The Seinfeld Chronicles
This week, Sony Pictures Television announced that Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” was renewed for a second season. Wait -- “season” and “renewed?” Them’s TV words, alright, although the series -- 10 episodes in the first year, 24 on order for the second -- is strictly an online affair. With each episode coming in at somewhere between 11 and 17 minutes, they are either very short films or very long commercials. Without ads or product placement, they offer a take on all of Seinfeld’s obsessions: collectible cars, fellow celebrity comedians, and tiny observations on fellow celebrity comedians in cars, stopping for warm beverages.
Before I get to my observations on his online observations, however, I first have to cop to my insane hatred of Seinfeld. I know -- how crazy is it to hate the guy who gave us (arguably) the greatest sitcom in TV history? (Or as Jerry might say, “What’s up with that?”)
Imagine a world with no close talkers. No “No Soup for You!” No “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
Well, I tell you what’s wrong with it. It’s a beautiful, hermetically sealed world, the world of Jerry. I like the show a lot more now in reruns, but what was obviously missing all along, among the characters living in New York City, was any of the diversity of New York, and increasingly the country: There were no non-white faces (who weren’t complete caricatures as delivery guys, etc.), no gay people, and, well, no women who were not Elaine or Playboy Playmate types making one or two appearances in supporting roles as dates. And when you think about it, Elaine fit in (and was so funny) because she was so tiny, mean, and aggressive -- a manly type. She did a lot of hitting, slapping, pushing, and shoving.
Because Jerry was surrounded with this band of misanthropic eccentrics, he could seem rational and nice. And now, having watched many seasons of Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” it becomes clear that much of the funny stuff cames from David. The difference, however, is that in “Curb” (which is harder to watch) the humor comes from the fact that Larry, a true misanthrope, constantly gets his comeuppance for his smugness, insensitivity, and intolerance of other people. Whereas Jerry lived in a universe that made him look like a saint.
Perhaps that’s why, post-Seinfeld, in the real world, even with all of his fame, money, and power, Jerry has mostly created a mess.
Remember his god-awful “Bee” movie? Jerry and crew have such a problem writing for women that in his movie, the drones were female and the worker bees were male. His NBC flop “Marriage Ref” had a regressive 1950s, “Oh-Lucy!” style set-up that was actually so cruel and reprehensible for the couples who got judged by celebrity panelists (aka Jerry’s friends) that one of them actually sued the show (and got divorced.)
And then there were the two long-form spots Seinfeld made with BIll Gates for Microsoft in 2008. In a company famous for being poignantly out of touch in terms of consumer communication, these were glacial bombs, with the humor coming from making fun of average people, Latinos, and Indians.
And by the way, Seinfeld got paid $10 million to make Bill Gates his little bitch in those two spots, which ran for a total of three weeks. Okay, I’ll admit that one of my issues is that I have total sour grapes over how rich the guy is.
So the smug concept of this latest series: “Aren’t I so great that I can kill time and remind people how many cars and famous friends I have and I don’t even have to work?” just burned my biscuits all over again.
I watched some of the episodes from the first season, and here, the hemetically sealed setup suits the project just fine. He gets to pick the car and the comedian, and it’s a tiny, insidery world. The high level of production really helps -- apparently there are three mounted cameras in each car. I wish, as with some reality series, that we’d get a pull-back shot to show the entire production team in action. That doesn’t happen. But there’s a beautiful eye for detail in some of the shots (keys in the ignition, motors, headlights) that dovetails with Seinfeld's fetishism of observational details.
And without being a guy from “60 Minutes,” the long format does allow him to get new information out of his famous friends. The Michael Richards one is interesting. He talks about his infamous breakdown on stage that resulted in him shouting the “N” word repeatedly. Richards, who is a great physical comedian and can’t stop clowning, admits to having many recriminations from the incident. But it's pretty telling that he still seems to think he is the victim.
The visit with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, at 90-year old Carl Reiner’s L.A. home, is worth its weight in gold. In real life, Mel Brooks seems to have become the 2,000-year-old man -- no acting necessary. He tells Jerry he’s never seen his act (not sure if he’s kidding) but that one guy he does like is Louis C.K. I thought that was genius.
Alec Baldwin is technically not a comedian, but great company here. He might be thinking along the sour-grapes line as well, when he actually says to Seinfeld, “Your life has been one unbroken block of green lights, hasn’t it?"
Seinfeld’s constant knee-slapping crack-ups to anything said get annoying. These were worth watching, however. (With the exception of the one with Larry David. He eats a pancake.)
I’m hoping that in the second season, Jerry discovers that there are actually gay, female, and non-white comedians. That would be a Festivus for the rest of us.