Why Jerry Seinfeld Doesn’t Have to be Funny
By now we’ve all seen Jerry Seinfeld’s Super Bowl spot — a quasi-reunion of the Seinfeld cast in Tom’s Restaurant (called Monk’s in Seinfeld proper). To the disappointment of many a fan, this seems to be the reunion that Seinfeld alluded to in a New York radio station interview regarding a leaked picture of Seinfeld and Alexander outside the familiar establishment. The rest of the episode was uploaded as a segment of his web series, Comedian’s in Cars Getting Coffee. The episode is not very funny. Many of the jokes fall short. Jerry and George debate the merits of putting cinnamon on a tuna sandwich and argue over how much cheering is appropriate at a Super Bowl party. What might have been funny in the ’90s series has become cliche: There’s a bathroom joke about George’s penchant for using private and upscale commodes, there’s a Newman is fat joke and a “Hello, Newman.” There is nothing new in this episode, it does not address where these characters have been nor does it add anything to the canon of episodes a fan would have already seen at least a dozen times in reruns. The entire thing is less than seven laughless minutes and the excitement over seeing these three men reprise their career-making roles quickly succumbs to disappointment.
This does not mean that Comedians in Cars should be dismissed. In fact, it liberates the series from trying to be something it doesn’t have to be: funny. The series is in its third season and of the 22 episodes released so far, this most recent is the only to feature a fictional character. The link to the episode online lists the interview of being with “George Costanza” not Jason Alexander, a strange bait-and-switch technique perhaps to lure fans of the ’90s sitcom to view something construed to be related to the show that skyrocketed the comedian to demi-god status. Marketing tactics aside, the failure of this most recent installment does not signify the failure of the show as a whole; it’s symptomatic of Seinfeld failing to understand that what will make this series a lasting success will not be it’s comedy.
What made Seinfeld such a success is that everything was at stake: jobs, relationships, friendships, apartments, parking spaces, mannerisms. The audience could connect with the show and laugh at the character’s misfortunes and social blunders while simultaneously relishing in the fact someone else has articulated the faux pas of double-dipping, low-flow shower heads, losing your car in a parking garage — someone with their own TV show who is just like us. Seinfeld is regarded by both critics and fans as being the most influential sit-com in recent memory. It obliterated the tropes that the shows before it established and blazed the trail for shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Arrested Development, The Big Bang Theory, and 30 Rock. Seemingly every generation can agree. This show is damn funny.
That doesn’t mean Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee has to be.
This feels strange because Comedians in Cars has the soul of a late night talk show. Where an opening monologue would be, Seinfeld introduces a vintage automobile and details the quirks and history of whatever car he has chosen. He then calls a comedian, (or Alec Baldwin, once) asks them if they want to get a cup of coffee, and picks them up. Cameras mounted on the inside of the car as well as a crew in a tailing car capture their conversation both on the ride to and inside of the restaurant or cafe. Here’s where the show diverges from the formula: the guests are not on the show to plug anything. While an actor on Conan or The Tonight Show is only there foist something on the audience, to prove to the audience that they are funny or riveting enough for us to buy their product, the only thing that people on Seinfeld’s show bring into the car is themselves and enough change for a cup of Joe.
This may seem like a small detail, something happenstance that shouldn’t affect the overall feel of the show, but it couldn’t be more important. On Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee there’s nothing at stake. In a late night talk show the guests are playing a role. They are playing a version of themselves and the audience knows this. They have an axe to grind, the end goal is monetary, a guest is at a disadvantage when he or she appears on a talk show. Ricky Gervais is not being a human when he goes on a talk show, he is a character of himself. He prepares anecdotes, dresses up, puts on a show for the audience in hopes of convincing them to watch his show or buy his album. His livelihood is at stake and in laughing at him we reaffirm his existence. We don’t have to laugh, but we do. We root for him because we know he is at a disadvantage and we want him to do well. That’s the problem with Comedians in Cars being primarily funny — there’s nothing at stake. We watch Seinfeld and his guest revel in their own humor, spit out coffee (or tea, in Larry David’s case) at a punchline and bang their fists on the counter, but we never get to laugh along with them because we have nothing to give. There is nothing at stake, laugh or not the show will go on, the guest will continue being successful. We have nothing for them.
What the show should do is focus on being revealing. If the guests aren’t selling anything, there’s nothing for us to buy. They don’t need to put on a show for us but can for once be real people. The best episodes of the show are when the witty banalities are put aside and the audience gets to see into the life of a comedian, what Seinfeld said the show would set out to do. The best episode of the series this far came when Seinfeld sat down with Michael Richards who opened up about his life post racist rant. There was nothing funny about it. Richards expressed real remorse, he explains how his life has changed since the night in 2006 and for once we see a genuine human on a talk show.
Crackle, the website that hosts the series, has already ordered a fourth season. Hopefully as Seinfeld adjusts to this new medium, we will see the series move away from primarily trying to be funny and instead opt to be more revealing of what it means to be a human being in the stand-up comedy business.
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