Earlier this year, an old story about Matthew Broderick went viral. In 2009, Alex Cabana was on vacation with his family in Montauk. He and his daughter were waiting in line at a pharmacy, when he struck up a conversation with a man he thought he recognized. In the way that reality warps when someone we’re familiar with from one context is transposed into another, he couldn’t exactly place him.
“I came out of the store and was thinking, ‘I know this guy. He looks famous,’” Cabana said.
Just in case, he asked the man — who he eventually realized was the star of the 1998 Roland Emmerich blockbuster Godzilla — to pose for a photo with his daughter outside. Broderick’s friend, an intruder in this chance portrait of celebrity bleeding into real life, was asked to step aside, as his presence was throwing off the composition of the shot. The second man obliged, and waited patiently in his bright white sneakers and baggy dad jeans, grimacing in the glare of the sun as if he weren’t even there.
Later on, Cabana showed the picture to his wife, who immediately pointed out his hilarious oversight. It was Jerry Seinfeld, who Cabana would later say he watched “every night.” He just hadn’t recognized him.
There’s no denying there’s something especially delightful about Seinfeld being the butt of the joke here, if only because it’s a unique indignity that seems drawn directly from the larger Seinfeldian humor diaspora. It could well have been a plot from his own show, or from Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. It felt familiar: Big guy made small. It’s been twenty years since Seinfeld went off the air, twice as long as the show actually ran, and in that time, Jerry Seinfeld’s efforts to distance himself from his role as “Jerry Seinfeld” have been few and far between. Unlike his co-stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Jason Alexander, Seinfeld’s primary role, from his stand-up days to the show that made him famous to his latest venture, Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee (which begins its tenth season this year, after moving to Netflix), has been a version of himself. In that sense he’s a lot like his longtime partner, Larry David, seemingly uninterested in ever branching out of his comfort zone.
Our fondness for “Jerry Seinfeld” is boundless — episodes of Seinfeld continue to air non-stop throughout the world at all times of the day, something that has made him a very, very wealthy man — but Seinfeld the real human has, understandably, changed. The fictionalized Seinfeld may have always been suspiciously successful — he kept a Saab in a garage in New York City, and always ended up with the woman out of his league — but reliably, the humor came in his humiliation. Regularly enough, he was brought low by his hubris, or his peccadilloes, in a way that served to distract us from the trappings of his fictional success. Typically that came in the form of a breakup: being dumped because he couldn’t remember his girlfriend’s name, or because another one saw him picking his nose.
There’s no such puncturing of the bubble in Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee. The premise of the show is simple; basically everything you need to know about it can be found in the title. Seinfeld, undoubtedly one of the funniest men in comedy for decades, drives beautiful cars, and shoots the shit with his likewise successful and famous friends. Steve Martin, Jim Carrey, Tina Fey, Chris Rock, and Alec Baldwin — almost everyone you like in comedy shows up at one point or another. (Also, uh, Barack Obama.)
It’s not hard to understand why the show exists, but a slightly harder question to answer is why it fucking sucks shit. I will admit it is nicely shot. The rest of it feels more like the exercise of a man who spent his life obsessing over fancy cars and needed an excuse to write off his expensive hobby. And in contrast to other similar conceits — say Marc Maron’s WTF, in which comedians are at their most vulnerable — there’s little that goes beneath the surface with most of his guests. We learn more about the inner workings of the cars than we do the humans.
“This is a 1976 Lamborghini Countach, in Tahiti Blue with a tan interior,” Jerry explains during the opening voiceover of a typically characteristic episode from Season 6. (Confusingly, the number of episodes from each season have been abbreviated into “collections” on Netflix, apparently, and mercifully, omitting many of them.) “It has a 370 horsepower, 3 liter, 3 cam 12 cylinder,” he goes on, with the obligatory establishing shots of the comedian racing through a scenic roadside intercut with closeups of the engine in question. “The fuel comes through 6 twin throat Webbers. That is good.”
Is it? Is that good? Certainly there are people who take their cars very seriously for whom this sort of thing is akin to pornography, but that doesn’t explain the persistence, or the success of the series. As of Season 6, when this one aired, it had been streamed over 100 million times. That pales in comparison to the series finale of “Seinfeld,” which was watched by around 76 million people, but it’s nonetheless a sturdy streaming hit.
On this episode, after a few more stilted line readings that sound like he’s speaking them on the other end of a hostage negotiation call, Jerry eventually pilots the nice Lamborghini to Jim Carrey’s home. Carrey, always on, clambers over the gate like he’s breaking out of prison, hamming it up for a largely stoic Seinfeld. “Doesn’t the gate work?” Jerry asks.
“Oh yeah. It works,” Carrey says, panting. We’re watching two of the biggest stars in comedy of the past few decades, and yet somehow it’s the gate one can’t take their eyes off of. That looks like a very expensive gate. The gate looks like it works. These people do not live like the rest of us, you might think.
Televised ostentation is a reliable font of reality entertainment, as you probably do not need to be reminded, because of people like the Kardashians, the Real Housewives cast, and so on, who are known to us specifically and only because of their wealth. Seinfeld, on the other hand, was an inordinately wealthy man who was nonetheless loved because of his incredible ability to crystallize our everyday annoyances and struggles through the lens of the regular schlub. (A schlub that does particularly well on a working comic’s salary in the show, but a schlub all the same.) Here, we’re presented with a man who looks like the Seinfeld we know and love, but his foibles are no longer our own. Perhaps it’s a side effect of the Trump era, but a significant percentage of us are not exactly in the mood these days to watch the grabass exploits of a monied narcissist.
In an episode from Season 1, as he drives a 1970 Mercedes-Benz 280 SL on the way to meet Alec Baldwin, Seinfeld tips his hand somewhat. “This is a car for guys that want a sports car, but don’t really want to be inconvenienced,” he says. “It’s an ‘I get what the young people are doing and I’m part of it, but I will not be putting my mattress on the floor.’”
One doesn’t suppose that he will be putting a mattress on the floor any time soon. But stripped of the affable fiction of his show — which was almost entirely about the ways Seinfeld did not like to be inconvenienced — it’s not hard to imagine the real world Seinfeld having graduated into a series of petty annoyances that are so far beyond the realm of the familiar that they barely register as human anymore. Everyone could relate to answering machine etiquette, take out order disputes and dating turnoffs. What is the deal with this $100,000 classic car? doesn’t have the same universality to it.
“I remember very well not being famous. It wasn’t that great.”
“You’ve never been fat a day in your life, have you?” Baldwin asks him. “Your life has been one long boulevard of green lights hasn’t it?” Jerry’s face expands into what we might regard as the normal indicators of laughter: he tips his head back slightly, his teeth emerge into a rictus-like grin, and he does a silent, laugh-like… thing. Humor has been suggested, and the polite thing to do here is indicate you understand it, he seems to be thinking. Later on, they bust a diner waitress’ balls a little bit, just like they used to in the show! In part, this is also what has made latter seasons of Curb so disappointing: It’s just no fun watching a rich guy bumble around giving service industry workers grief over imagined slights. Seinfeld doesn’t approach anything nearing “Larry David” level pique here, but the context is the same.
The short run time of the episodes, typically under 20 minutes, make it difficult for any of the guests to get into too much depth. (I know, I know, the food sucks. And such small portions.) Trevor Noah might get into a story about how the threat of police violence in South Africa taught him a lesson about the power of humor, but before long it’s a quick cut to the next quip. Jimmy Fallon and Seinfeld might riff on the ridiculousness of drug commercials on TV, but before they can build up enough steam they’re out of the car and launching a boat into the water. The most reliable moments of humor throughout the series typically rely on a guest — Norm Macdonald, for example — who is aware of the ridiculousness at hand. “Jerry, did you bring your car?” Norm asks as Seinfeld calls to say he’s nearby. (There’s not much Norm can’t undercut.)
In comedy, the three act structure has served us well for centuries, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to The Big Sick. A confusing situation is introduced; the stakes of the confusion are raised; finally, the confusion is resolved. “Seinfeld” infamously set out to turn traditional comedy structure on its head — no hugging, no learning — to brilliant effect, but it goes a long way toward explaining what’s missing from Comedians In Cars: There are no stakes. Not that we should want knuckle-whitening tension from a talk show, but it’s hard not to see each of the guests as someone for whom everything is going just great. We may know that a particular stand up comedian is wealthy, but on stage they’re stripped of the accoutrements of success. It’s just them and a microphone.
Here, the peek behind the curtain reminds us of the lie we have to enter into to convince ourselves these guys are just like us, speaking our problems back to us in a relatable language we can all understand. Consider Chris Rock’s recent Netflix special. Much of the time he talks about the problems of being rich, something few of us can imagine. It’s the moments in which he strays into things that humanize him — divorce, cheating — that are transcendent. By contrast Ricky Gervais’ recent special is one hour long mug at the camera that ends up being revolting: Aren’t I a rich little stinker? Yes, you are; now, fuck off.
In Season 7, we see Jerry sitting in a presidential vehicle with Barack Obama, at the time the most powerful man in the world. You know, regular guy stuff. “I could call in a nuclear submarine from here,” the president jokes. As they talk, Obama says he misses his anonymity the most. He misses the days when people didn’t recognize him everywhere he went.
Jerry laughs. “With all due respect. I remember very well not being famous,” he says. “It wasn’t that great.”
“You think being famous is better?”
“Yeah.” He still wants to be in the picture; he just doesn’t know where to stand anymore.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Jerry owned a Porsche on Seinfeld.