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Jerry Seinfeld’s ‘Comedians in Cars’ is still about nothing—and that’s a problem
His beloved Netflix series loses touch.
It’s hard to imagine Jerry Seinfeld doing anything but Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee at this point in his career.
The talk show, where the famous comic takes out a car to go pick up a show business guest to get coffee and chat about life, returns to Netflix for a new batch of episodes featuring everyone from Dave Chappelle to Jerry Lewis this month. It’s the 10th season of Comedians in Cars if you can believe it, though it’s the first to premiere on Netflix (all of the old episodes, except for the one with Jason Alexander in character as George Costanza, are also available to stream right now). The content giant acquired the series from B-list platform Crackle, paying Seinfeld $100 million for the show and for a new comedy special, in a deal which can only be described as one of the most savage moves in streaming history—Comedians was by far Crackle’s most successful series.
You can see the increased production value in the new season of Cars, and the lineup of guests, many of whom have also worked with Netflix, is stellar. It’s indicative of the company’s strategy that while Hulu acquired Seinfeld, the show, Netflix went after Seinfeld, the comedian. Ultimately, it all comes down to doing everything bigger, better, and newer. Why settle for Chappelle’s Show when you can write a check for new specials from the firebrand comic himself?
Not everyone has been so thrilled about the move. Some have remarked that the new episodes of Comedians feel disposable as if Seinfeld has run out of things to talk about with his guests. With the glut of celebrity-fueled talk shows out there, it’s not as if Netflix needed to go out of its way to bring us another one. After one new episode featuring Zach Galifianakis, we get a segment of his own show, Between Two Ferns, as a bonus. Naturally, Seinfeld is the guest (along with Cardi B), and in one of Galifianakis’ classically derisive questions, he asks, “What’s next in lazy, car-based, non-comedy?”
But while it’s true that not all of the new episodes of Comedians in Cars land, the fact that the show is disposable is the point. Seinfeld does what he wants. The chance to drive around in classic cars, talk to a few fellow funny people, and drink some coffee along the way is his was of trolling conventional talk shows. So what if most of the episodes have nothing new to say? Seinfeld has made a whole career out of saying nothing.
One of the things that also makes Comedians in Cars such a fascinating oddity is how it positions Seinfeld as one of the defenders of the old guard of comedy, at odds with the more sensitive proclivities of modern times. This cranky, “back in my day” attitude rears its head in nearly every episode of the new season. In the one with Galifianakis, they discuss “restrictive thought as opposed to thought freedom” on college campuses. In one featuring Tracy Morgan, they rage against the wave of upstart internet comics, with Seinfeld assuring Morgan, “the comedy ecosystem purifies itself,” and stating that “we’re not interested in amusing anecdotes from your journal.” On needy fans, he tells Kate McKinnon: “Nothing’s owed! Quite frankly, I gave you something… That might not come off well, but screw social media.”
He even rages against the viral outrage cycle with Neal Brennan, who says: “If I ever got caught in some thinkpiece snafu… ‘Neal Brennan’s take on blank is problematic’… I’d say, hey, let’s wait a month, if you still care about it, then we’ll talk about it.” Seinfeld’s response to this flirts with post-Kanye fatalism: “It doesn’t’ matter what I say. It’s word art.”
Comedy is more than “word art” to a lot of people, and to hear these opinions from the same guy who said that Roseanne Barr’s recent firing was “overkill” doesn’t sit well. Neither will a lot of Seinfeld’s humor in the new season.
He and Alec Baldwin talk about how you have to be “ever vigilant” in the Me Too era. In a conversation with Dana Carvey, he jokes that “what I like most about the Harvey Weinstein story is how perfectly cast he is in the role,” before going on to have a conversation about whether Carvey’s Kim Jong-un impression is racist. In another episode, he proudly tells Hasan Minhaj that the reason Indians and Jews are so similar is that, “we both really like making a buck.” He asks Ellen DeGeneres, “Are you at all upset about what you wore on your first Tonight Show?” and chides her by saying, “If you had any balls, which you don’t…” He tells Brennan that his attitude toward marriage should be, “I just gotta trick one person.” And he asks McKinnon, “What did you do when men were attracted to you?”
None of this should be a surprise. This is the same show where Seinfeld bemoaned how “women are becoming more masculine, men are becoming more feminine,” and wryly questioned: “How long until ‘transgender’ is just an airline?”
The thing is that none of this is ever done in malice, or to be provocative. When you think of Seinfeld’s comedy, “edgy” is not exactly the word that comes to mind. Sure, episodes of his sitcom like “The Contest” or “The Outing” pushed boundaries in their day, but Seinfeld’s humor has always been observational, not political. On Comedians in Cars, he often seems bewildered, out of touch even. But one of the reasons the show works is that, again, Seinfeld has no agenda other than to amuse himself.
Whether this will amuse others might be debatable, but there are a few moments which provide some genuine insight into the host and his guests in these new episodes. Seinfeld is 64, and there are frequent musings on death and mortality that run throughout the latest season of Comedians in Cars. In the episode with Morgan, he tells Seinfeld he believes he’s a good listener because he was in a coma for 10 days. In the Carvey episode, they agree that there’s nothing better than spending time with your family. Even though he tells DeGeneres, “I don’t really care what they think” when talking about his kids, you can tell he’s genuinely curious when he asks her why she hasn’t had children of her own.
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There’s also a really interesting discussion in the Galifianakis episode about the nature of modern celebrity. Despite what a curmudgeonly technophobe Seinfeld is, he’s surprisingly lax on the subject of being recorded. “You’re out in public. There’s no privacy out in public,” he proclaims before Galifianakis fires back: “I’ve been videotaped in my house.” This is clearly an issue for Galifianakis, whose persona has become so outsized throughout his career, he actually worries that he “can’t say anything without people saying, ‘Are you being serious?’”
The Mulaney episode includes a droll section where Seinfeld helps him pick out a rug, and they discuss how TV has changed in the years since Seinfeld was on the air and Mulaney made his own sitcom in the same vein of his idol.
The theme that emerges in these new episodes, and across the entire series, is the bond all comics share. Perhaps that’s why Seinfeld’s interview with Jerry Lewis, conducted months before the iconic comedian passed away, has an added sense of reverence. Instead of Seinfeld talking to a peer or someone who’s followed in his footsteps, he’s sitting down with an influence.
Even the comics who seem to have nothing in common with Seinfeld share that spiritual connection with him. In McKinnon’s episode, they bond over how “comedy people have no time for clothes.” Seinfeld and Brennan both feel that they are kindred spirits, despite the fact that Brennan admits he’s only watched a couple episodes of Seinfeld, and Seinfeld tells him he’s only seen about two sketches of Chappelle’s Show (which Brennan co-created).
If you want deep conversations about life and comedy, you’d be better off checking out something like Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. But if you’re OK with silly, 15-20-minute diversions about everything and nothing, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee should do the trick. Whatever meaning the new episodes do have is undercut by Seinfeld himself, whose obsession with classic cars (the most boring part of the show, even if you like cars) and disconnect from the common man (he actually looks around at his surroundings at one point and wonders how “anyone could have trouble finding an apartment in New York”) is obnoxious. But strangely, being obnoxious has also always been part of Seinfeld’s charm. He has no insecurities, he’s got nothing to prove, he’s already achieved everything he ever wanted to and more. With Comedians in Cars, he’s simply asking you to come along for the ride—if you don’t want to, he won’t care.
Still not sure what to watch on Netflix? Here are our guides for the absolute best movies on Netflix, must-see Netflix original series and movies, and the comedy specials guaranteed to make you laugh.
Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.