Amidst the 24-hour coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, you may have missed the big story that dropped last week: Jerry Seinfeld may be ending his web series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” He casually broke the news during an otherwise unrelated interview, and the response was equally muted. The show, which was widely watched, never really captured the zeitgeist. Few thinkpieces were written about it, and those that were panned it as a smarmy bit of wealth porn in which Seinfeld and his rich – and mostly white and male, they noted – friends traipse around town in fancy cars, cracking jokes and ignoring society’s ills.
It’s true that Seinfeld is a rich white guy with little curiosity for the lives of others, but those criticisms have been around since the days of “Seinfeld,” and probably even before that. He hasn’t changed. The world has. If you can accept Seinfeld and his limitations – all artists have them – you’ll see “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” as a significant work that does what many have tried but few have accomplished: adapt the tired late-night talk show aesthetic to modern times.
The show follows its own strict formula. At the top, Seinfeld announces what antique car he has convinced some other rich guy to lend him for the day (I usually skip over this part). Then he calls up his guest, and they have a fake phone call, often commenting on the fakeness of it, that ends with Seinfeld offering to pick them up for coffee. He arrives at their doorstep, shows them the car, and explains why he thinks it matches their personality. Then they go out for coffee and often a meal, and talk about comedy for a few hours. Sometimes, they stop at a special venue, like an old comedy club, to reminisce, or Citi Field, to live out Seinfeld’s fantasy of playing for the Mets. It’s a full day edited down to a crisp 20 minutes or so. Almost the length of an episode of “Seinfeld.”
Yes, it’s another “show about nothing,” and it’s just as revolutionary to the talk show format as “Seinfeld” was to the sitcom. The comedian is the able host of his show, facilitating a discussion that feels more like backstage talk between two seasoned show biz veterans than the contrived small talk that we’re supposed to take for spontaneity on the traditional late-night shows. Keeping the show moving – literally – was also a masterstroke, keeping the host and guest on their toes and constantly stimulated by new ideas. Finally, it doesn’t hurt that Seinfeld himself is still so funny. No offense to the likes of Johnny Carson and Jimmy Fallon, but on this show – for once – talents like Chris Rock and Steve Martin have someone just as clever as they are to verbally joust with.
When it works, it’s as sharp, funny, and spontaneous as anything on your television. Even when it doesn’t – and there are a few clinkers among its 84 episodes – Seinfeld has the option of editing it down to a shorter sit for the viewer. Even so, there are still pretty cars and well-designed coffee shops to look at. It’s more than enough. In the era of quarantine, simply tagging along while two good conversationalists go out for coffee feels like the height of escapism. Even though it’s over, the magic of Netflix allows you to take a ride with him anytime.
Here are my favorite episodes, all available to stream right now:
“Larry David: Larry Eats a Pancake” – Seinfeld invited his old friend David to open the series, and it’s a shame he has never invited him back. They have a singular, joyful chemistry. No one appreciates David’s comic intellect more than Seinfeld, and Seinfeld in turn makes David laugh harder than anyone.
“Sarah Silverman: I’m Going to Change Your Life Forever” – Seinfeld was criticized during the first season for having no women on the show, and he couldn’t have found a better way to rectify this error by having the great Silverman on to open the second season. It’s a joy to watch them kvetch.
“Michael Richards: It’s Bubbly Time, Jerry” – In this episode, from the first season in 2012, Seinfeld and his old co-star rehash old times, including a poignant section on Richards’s precipitous fall from the apex of show business.
“David Letterman: I like Kettle Corn” – It’s worth watching just for the moment when Seinfeld and Letterman make an impromptu trip to a hardware store just for the smell.
“Jon Stewart: The Sound of Virginity” – A great example of Seinfeld-as-host knowing when to get out of the way and simply prompt his guest with questions. Stewart, towards the end of his run on “The Daily Show” is sharp and hilarious here explaining how the show works and hinting about his impending exit.
“Colin Quinn and Mario Joyner” – It features my favorite line of the entire series: “I hear Downton Abbey is pretty good.” You’ll have to watch it to see.