CRITICAL ASSESSMENT: Seinfeld Speeds, Comedians Caffeinate

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Why did Jerry Seinfeld, one of the most successful comedians of all time, start an internet chat show?

In each episode of “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” Seinfeld drives a vintage car to match the celebrity comic he picks up: a slender 1967 Volvo for Tina Fey, an old car-repair truck for Michael Richards.

The show tries to be informal and intimate: Seinfeld asks the celebrities out for coffee on the phone and they answer as if the meetings weren’t planned. None of the cameras in the cars and coffee shops are visible.

The comedians wax nostalgic and punctuate their stories with pithy aphorisms. Seinfeld tells Jay Leno that comedians like them know that any comedy gig, no matter how big, is a good gig.  Leno, in his light way, refutes him with a story of a show he did in front of Portuguese immigrants at the Playboy club.

Seinfeld is better at making fun of others than himself. On his old show he turned others into exaggerated characters we could laugh at. On this show he has only his guests to pick at. Watch Ricky Gervais squirm as Seinfeld drives faster and faster, “Fear is funny especially when it’s not fake,” says Seinfield, stepping on the gas pedal. He tells Alec Baldwin that his pronunciation of ‘rapier’ (rap-ee-yay) is “either really pretentious or wrong.”

In perhaps the best episode Michael Richards and Seinfeld have the rapport to go deep quickly.

“Sometimes I look back at the show and I think I shoulda enjoyed it more,” says Richards. The tragic sadness of this moment—that he was stressed- out backstage for the best thing he will ever do—is papered-over by Seinfeld’s response: comedians are martyrs who suffer for the entertainment of others.

But Richards really has suffered for his comedy, when he was ostracized for a racist rant seven years before. “I busted up after that event, it broke me down,” Richards said.

So what’s Seinfeld doing with this show? He’s salvaging his legacy and protecting his friendships, showing off cars and matching wits, reminiscing and bemoaning. The show is uneven but, in spite of its artifice, Seinfeld is more real than we’ve seen him before: he’s both awkward and mean, incisive and hilarious.

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