Commentary

Comedians Fighting For Control In Cars: Is Jerry Seinfeld Hyper-Aware?

“Sweet fancy Moses!” See that? Scooping up any random line from a “Seinfeld”episode makes this opener about 400 times funnier than anything I could have come up with myself.

That’s because the country’s top comedy micro-phraseologists polished those gems to create just-the-right-word paninis that defined the show and also came to define the culture during the ‘90s and beyond. But at this point, are we also enjoying the nostalgia a phrase like “yada yada” evokes nearly as much as the line itself?

That seems to be happening in “A Little Hyper-Aware,” a recent episode of “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” Seinfeld’s online Crackle series. (Sponsored by Acura, which we hear about, like an unembarrassed drumbeat, at the beginning and end of the 18 minutes. There is also a very clever product placement embedded in the video.)

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“Hyper-Aware” features Sarah Jessica Parker and her 1976 Ford Country Squire. (Yes, she actually owns this Presidents Ford/Carter-era non-swagger wagon, which Seinfeld says he hates and would never have picked for the show.)

For my money, this episode with Parker is the best of the series.  They’re both hyper-aware control freaks, but manage not only not to kill each other, but to feed off each other in a powerful way. Meanwhile, this old-timey monster of a family coach -- painted red for maximum ugliness, with fake wood paneling -- serves as an instant time machine, transporting them back to Long Island, where both SJP and Jerry grew up (Levittown and Massapequa, respectively) but also to the cultural and emotional atmosphere of the mustard-colored-shag-rug-covered time itself. 

"Smell it! A little bit of gas!” Parker says, getting into the car and swept back to her childhood, when she worked as a kid performer. Then there’s the audio reminder of another time: the loud clicking of a turn signal, like a metronome, as they analyze the differences in how kids were raised in the late-boomer generation (getting almost no attention, and getting screamed at) versus the 360-degree style of love and helicoptering parenting so in vogue today. (Use of the word “parent” as a verb started in the late 1970s, I think.) 

Though they laugh about it, it’s serious stuff. “She never had time, and she was always in a rage,” Parker says of her mother. Seinfeld says his mom’s big line in the car was “I’m gonna slam you!”

It’s the most thoughtful and reflective I’ve ever seen Seinfeld, and maybe it’s because the protective bubble of the clunky car allows for it. Parker peppers him with questions about what life was like at his house: Was there music on? (No.) Radio? (No.) Did they hug you? (No.) Hold you? (No.) Kiss you a lot?  (No.)

“No one in my life has ever asked me these questions,” Seinfeld says. And I believe him. He later tells Parker that “you’ve already run rings around your mother. This conversation is more than she thought about ever.”

The conversation is particularly curious, given that Seinfeld recently made news in the autism community by telling Brian Williams at NBC that “in a very drawn-out scale, I think I’m on the spectrum.” He added: “You’re never paying attention to the right things. Basic social engagement is a struggle…”

The irony wasn’t lost on anyone that Seinfeld’s career came from his expert observation of tiny details. And in saying he had the celebrity equivalent of autism-lite, he stirred up a hornets’ nest of controversy for many of the parents of autistic kids, who thought he was insensitively trivializing their children's very real struggles.

Then on Wednesday, he backtracked. “I don’t have autism, I’m not on the spectrum,” he told “Access Hollywood.” “I was just watching a play about it, and … I related to it on some level.”

So he doesn’t have autism — he just watched it in a play? Earlier in the “Cars” episode, Seinfeld had said about his kids: “I can’t escape what I feel is some level of narcissism. I want them to live my life over.”

But that also made me think of the other side of that equation — that these days, many parents learn about their own possible neuro-developmental problems through their kids’ struggles. The difference is that now, kids are regularly tested and sometimes get a diagnosis, and various forms of therapeutic help, for their issues.

The idea that autism is not marginal, but a range of neuro-developmental disorders that touch nearly everyone, appealed to Judith Newman, the author of a recent viral New York Timespiece about Siri being a godsend for her son.

Newman thinks that the attention Seinfeld brought to the issue was a good thing: “The latest statistics show that one out of 42 boys, and one out of 189 girls are being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in the United States. So we better be thinking about ways to embrace the autists in our midst.”

Of course, Seinfeld went back to being his old insensitive self in the “Cars” episode with Sarah Silverman. She was starting to tell him about a very painful time in her life when he interrupted to ask the waiter for Half and Half. They never did return to that story.

I had previously taken a swipe at Seinfeld for what I saw as his disingenuous speech at the Clios, when he said: “I love advertising, because I love lying.” Maybe I was too tough on him. Life is complicated. Maybe there was a lot of honesty in his riff. He probably does struggle with sensitivity. Everybody struggles.

Or not. “Seinfeld, you magnificent bastard!” is what he notably told himself on the show in a moment of self-congratulation. No doubt he was only half-kidding.

15 comments about "Comedians Fighting For Control In Cars: Is Jerry Seinfeld Hyper-Aware?".
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  1. Bobby Calise from Horizon Media, Inc., November 20, 2014 at 12:25 p.m.

    Nice read!

  2. Claudia Caplan from MDC Partners, November 20, 2014 at 1:28 p.m.

    I think that especially when it comes to boys, there's a medicalizing of being a boy, i.e. not sitting still in elementary school, being loud, rambunctious, bumptious. These are not diseases. And they certainly don't need to be treated with drugs. I remember a story in the NYT a couple of years ago about kids at sleepaway camp lining up every morning to take the meds sent along by their parents. Maybe those kids need to be ignored a little more and allowed to go about the business of figuring things out and making dumb mistakes. Just a thought.

  3. Nancie Martin from Tell My Story, November 20, 2014 at 2 p.m.

    Barbara, love the piece, but I'm confused. You refer to both Sarah Jessica Parker and Sarah Silverman. Did they both do "Cars" pieces with Seinfeld?

  4. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, November 20, 2014 at 2:42 p.m.

    Nancie-- yes, they are two separate, (and very different) segments. Seinfeld is smug and uninteresting with Silverman, who seems like a really nice person. He picks her up in a vintage Jaguar. When they leave the coffee place, he points to a regular old Subaru or something and says, "they drive that. You are in this!" And she points to the Jaguar and says, "oh, so I'm an entitled douche bag?"

  5. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, November 20, 2014 at 2:42 p.m.

    Nancie-- yes, they are two separate, (and very different) segments. Seinfeld is smug and uninteresting with Silverman, who seems like a really nice person. He picks her up in a vintage Jaguar. When they leave the coffee place, he points to a regular old Subaru or something and says, "they drive that. You are in this!" And she points to the Jaguar and says, "oh, so I'm an entitled douche bag?"

  6. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, November 20, 2014 at 2:42 p.m.

    Nancie-- yes, they are two separate, (and very different) segments. Seinfeld is smug and uninteresting with Silverman, who seems like a really nice person. He picks her up in a vintage Jaguar. When they leave the coffee place, he points to a regular old Subaru or something and says, "they drive that. You are in this!" And she points to the Jaguar and says, "oh, so I'm an entitled douche bag?"

  7. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, November 20, 2014 at 3:59 p.m.

    As I wrote to him back then (after forgetting the parking lot where I parked my car in Baltimore Harbor after his episode of losing the car in a mall parking lot), the best comedians are those with the best appreciation of the obvious. JS is always nuanced. He is not concerned if you pick it up or not. Never heard back, btw.

  8. Ruth Ayres from Harte-Hanks, November 20, 2014 at 6:04 p.m.

    I honestly thought the riff at the Clios was about how fleeting the happiness caused by satisfaction of material desires is. I honestly did. I am also the only known human who thought so. Nobody who participates so wholeheartedly in our profession (witness the expert product placement and promotion of his sponsor) could have been truly biting the hand that feeds him. However, he COULD have been trying to be a shock jock. Which is not his brand. Either way, I loved this column and that episode.

  9. Nancie Martin from Tell My Story, November 20, 2014 at 10:02 p.m.

    Thanks, Barbara. They're two very different Sarahs.

  10. Nicole Crosby from Texas Fireframe Co., November 21, 2014 at 9:27 a.m.

    Claudia, the 4x higher incidence of autism and other neurological disorders for boys vs. girls is real. Boys don't need to be "ignored a little more." In fact, ignoring the signs only delays intervention they need. However, I agree that drugs are not the only answer. There are other means to help them. Scroll down: http://www.autism.com/pdf/providers/ParentRatings2009.pdf

  11. Jackie Mueller from Self-employed, November 21, 2014 at 9:42 a.m.

    I'm in the business and a parent of a child on the spectrum, I am horribly offended by the above suggestion to "ignore" kids showing signs of autism.

    That said, I loved the article.

  12. Steve Ellwanger from Marketing Daily, November 21, 2014 at 10:49 a.m.

    Barb: Thanks for this review. I will check out the interview with SJP. Watched the first few of Seinfeld's Coffee videos and didn't go back because Jerry would often cackle ceaselessly about things that were not remotely funny. Wonder if I'm the only one who thought that.

  13. AC Winters from ACWintersEsq, November 21, 2014 at 12:19 p.m.

    Nice rethinking of Seinfeld, Barbara. He is certainly getting a lot of attention for this season of Comedians in Cars. Good on him. I wonder if his episode with SJP has a different tone because they are personal friends? Not sure how many of his guests that applies to. I've seen lots of gossip column mentions of dinners with Jerry and the wife, SJP and Matthew Broderick, and George Stephanopoulos and Ali Wentworth. I also thought it was too bad that Jerry felt the need to dial back his remarks on the autism spectrum, as it did open up a discussion. But for a lot of struggling parents it was probably not well-received.

  14. George Parker from Parker Consultants, November 21, 2014 at 9:05 p.m.

    Barbara...
    Triple posting the same comment... Were you just watching a play about multiple commenting syndrome? Just taking the piss, as is my wont.
    Cheers/George "AdScam" Parker

  15. Jim English from The Met Museum, November 25, 2014 at 5:04 p.m.

    Thanks Barbara. Whenever I hear about Seinfeld and the ad biz I remember that he once considered opening an ad agency. This according to Adweek I believe. It was a while ago, during Jerry's American Express/Superman campaign. Perhaps he's lost interest.

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