Why Jerry Seinfeld Doesn’t Have to be Funny

Seinfeld and Larry David in the first episode of his web series.
Seinfeld and Larry David in the first episode of his web series.

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.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Joe Holland is a writer from San Diego.
Edited by Misagh.

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  1. Alvin Brown

    Jerry Seinfeld is in an interesting position to raise the profiles of lesser known comedians and broaden the exposure of female and minority talent. Although I took the show to be practically him asking his celeb friends and associates to do him a favour by appearing on the show.

    • Joe Holland

      Exactly. I would like to see some lesser known comedians in the coming seasons. We all know that Louis C.K. and Chris Rock are talented comedians. Who else can we talk to?

    • Has anyone noticed how every person who appears is primarily a wealthy New Yorker? Imagine he driving down to Baltimore and grabbing a crabber for a ride in his Porsche? Hah.

    • Are you saying that he should have some type of awareness about the responsibility of his position in the celebrity/comedian universe. Like his superhero Superman, he could decide to use his powers for a higher purpose?

  2. Diana Chin

    You have made some valid points on the article. If it was up to me, I would rather watch the Seinfeld episodes all over again rather than having to watch the web series.

  3. Nilson Thomas Carroll

    I think the key to Seinfeld is that Jerry Seinfeld plays the straight man to all his insane “friends.” The humor lies with Jerry, but he’s the middle man (kind of like Michael in Arrested Development). His web series is entirely different because there are no comedy set ups. Jerry is no longer a straight man, he is essentially the host to whoever he’s speaking with. Good write up.

    • Joe Holland

      Good point. In the TV series Jerry’s sanity was used as the voice of reason, almost a member of the audience. In the web series there is no member of the audience present on stage.

  4. I haven’t watched the web show yet, but your piece makes me more interested in seeing what it’s all about.

  5. Lonnie Franklin

    I thoroughly enjoy this web series. The Porsche reminds me of my very first car… a 1967 Karmann Ghia whose body was held together by Bondo.

  6. Riding in cars certainly presents a unique opportunity to experience the mundane life of someone who is experienced (publicly) as extraordinary. A comedian (I forgot who) made a joke about how in everyday life people will learn they’re a comedian and say, hey, make a joke. But they respond no, it doesn’t work like that. As long as you approach the show not expecting humor, it’s pretty brilliant.

    • Joe Holland

      Exactly. I feel like the show is more interesting than it is funny and to present it any other way would be disingenuous.

  7. Jerry Seinfeld is a true class act and his internet show is HIS OWN SHOW! I like it.

    • Joe Holland

      It is his own show, from start to finish, which means he lives and dies by any decision he makes. He’s been criticized for having a very homogenous selection of guests, which again is his decision only. A comedian that doesn’t give the audience what they want will find they are not a comedian for very long. I hope season four will be at least a little bit different.

  8. Comedians in cars getting coffee. Godness Jerry, do not go out of your way for us. It is time we start demanding more of our celebrities. Sure soon Kramer will have a web show called comedians using ethnic slurs in night clubs.

  9. Jonathan Matos

    While I was studying internet video last summer, my Professor came across an article about the “Authentic Amateur”. Seinfeld has nothing to prove because, while sitcoms and standup are about comedy, what he’s come up with is really a show about nothing, where people are just watching because they like the people in the episode. I hope Seinfeld sees this article and takes it to heart.

  10. This is exactly how I felt when watching this “Reunion

  11. Jon Lisi

    I love Comedians in Cars. I think it’s his best work and his purest creative and artistic expression. Obviously it doesn’t try as hard, but that’s kind of the point. It’s quite literally a show about nothing, but as he and his guests converse, it becomes a show about pretty much everything.

  12. Xeziquey

    Jerry Seinfeld enjoys palling around with other comedians that he considers funny, the same way that Carson was enthusiastic to talk to other comedians he thought funny after their sets on his legendary incarnation of the Tonight Show. Such is the bond of comedians.
    Jerry was just fortunate enough to get Acura to pay for it and Crackle to distribute it.

  13. The trend for celebrities only appearing on talk shows when they have something to plug is frustrating. It’s even started to pervade the ‘no plugging’ Star In A Reasonably Priced Car section of Top Gear in the UK. That Seinfeld is able to lure guests in by the sheer weight of his talent and reputation is a great gift and you make some solid points here about the opportunity to see comedians as themselves. CCC is blessed with a really natural sense of the guests being who they are and I agree that the Michael Richards episode was one of the most interesting. Equally, Seinfeld and Larry David’s natural chemistry also made for a wonderful and very funny episode. As for the mini-Seinfeld reunion, I think expectations are always going to build so high that, unless it’s a total surprise, a reunion will inevitably disappoint. The traditional Seinfeld gags don’t have to be cliche – Larry David has translated many of the ideas into Curb and they still work – but this mash-up of the styles of Seinfeld and CCC felt a little off. Thanks for sharing this really interesting post.

  14. I watched an episode the other day. It felt like a group of ageing comedians in “Broadway Danny Rose”, trading stories in the diner…

  15. CalebGreen

    His standup is clean. He lives a life, under the radar. He is gold.

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