Jerry Seinfeld Is at the Top of the Comedy Heap — Just in Time to Watch the Whole World Change
Plus other thoughts about the new season of ‘Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee’
On June 19, Netflix premiered Nanette, a comedy special from the relatively unknown Hannah Gadsby that may end up being the year’s signature stand-up set. Over the course of about an hour, the veteran comic lays bare the anger and shame she feels over reducing the horrors she’s experienced as a lesbian — not just homophobia, but sexual abuse, assault and rape — to self-deprecating jokes made palatable for audiences. She announces that she’s quitting comedy, tired of hiding genuine pain in easy laughs, and expresses how it is to be a “not-normal” who will always feel like an outsider, both in the comedy world and her everyday life. But before she leaves the stage, she fires one last shot at what she calls “angry white man comedy.” “They’re adorable,” she says with mocking sarcasm about her straight-white-male peers. “Why are they angry? … They’re like the canaries in the mine, aren’t they? If they’re having a tough time, the rest of us are goners.”
While most wouldn’t consider Jerry Seinfeld in the category of “angry white man comedy,” there’s always been an edge — a meanness — to his humor. Whether venting about the social niceties that annoy him or taking delight at the misfortunes of others on his beloved sitcom Seinfeld, the 64-year-old comic is a superstar, in part, because he’s succinctly expressed the frustrations we all feel when people slight us or act inappropriately. His anger is our anger.
But is it “our anger” anymore? And who gets to be part of that “our”? Those questions keep popping up while watching the 10th season of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, the very amusing, sometimes excellent series that debuted on Netflix on Friday. As always, the simple concept is enticing: Seinfeld and a fellow funny person spend time hanging out while talking about comedy, life and whatever else. The intimacy of these off-the-cuff conversations — the illusion that we’re eavesdropping on famous friends during unguarded moments of intimacy — has always been Comedians’ appeal, as if the episodes were stolen glimpses into what celebrities are “really” like away from the spotlight.
However, if these truly are unvarnished looks, then the new season proves to be a discouraging peek into Seinfeld’s current mindset. He’s always prided himself on being above the fray, commenting with an air of superiority about mere mortals’ foibles. His success has only further cemented his elevated status, placing him on top of the heap in the comedy world. It’s hard to know if Seinfeld can even see Gadsby from his lofty perch. But the annoyance and anger that have always been central to his act suddenly just seem mean. He’s reached the top of the comedy mountaintop — only to be gifted with the perfect view to watch the landscape profoundly shift around him.
In a world that’s made baby steps toward being more progressive, Seinfeld has often positioned himself as a staunch defender of the Value of the Joke beyond all else. Back in 2014, as Comedians was ramping up, some criticized the program for focusing only on white male comics. Seinfeld’s response was typical of his meritocratic view of comedy. “People think it’s the census or something,” he said dismissively when asked if shows like his should reflect societal demographics and be more inclusive. “[Comedians] has gotta represent the actual pie chart of America? Who cares? Funny is the world that I live in. You’re funny, I’m interested. You’re not funny, I’m not interested. I have no interest in gender or race or anything like that. … It’s more about PC nonsense than ‘Are you making us laugh or not?’”
From one perspective, Seinfeld’s position seems reasonable: Ultimately, we just want to see somebody who’s funny, right? It’s one of the reasons why, for years, he’s talked glowingly about how much he loves the fact that, in comedy, talented people will always rise above. He invokes this long-held thesis again in an episode featuring Tracy Morgan. “The comedy ecosystem purifies itself,” Seinfeld declares approvingly, adding, “The organism of comedy is always removing the unnecessary.”
To him, questions of diversity or representation are secondary to celebrating what’s funny. He thinks Chris Rock is funny, just like he thought George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers and Rodney Dangerfield were funny. To Seinfeld’s way of thinking, comedy should transcend simplistic demographic concerns — in theory, his mindset values the content of someone’s creativity rather than their skin color, gender or sexual orientation.
That’s a potentially utopian notion — a rainbow coalition of the funny — but it’s also worth noting that Seinfeld is a man who appreciates cold-blooded efficiency and order. That’s why he obsesses over cars, watches and bee colonies — he adores perfect, unfeeling structures that work with clean, mechanical precision. (He even had a very brief flirtation with Scientology years ago, once telling an interviewer, “It’s extremely intellectual and clinical in its approach to problem-solving, which really appealed to me.”)
Seinfeld loves talking about the apparatus of comedy — during a Comedians episode with Dana Carvey, he relishes explaining how a joke Carvey’s working on can be streamlined — and he’s a fierce believer that, as long as something is funny, nothing else matters, even if he himself is the butt of the joke. When David Letterman signed off from his CBS show in 2015, Seinfeld and Julia Louis-Dreyfus were among the guests asked to contribute to the final Top 10 list. During the bit, Louis-Dreyfus quipped that she was thrilled to be “tak[ing] part in another hugely disappointing series finale,” an obvious zing at Seinfeld’s underwhelming final episode. It was Seinfeld who pushed for her to tell the joke. “I don’t really care who the victim is or whose feelings have to be hurt. If it’s a good joke, I’m into it,” he later said about the Letterman gag, adding, “Maybe [the writers] didn’t want to hurt my feelings? … I don’t have feelings.”
That lack of ego — that ruthless devotion to the platonic ideal of Great Comedy — is apparent on the new season of Comedians. In one episode, Chappelle’s Show co-creator Neal Brennan tells Seinfeld he barely watched his classic series — “Every time I turned on Seinfeld, you guys were worried about a jacket,” he scoffs — which just makes Seinfeld laugh. But Seinfeld’s all’s-fair-in-love-and-comedy attitude presumes that everybody else ought to adhere to the same set of cutthroat rules. When Comedians guest Ellen DeGeneres admits that she doesn’t understand her appeal, hoping that people just think she’s a good and nice person, he shoots back, “Nobody’s paying to see a nice person” — even though anybody with even a passing knowledge of her career knows that’s exactly why people love her so much.
There are few things Seinfeld hates more than niceness — or sentiment. Several times during the new season, he alludes to his frustration at a shift in comedy toward more confessional or “authentic” observations. His annoyance is partly a product of the very different era in which he was forged. As Carvey says to him, “We came up during a time where [the audience] didn’t know much about us. … We just came out [as] heat-seeking missiles, we destroyed, then we left, and there was this magic veneer.” Seinfeld, still very much the heat-seeking missile who prefers that veneer of perfect, old-school professionalism, dismisses this more vulnerable comedy style, replying to Carvey, “Your father was a drunk? Your mother drove off a cliff? I don’t care.”
That’s fine as far as it goes — as Seinfeld tells Morgan, one of the pleasures of comedy is that, like food, people prefer all different kinds. And after decades in the business, Seinfeld certainly has the right to know what he likes and what he doesn’t in his comedy. But this 10th season of Comedians doesn’t just seem to retroactively reject a raw, emotional personal piece of stand-up such as Nanette — it diminishes the introspection and openness that Gadsby brings to her special, and her argument of the value that multiple perspectives bring to a culture.
To be fair, this new season of Comedians is decently diverse: Of the 12 episodes, there are two featuring women (both of whom are gay), one Muslim, two African-Americans, several up-and-comers and a revered elder statesman (the recently departed Jerry Lewis). But Comedians returns in an era of #MeToo and Time’s Up — an era that Nanette galvanizes — and Seinfeld’s glib meanness is found wanting.
These movements are acknowledged on Comedians, but usually in the spirit of Seinfeld and his guests complaining about the performative outrage that Harvey Weinstein and his ilk have elicited. When Seinfeld and Carvey discuss how much Weinstein looks like the kind of guy who would be a serial assaulter, they’re inadvertently echoing a comment Gadsby makes about comedians needing to skewer those who abuse their power. But by and large Comedians snidely addresses #MeToo by having, say, Alec Baldwin joke that he’s now afraid to put his arm around his own wife. (This only adds to Baldwin’s graceless recent comments about sexual assault. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that Dave Chappelle, another Comedians guest, has a record of making questionable transgender jokes in his stand-up.)
Without intending it, Nanette and Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee are talking to each other. But one side sounds like a valuable and necessary new voice, while Seinfeld and his friends seem to be speaking an antiquated language. Seinfeld grew up at a time when stand-up was meant to be an incisive X-Acto knife — where killing meant more than anything else, especially feelings. In Jen Chaney’s review of the new season at Vulture, she compares that era and our current moment: “The ’90s were steeped in postmodernism: irony, satire and sarcasm were celebrated qualities in works of mainstream pop culture. Seinfeld’s blasé attitude and his gift for highlighting and questioning societal minutiae fit in perfectly in that era, and ultimately, exemplified it. But in 2018, when the world is bursting apart every five minutes, complaining about little things comes across as selfish and being ambivalent is considered a flaw.”
I’m curious if Seinfeld has seen Nanette, and if so, what he thinks of it. Comedians provides a possible clue to his reaction. In one episode, his old buddy Brian Regan floats the idea that, nowadays, audiences are looking for pathos in their comedy. “Oh my god,” Seinfeld says disapprovingly, “that’s what the younger people are doing — they wanna have a broader palette of emotion. You could do that when you’re young. But when you’re 58, to get people of your generation, with kids and problems, to come out and pay money to see you, it better be funny — ’cause I got the ‘pathos’ part covered at my house.”
In that unguarded moment, Seinfeld expresses the central tension of modern life: Is it more productive to look at the world with anger and awareness, or should we allow ourselves a moment of escapism? Seinfeld has built his massive wealth by cultivating the latter strategy. But the new season’s awkward, crotchety response to a changing world — paired with Nanette’s moving, searching self-expression — suggests that maybe we’re entering a period when the perfection of a well-told joke might not be enough. It’s Seinfeld’s prerogative to enjoy certain parts of the comedy menu more than others — but it might not hurt for him to sample a few new dishes before rejecting them outright.
Here are a few other takeaways from Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee...
#1. We have Jerry Seinfeld to thank for the Centurion.
In an episode featuring John Mulaney, the two comics discuss Seinfeld’s black AmEx card, which Mulaney admires approvingly, noting how it feels heavier than a regular Amex card. Seinfeld then tells him a secret: He was the one who convinced the company to start issuing black American Express cards to elite members after years of their existence merely being a rumor.
I decided to do some digging into the card’s history. Turns out, what we all refer to as the American Express black card — or, as Kanye called it in “Last Call,” African-American Express — is technically known as the Centurion. The card began circulating in 1999, carrying with it an annual fee of $1,000. (“This card was not designed for everybody, so we’re not advertising it,” a spokesperson told Entertainment Weekly in 2001. The magazine reported that “[t]he benefits … include automatic enrollment in elite flying programs, free upgrades at select Four Seasons hotels and something sure to tick off PETA: free fur storage at Saks.”)
Flash-forward to the present, and the card remains invitation-only, its membership requirements still hush-hush. Supposedly, the initiation fee is now $7,500, with the annual fee setting you back $2,500. And rumor has it, to even be considered for a Centurion, you have to charge at least $250,000 per year — although that estimate is sometimes placed at $450,000.
In other words, you and I are never getting one. As for Seinfeld, he became buddy-buddy with AmEx after starring in a series of card commercials near Seinfeld’s end. No surprise that, in this clip, he’s driving one of the classic cars that he still worships.
#2. This is the inspiration for ‘Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.’
You may have heard that director Christian Charles, who also helmed the great 2002 Seinfeld documentary Comedian, is suing the comic, claiming that he came up with the idea for Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. While that lawsuit remains unresolved, I was gratified while watching the recent HBO tribute to Garry Shandling, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, to hear Seinfeld mention that the idea for his series (at least according to him) came from something Shandling had orchestrated years earlier. I’d always sensed the connection, but Seinfeld finally confirmed it.
In 2007, Shandling released Not Just the Best of the Larry Sanders Show, a DVD set that featured his favorite episodes from the iconic show, complete with recent, unpolished interviews he conducted with cast members and friends that spiraled across all types of topics. With Alec Baldwin, Shandling stepped into a boxing ring to talk about divorce and masculinity. For a chat with David Duchovny, the two friends played basketball and dissected their friendship. And with Seinfeld, they walked around Central Park, discussing acting, their hit shows and the late Phil Hartman. This is the only clip from their chat available online:
It’s brief, but it gives a glimpse of the relaxed tone that Seinfeld would then incorporate for Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Seinfeld had Shandling on for an episode, and in outtakes included on The Zen Diaries, Seinfeld refers to their Central Park stroll, saying that it helped inspire Comedians.
If you want to find the Larry Sanders interview — as well as the others — you’ll have to buy the box set on Amazon or elsewhere since it seems to be out of print. The Seinfeld one is especially great, but Shandling’s chats with everyone from Tom Petty to his one-time contentious ex Linda Doucett are riveting.
#3. Let’s quickly rank the greatest episodes of ‘Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.’
New to the show and wondering where to start since all the episodes are now on Netflix? Here are the five best…
5) Barack Obama (“Just Tell Him You’re the President”): Seinfeld may not be a great interviewer, but he understood the gravity of the situation, talking to the Commander-in-Chief with the right mixture of reverence and wit. Obama doesn’t try to be funny, which only makes him more charming.
4) Michael Richards (“It’s Bubbly Time, Jerry”): Seinfeld stood by his longtime friend after Richards’ calamitous 2006 racist stand-up act went viral. In this episode, they talk about a lot of things, but they also talk about that — and it’s surprisingly touching. Seinfeld may act like he doesn’t have feelings, but there’s real emotion in their conversation.
3) Julia Louis-Dreyfus (“I’ll Go If I Don’t Have to Talk”): What if Elaine and Jerry had ended up together? It couldn’t have been any more adorable than this episode, where the Seinfeld cast mates seem to positively glow in each other’s presence. Maybe the warmest, sweetest episode, but it’s also really funny, especially when they swap war stories about married life.
2) Garry Shandling (“It’s Great That Garry Shandling Is Still Alive”): Shandling died about two months after this episode aired. The two old pals go visit the Comedy Store, their proving ground that still leaves them feeling tense and anxious after all these years. This is the Shandling I want to remember: the reflective, hilarious, kind spirit who would always tell his friends that he loved them.
1) Louis C.K. (“Comedy, Sex and the Blue Numbers”): Filmed during the height of Louie’s acclaim, this episode is an opportunity to hear Louis C.K. talk about his kids with the same emotion and insight that marked his Emmy-winning show. Plus, his story about his grounded boat is absolutely fantastic. In the wake of C.K.’s acknowledgement of his sexual misconduct, this Comedians segment is a bittersweet reminder of his gifts as a comic — which only makes his bad behavior all the more infuriating.
Tim Grierson is a contributing editor at MEL. He last wrote about how more blockbusters need the small stakes of Ant-Man and the Wasp.