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Opinion: The minister of silly talks

  • 'Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee' has riffs on joke-telling, cars, comedy idols, mortality and coffee itself
  • Jerry Seinfeld meets famous guests from Barack Obama to Hasan Minhaj over coffee and a drive

Jerry Seinfeld (right) with Eddie Murphy in ‘Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee’.
Jerry Seinfeld (right) with Eddie Murphy in ‘Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee’.

What’s the deal with Jerry Seinfeld?"

That’s the kind of thing Seinfeld, the stand-up comedian who typified observational humour, would have wondered about in the 1990s, with subjects as banal as airline peanuts and “rhinoplasty" — he called the term a particularly galling jab at those getting a nose job.

In the Seinfeld episode “The Checks" (season 8, episode 7, Amazon Prime), the comedian is beset by royalty cheques of tiny amounts from a one-time appearance on a Japanese variety show called “Super Terrific Happy Hour". Today, with what his sitcom brings in streaming deals and syndication, million-dollar residual cheques must feel small since they come in all the time.

Seinfeld reruns have made Jerry Seinfeld the “world’s wealthiest actor", with an estimated net worth of $950 million (around 6,523 crore)—though you would hardly call him an actor. These days, he hasn’t seemed like much of a comedian either. The current material, where he talks about men getting too old to wear jeans, is fine but unspectacular. In the landscape of 40-second Facebook clips guiding us to pick our next comedy special, Seinfeld isn’t the one whose routines we are quoting. He seems too much of a traditionalist, fed up with ideas of political correctness and censorship in comedy, but not provocative enough to take an actual stand.

As a fiction creator, he’s no Larry David. David, as Billy Eichner quipped on the cruel and clever sitcom Difficult People, had indeed captured “lightning in a bottle, twice: with both Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm". Unlike that illustrious co-creator (and inspiration for the ever-at-sea George Costanza), Seinfeld has found no such second coming—but has he really wanted to return?

He runs a little show called Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, a web-series that was acquired by Netflix. His guest list isn’t modest—Barack Obama was on while he was US president—but the style is immensely relaxed and free-flowing. Seinfeld showcases a nifty car, calls up a comedian and drives around with them, before and after getting coffee. There are many, many close-up shots of espressos being tamped and beans being ground.

Getting guests out of a studio makes a massive difference. In a 2015 episode filmed from inside a Lamborghini Countach, Jim Carrey raps his fingers on one of the show’s ubiquitous Go-Pro cameras: “Just knocking on the fourth wall there. Amazing, it really is real." The other difference comes from Seinfeld’s complete lack of trying too hard. Unlike talk show hosts who charm guests and audiences, he has nothing to prove.

This results in unpredictable riffs on joke-telling, cars, comedy idols, mortality and coffee itself. The new 2019 collection is particularly great, with fantastic conversations with actors Eddie Murphy, Martin Short and Seth Rogen. The highlight is a two-part episode with Ricky Gervais, where the two stand around marvelling at someone else’s joke.

Gervais tells it: “A holocaust survivor eventually dies of old age and goes to heaven. He meets God, and he tells God a holocaust joke. And God goes, ‘That’s not funny.’ And he says, ‘I guess you had to be there.’"

“That’s like a novel in a joke," gasps Seinfeld. Here are two ludicrously successful comedians, awed not by a particular legend, but by a joke one of them heard somewhere.

There is, by the way, no fathomable reason for the Gervais episode to be in two parts—the two parts together make 30 minutes, while the Murphy episode is a 41-minute solo—save for Gervais and Seinfeld debating a politically incorrect joke, and, storytelling-wise, that debate works better with a pause. Some gags need a long pause, and this show will gladly break format to provide it.

Seinfeld’s observations dazzle on occasion—Hassan Minhaj doesn’t “get" cars but worships high-end sneakers, so Seinfeld tells him a supercar is simply the ultimate sneaker—and with this loose structure and love for digressions, Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee eventually tells us more about the host than the guests. Seinfeld, we learn, can be as curmudgeonly as the fictional Larry David from Curb—launching into a tirade when a waitress interrupts, to ask him about dessert—and the bits of his personality add up.

He appears genuinely curious about modern approaches to comedy, while it’s interesting to see younger comics react to the 65-year-old: Rogen calls him Sir, and mimic Melissa Villaseñor giggles through her car ride, looking like she’s pinching herself. Seinfeld himself is eager to laugh, and when truly, truly tickled, elbows the person next to him in the car, as with Murphy, or the late great Garry Shandling. Broadcast two months before Shandling’s passing, that episode was eerily, heartbreakingly titled “It’s Great That Garry Shandling Is Still Alive".

After a hilarious time with close friend and writer Barry Marder, Seinfeld walks him to his porch. Marder, going in, asks him what he’s going to do now, and Seinfeld replies, “Nothing." Then, as melancholy music plays, Seinfeld sits on his friend’s porch and eats Twinkies by himself. Evening falls, day breaks. Marder comes out to pick up the paper, tells Seinfeld that they are done, and goes inside shaking his head. It’s a terrific bit.

What do you do when you have peaked? When too many people consider a show you made the greatest comedy in television history? What do you do with so many Porsches you lost count? What would motivate you to even repeat success when you don’t need the money, and when reruns ensure your fame endures? What do you do when it’s always Super Terrific Happy Hour?

Jerry Seinfeld chooses not to answer. Instead, he phones a friend.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

He tweets at @rajasen

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