Row E.

Anyway, within minutes, we were in the rarefied proximity of Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, Angus Deayton, Lise Mayer, Harry Hill, Lee Mack, Chris Evans, George Wallace and … Seinfeld himself. No, we didn’t speak to him, but we spoke to Ricky and Steve, and they’d spoken to him. (The famous comedian Omid Djalili had been sitting next to us in Row E, but he chose not to go to the after-show.) I found myself having an impromptu script meeting with a TV exec who has commissioned a group-written sitcom I’m working on (can’t say any more), which was not really what I expected to be doing at the Seinfeld after-show, but I suppose was poetic enough in its own way. At least I was talking about comedy. I have only met Ricky Gervais a couple of times in my life, but he is always gracious enough to say hello to me when someone that famous could easily just blank me, and I appreciate that. He is a just a bloke, after all. (He’s arguably as famous as Seinfeld. Think about that.) There was a man in the inner sanctum who seemed to be bothering all the celebs with what might well have been requests for his entirely worthy charity, but he had crossed the line I feel, and had become a pest. (He had swapped glasses with Chris Evans seconds after Chris’s arrival, and Chris was totally patient with him, but I found it very uncomfortable. I am as guilty of anyone of gushing to people I admire – you know that – but this man, a serial botherer, seemed to actually be driving people away. I guess you’d have to call it liberal interventionism.

Richard and I left around midnight, having at least breathed in air that Jerry Seinfeld had exhaled, and presumably added to the air that he was breathing with our own exhalations, and missed the last Tube home, so we had to share a cab to his house and pay through the nose for it. The “O2 Center” is a very good venue, well signposted, helpful staff, but it is a long way away from civilisation.