When Jerry Seinfeld announced that he was making the web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, I thought it sounded like one of the most pretentious and self-indulgent ideas imaginable. Great, I thought: Rich guys getting coffee, driving around in their fancy cars, and idly talking about rich-guy things. Honestly, the whole idea behind it made me mad because of the vanity behind it, the idea that Jerry Seinfeld thinks so much of himself that we’d care to watch him have coffee with other celebrities.
And then I watched an episode. And then I watched a few more. And then I really began to like and appreciate Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee because it was more than simply self-indulgence (although, there is some of that). It was Seinfeld reminiscing about old-school stand-up; it was a history lesson about the 70s and 80s and 90s stand-up scene from the people who were there; it was an opportunity for Michael Richards to talk about the N-word incident in an open, honest, and candid way; it was an opportunity for Jay Leno to actually be human; it allowed us a glimpse into the life of David Letterman, outside of the context of his talk show; and in the Chris Rock episode, we got to see how a police officer would treat a black man no matter how rich he is, and we were also treated to a fantastic story about how Rock slipped the Pam Anderson sex tape to a Make-a-Wish kid dying of cancer.
In other words, it was a lot better than I had expected, and while it might have been presumptuous of Jerry Seinfeld to think we’d care about his conversations with other celebrities, he was right: Because those conversations provided fascinating first-hand accounts of the industry that we’re not typically privy to, and those conversations were often very substantive.
Vanished is the “Seinfeld” that applied everyman scrutiny to everyday subjects: Can gifts be “regifted”? Why do dentists talk to you while opening your mouth? Instead, we watch pairs of rich guys chatting about the gilded joys of their lives and careers and cars, about the sealed-off world they inhabit and we don’t. As with watching royal weddings, we are supposed to bask in the reflected glow, not covet what they have.
The democracy of observational humor has become, in Mr. Seinfeld’s reincarnation, an oligarchy of mutual admiration.
The Times critic offers two examples to illustrate his point that “America is moving toward a caste system.” Here’s the first, involving Alec Baldwin:
In that episode, the two men debate who worked harder to get where they are; speak of how much Mr. Baldwin admires Mr. Seinfeld’s home; make plans that if one of them produces the Oscars, the other should host it. But the spell of self-congratulation is briefly broken when the server offers Mr. Baldwin a sandwich with bread he doesn’t like.
Under taunting from Mr. Baldwin, the server relents: “What do you want? We’ll give you what we have.” And this Mr. Baldwin repeats with a snicker, speaking not to the server but to Mr. Seinfeld and us, mocking the help, laughing at and not with. Later, Mr. Baldwin condescends to the woman some more: “You know what I need from you if you don’t mind, if it’s O.K.? May I have a fork, and some napkins?”
That moment would have been almost unimaginable 20 years ago on “Seinfeld,” where the characters were self-absorbed more than entitled. As the men prepare to go, Mr. Baldwin says, “You realize we have to leave Rebecca a $1,000 tip.” This is what can pass for politeness among masters of the universe: humiliate, then compensate.
The second involved the episode with David Letterman, in which Letterman suggested that he didn’t like being out in the public of a coffee shop:
“Can we just ask these people to leave?” Mr. Letterman says.
“We don’t own this place,” Mr. Seinfeld answers.
Mr. Letterman allows himself a chuckle, then says, “We can change that, though, can’t we?”
In two seasons of the web series, the Times critic basically cherry picked two instances to support his thesis. The first, I’ll give him, but I’ll also say it’s not typical of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, but typical OF ALEC BALDWIN, who is a pompous, arrogant windbag who condescends to practically everyone. HAVE YOU NOT SEEN HIM ON TWITTER? OR ON 30 ROCK? Of course Alec Baldwin was an asshole on the show, because he’s an asshole in real life.
As for the Letterman incident? Come on, now? Do you know anything about Letterman? He LOATHES being in public, not because he has a distaste for “the common man,” but because it makes him uncomfortable. How often does anyone see Letterman out and about? He doesn’t go to parties. He doesn’t attend charity events. He doesn’t gladhand, not because he’s an elitist, but because he’s anti-social. He goes to work, he goes to home, and sometimes, he goes to his ranch in Wyoming. That’s Dave’s life; I was surprised, even, that Seinfeld managed to get him on the show because Dave is generally so reserved and private.
But HEY! If you want to suggests that the behavior of one known asshole and one anti-social talk show host exemplifies the rest of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, you go right ahead, New York Times. You can keep getting your insights into celebrities from controlled and pre-rehearsed interviews on late-night talks shows designed to promote a product. But you’ll also be missing out on one of the most interesting, fascinating, candid, and educational looks into some of the best comedians of the past 20 or 30 years in an uncontrolled, unscripted environment.