Once Seinfeld ended, comedian and newly-minted curmudgeon Jerry Seinfeld could’ve drifted off into the sunset to sleep on his stacks of billions. And though he avoided anything even coming close to the scope and scale of Seinfeld, he hasn’t been invisible, either. Among his ventures – which includes stand-up, sporadic films, and professional talk show guest – is his Web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. In it’s eight season (relax, the Internet has different rules about what constitutes a season), the show has become a nice little side gig, almost a hobby for the legendary comic.
The format is pretty rigid: Seinfeld opens the show by highlighting the car he’ll be driving during the episode. There is always some fun trivia about the history of the vehicle or its maker. Then Seinfeld introduces his guest. The two stand around for a bit, laugh, then get in the car. Often there’s some business of Seinfeld’s iffy driving. Then the two sit for coffee and discuss, well, anything. Sometimes there’s some forced comedy about branding and sponsorship, and then the episode ends.
Nothing too revolutionary nor trend setting. Still when Seinfeld is paired with an engaging and funny guest, then the show manages to rise above the “Rich White Guy Talks with Rich Friends” premise. In the show’s eight seasons, Seinfeld has talked to a lot of comedians. And one president. The majority of the comedians are white and male. Not surprising, given Seinfeld’s professed color blindness when it comes to funny (Sarah Silverman was the first female guest and she didn’t pop up until season 2; Mario Joyner who joined Colin Quinn’s episode was the first season’s sole person of color).
Still, identity politics be damned. Funny is funny, right? And for the most part. Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is pretty funny. In the season 8 opener, Seinfeld invites Jim Gaffigan on his show, and I’m wondering why it took so long. If anyone comic working right now encapsulates the cozy comfort of Seinfeld is Jim Gaffigan (who stars in his own eponymous sitcom on TV Land). But like Seinfeld, Gaffigan’s seemingly milquetoast persona often masks some deeper, darker humor. And though the two had a shared sense of humor in observing the absurdity of the mundane, one never forgot whose show this was and who was the bigger/richer star.
On the Gaffigan episode, the two men tool around in a 1977 VW Bus, shooting the shit and talking about comedy. They stop at a park and muse about the sun bathers – it’s all very Seinfeldesque in that it’s a lot of nothing. Gaffigan’s aggressively Midwestern demeanor clashes a bit with his adopted status as a New Yorker. When Seinfeld asks if Gaffigan could ever leave New York, the latter says no, “There’s an efficiency here…When you do go other places, and you’re like ‘Is this the first day for everyone?'” What’s interesting about the exchange is that Seinfeld is a New York comic whose iconic show is about New York (and cartoonish New Yorker misanthropes). Gaffigan is the genial corn-fed family man from Indiana, who likes to muse about food. And Seinfeld, the prototypical New Yorker lives in Los Angeles now.
It’s important to note Seinfeld’s Hollywood status because it permeates the show. We never forget that we’re listening to two very successful and very wealthy men. But there’s a nagging quality to Seinfeld’s current humor that has bled into his public persona (which may be why at times he comes off as a touch crotchety). Case in point, when Seinfeld wanted to make fun of Gaffigan’s voice, he called it “high and gay,” but then said, “can I say that?” In another part of the episode, Gaffigan tries to do a bit about the ubiquity of pizza at children’s parties. Given that Gaffigan’s a father of five and a lover of food, the bit seemed classic Gaffigan, but it never got to develop, because Seinfeld quickly pounced on the joke and shut it down. And Seinfeld’s interaction with the Second Avenue Deli waiter was depressingly predictable in its condescension.
Still, some of the conversation between the two (over amazing pastrami sandwiches) is interesting. When Gaffigan isn’t playing up to Seinfeld’s ego or being self-deprecating, he is a commanding storyteller. His account of his stint opening for Pope Francis at the Festival of Families in Philadelphia is great – Gaffigan’s a devout Catholic, so meeting the pope is a bfd. Also, when he gets the chance, his thoughts on comedy, comedians, and laughter is great to hear – for instance, he does a lovely bit where he describes the different expectations of laughter and comedy when going to see a movie, a play, or a stand-up special.
In the past episodes, when Seinfeld shares space with the comedians, there’s a feeling of colleagues engaging in shop talk. Even someone like Miranda Sings held her own because the character is so well-defined, that it’s impossible to shout it down. But Gaffigan’s so nice and he seems so intent on pleasing his comedy hero, that the imbalance is palpable. Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee works best when Seinfeld isn’t talking down to someone – something that happened a few times during the Gaffigan episode (there’s a mean montage at the end the compiles every instance of Gaffigan’s vocal tic of saying, “Right?”). Gaffigan is no wallflower, and he was probably fine during the episode and didn’t feel at all put out. But Seinfeld’s new steely persona works better when he’s paired with a comic who is caustic and frank, thereby avoiding the kind of tilt that occurred in the Gaffigan episode. For Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee to work, its host needs a guest that won’t be marginalized by his fame or legend.