Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (review)

Jerry Seinfeld launched the web mini-series in 2012 to celebrate three things he loves: comedy, cars, and coffee, and he delivers mostly as advertised.

            Every episode of CICGC begins with Jerry Seinfeld starting a car, usually a close-up shot of an ignition and gauges, and then providing a succinct editorial on why he likes it.  If you’re not into cars, Seinfeld does an excellent job introducing the car and moving on.  If you are a gearhead, Seinfeld makes it a point to choose interesting cars—like a V8 Volvo built for David Letterman by Paul Newman—not just hot rods and supercars.

Next, there’s the obligatory phone call to a famous comedian to see if they just want to grab some coffee.  He just calls up comedy heavyweights like David Letterman, Carl Reiner, and Chris Rock to see if they want to hang out for an afternoon.  Then, Seinfeld and his guest pull into a conveniently open parking spot—which at one point he even mocks, calling them his “Jack Lemmon” spots because there’s always an open one even in the middle of New York City, just like in Lemmon’s movies.  They then go into a plain-looking café with a camera crew.  Once inside, conversation and lunch and coffee occur organically, with honest (if not sometimes cheesy) interactions with waitstaff.  But they are comedians, and we sort of expect them to be “on” when the cameras are rolling—with exception to David Letterman, who I’ll get to later.

The premise for the series is humble enough: just two folks getting together to talk about craft, share stories, and make each other, and us, laugh.  However, Seinfeld’s celebrity is all too apparent in the series—it’s too well-produced and brings in a main sponsor (Acura) in the second season, and in general Seinfeld takes on the impromptu role of talk-show host.  He is the host of the show, after all, but his reactions to some jokes seem over the top at times—he’ll close his eyes, lean forward, clap, and in general give us all sorts of cues that his guest’s jokes are funny.  In fact, Seinfeld plays the role of host quite well, able to shift between anecdotes and, at times, deeply personal conversation.

There’s a lot of talk about marriage, kids, and the torture of standup comedy.  His guests are willing to reveal a bit more about their personal lives than you’ll get on a normal talk show or in a promotional interview for new projects.  This is perhaps the most refreshing part of the series: the lack of plugs for projects, products, and people.  In spite of being sponsored by Acura, there is very little on-screen product placement, and Seinfeld even points out such placement when walking to a café with Sarah Silverman.  There is a planted Acura RLX by the curb, to which Silverman declares,  “Oh wow, sure looks like a great car.”  And the guests don’t talk about their movies except in retrospect—which is especially enjoyable when Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner recall their 50+ year friendship and such classic projects as Get Smart, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Blazing Saddles.

However, at times you do wonder what some comedians are up to.  When he takes Colin Quinn out to lunch, I found myself distracted by constantly wondering if Quinn was even working anymore.  Likewise, during the episode with Larry David, I wanted to hear more about Seinfeld’s monstrous $850-million syndication deal.  Really, I watched the interview with Larry David skeptically.  After all, here are two men with a combined net-worth of over $1 billion, and all I can think about is if they’re still going to try to calculate a percentage for their tip.  Or whether Larry David really has anything to be neurotic about anymore.  Surely he can buy his way out of neurosis.  None of this is really any of my business, except that for such short episodes my attention shouldn’t be diverting that much.  To get to the point: some interviews just aren’t interesting or funny.  In truth, some episodes would be better if they just featured the fancy cars.  Sometimes, both host and guest seem to regret the decision to do a particular show, like when 7 minutes is wasted with Barry Mader.

Regardless, the series has some seriously redeeming qualities, particularly in the decisions made during editing—and they all have to do with honesty and humility.  When Michael Richards makes a sincere and thoughtful (and awkward and vulnerable) comment about his “outburst” in 2005, it seems to be uncomfortable for Seinfeld, but there’s enough sense to keep it in at the final cut.  Similarly, Seinfeld even leaves in a portion of his conversation with Reiner and Brooks regarding Louis C.K., whom Brooks has just praised for his business acumen if not for his comedy.  “One thing for sure, Mel, is this part is getting cut out” Seinfeld says seriously. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit here hyping Louis C.K.”  But there it is in the end, an endorsement for Louis C.K. (one way or another) from no one less than Mel Brooks.

And this brings me to the interview with David Letterman, who is at once honest and reserved during his time with Seinfeld.  Seinfeld makes every attempt to make the encounter a chuckle-fest, prompting Letterman to say, in his subtle-but-not-too-subtle way, “Do you find yourself always trying to be funny and sometimes people just don’t want to be bothered?”  We have plenty of historical evidence to suggest that Letterman is a misogynist and megalomaniac, but in this particular interview he is humble and sincere and soft-spoken.  That he suffers the forced humor so gracefully is rare evidence of Letterman’s better qualities.  He even takes Seinfeld for a drive in his all-electric Nissan Leaf, which Seinfeld hates.  It’s a revenge that is quite subtle and quite perfect.

In much the same way, we get to experience Chris Rock in a wholly appreciable, understated way.  Counter to Seinfeld’s forced jokes—jokes he seems to have rehearsed just for the day—Rock delivers solidly funny stories and observations throughout the day.  They’re not side-splitting, they aren’t show-stopping, but they’re quick and perfect, and you wish Seinfeld could follow his lead.  If the roles were switched, if it were Chris Rock meeting up with comedians, drinking whatever he drinks, driving whatever he drives, I think we’d get a product that is more in line with what Seinfeld was really after in this series.  In the end, Seinfeld never really seems to relax in front of the camera, something that noticeably affects several interviews.

Another excellent aspect of the show is the impressive selection of cars—and this is really where Seinfeld shines.  Quite adeptly, he selects the perfect car for each of his guests—the episode with Michael Richards features a quirky VW bus conversion—a perfectly running engine, rusty body, duct-taped interior, and something guaranteed to collect stares.  He chooses a 1969 Rolls Royce for Carl Reiner—a classy, if outdated, antique. For Colin Quinn, a Triumph TR6, an underappreciated and classically styled sports-car with not much punch—it even has indecipherable buttons and switches that Seinfeld points out, akin to Quinn’s signature incoherent mumbling.  For Chris Rock, it’s a Lamborghini Miura, which has since influenced every modern supercar.  While there were plenty of heavyweights before Chris Rock, the comparison here is simple: Rock, like the Miura, is a one of a kind comic, the beginning of an era, with impressive performance and still relevant today.  If you put car enthusiasts on a track with the option to drive the Miura and any other supercar, they’d choose the Miura to drive first.  Likewise, if you got to choose between comedy showcases, you’d choose to watch Rock’s act first, regardless of other performers.  Seinfeld appropriately picks out a 1959 Split Window Beetle for Larry David—it’s an unassuming, squatty and boring looking little car that’s worth a lot more than you’d think.  Perhaps the funniest car/guest pairing is Seth Meyers and the first generation Porsche 911 Carrera, which makes Meyers extremely nervous when it starts to rain.  Meyers is a solidly funny comic, an asset to Saturday Night Live and popular culture (Really?  Meyers is an asset to pop-culture, really?).  However, you get the sense that if he’s put in a more challenging environment (like the 911 in rain), he’s likely to lose control, crash, and burn.  As such, Meyers has been at SNL for twelve years, where it’s dry, safe and easy to cruise.

That said, Jerry Seinfeld does something that perhaps only he can do, and that is introduce you to people you’d otherwise have no opportunity to meet.  Take as an example Joel Hodgson, whom we’ll unanimously agree created the funniest oddball series on Earth, Mystery Science Theater 3000.  He’s an unrecognizable face with by far the highest laugh:minute ratio in the whole CICGC series, and without Seinfeld pulling him out of the woodwork to shine—they improvise an hilarious scene about ketchup without effort, thanks primarily to Hodgson—he could have easily faded away entirely.  As it is, Seinfeld takes a chance with his series by giving screen time to lesser known comics and writers, and for the most part it pays off.

The wonderful thing about the series is that it’s free—you don’t have to pay for a subscription or buy a box set.  You just go to www.comediansincarsgettingcoffee.com and choose whatever episode you want to watch.  Currently, the show’s halfway through its second season, with Chris Rock’s appearance being the most recent episode. However, if you’re just starting out, don’t start with the Michael Richards episode.  It’s at the bottom of the list of videos, and it’s perfect.  I know, I said don’t watch it first, and I mean it.  At least, don’t watch it until you think the series has nothing more to offer you.  When you’re tired of the awkward laughter and silence and inside jokes.  When you grow tired of feeling like an outsider, that’s when you click on the Michael Richards episode.  His episode is the most redeeming of them all, seriously making up for the series’ flaws.   We get a look at a sentimental Seinfeld who still holds great admiration and respect for an old friend.  It would be tolerable to watch Seinfeld and Richards for hours on end, perhaps even to watch them age together.  As it is, we only have 17 minutes of them together again.  Hey, that’s almost a full Seinfeld episode, and that makes Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee worth watching.

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