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Film documents a bumpy return to the world of stand-up

In Jerry Seinfeld’s world of plenty, a reported $500,000 tab for “Comedian” amounts to roughly one-500th his current net worth and half of his $1 million take for each latter-day episode of “Seinfeld.”

“I figured since I was footing the bill for it, well, if it ended up being this embarrassing mish-mosh, I could just eat it and put it in a trunk where no one will ever have to see it,” he says in a telephone interview.

Instead he stands to make another killing. “Comedian,” an 81-minute documentary detailing Seinfeld’s return as a stand-up, is already giving him a nice, warm buzz. It offers an intriguing, inside look at how one-liners come off the assembly line – or don’t.

Filmmakers Christian Charles and Gary Streiner, who also collaborate with Seinfeld on his American Express TV ads, follow the famed comedian on his start-from-scratch trek to 60 minutes of polished new material. En route, you’ll see a joke-selling Jerry struggling with insecurities and misgivings, rhythms and blues.

“It’s so fuckin’ hard to get comfortable. It just comes and goes,” he laments after another of his unannounced comedy club appearances springs some leaks.

Seinfeld, 48, says the first audience for “Comedian” was his wife, Jessica Sklar, and the couple’s nanny.

“Both were equally sort of fascinated by it. I’m kind of learning that people have a curiosity about the whole subculture of the stand-up world and what it’s like. I’m pretty accomplished at this, so it’s a chance to see that even someone who knows this craft pretty well has to struggle to make it work.

“I mean, stand-up comedy is a part of American life, yet we know very little of how comedians do what they do. I thought I would be a good person to act as a tour guide through this world. The finished product that you see onstage is just the tip of the iceberg of what a person has to do to make that happen.”

After “retiring” all his previous material in a 1998 HBO special, Seinfeld rapidly domesticated himself with both marriage and fatherhood. He and Sklar, wedded on Christmas Day 1999, have a daughter, she turns 2 on Nov. 7, and are expecting another child in February. Seinfeld’s new touring stand-up act, launched late last year, includes references to his newfound marital bliss and angst. Not that he plans to take up the father-knows-least routines of his longtime idol, Bill Cosby.

“I don’t want my act to be about my domestic life,” Seinfeld says. “But I don’t really have any direction for my act. It’s just whatever hits me that day to write about. What I like about being married is I can now talk about the entire spectrum of the human relationship condition. Now I’ve sat in every seat. It kind of gives me license to discuss the whole thing.”

“Comedian” also tracks the up-and-coming career of Orny Adams, who is supposed to epitomize Seinfeld’s early struggles as a desperate-to-be-famous stand-up. But Adams seems to have both a darker disposition and an overall contempt for unreceptive audiences and life in general.

“I’ve never felt pain until I started doing comedy,” Adams says in the film. Seinfeld says he’s been there.

“The truth is, I see all of myself in him. Except I’ve been around long enough to know how to disguise it better. The thing that made it great for the film is that he (Adams) doesn’t censor himself. So to me, it’s two perspectives on the exact same guy. Only I’m just a little more polished and a little more careful about what I say,” he said.

At one point, Adams carps, “I’m sorry, this audience sucks,” after one of his performances plays dead. Seinfeld says he has gradually outgrown that particular blame game.

“My personal philosophy is that I am where I am because of me. Not that I haven’t sat on a stoop after a bad show and complained about the audience. But the truth is that what makes comedians so unhappy is that they know it’s their fault. Underneath, they know it’s all their responsibility. You can’t really blame anyone else for your situation in life or how well you did onstage.”

“Comedian” also includes brief appearances by a cavalcade of well-known comedians with whom Seinfeld compares notes during his return trip to the top of the stand-up game. They include Cosby, Garry Shandling, Chris Rock, Colin Quinn, Robert Klein, Ray Romano and the still remarkably insecure Jay Leno, who says he performs off-camera more than 100 times a year because his job as host of the No. 1-rated “Tonight Show” easily could be taken from him tomorrow. As a safety net, he banks his entire salary from “Tonight” and lives off his proceeds from the road.

Seinfeld scoffs at this in the film. Lately, though, he has become a convert.

“I was talking to somebody recently about a very well-known comedian who’s kind of fallen on hard times. And I said, ‘Ya know what, I have to admit that Jay was right.’ He could get fired tomorrow. And if he did, he would be in a pretty tough spot without the other money he’s making. So he’s not being overly conservative. You’d better keep busting your ass, because you don’t know what’s around the corner in this business.

“There’s a very ugly side to it. Some names that are bigger than you might think are in a pretty low spot right now. This isn’t country music, where you become a star and you stay a star for the rest of your life. The rest of show business has a down escalator every bit as efficient as the up.”

But seriously, folks, it’s hard to imagine Seinfeld ever being down and out, or even down to his last $10 million. Even he has to laugh at the thought.

“Certainly if you look at me in the film, I’m basically having a good time, even if I’m having a rough spot here and there. I’m loving what I’m doing. I get to go off and work in all these fabulous theaters and have the time of my life.

“I think Leno and Shandling and Chris Rock are all having the times of their lives, too.”