tv review

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee May Not Be Made for These Times

Zach Galifianakis and Jerry Seinfeld, in a car.

The tenth season of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, which starts streaming Friday, marks the first fresh batch of episodes since host Jerry Seinfeld moved the chat show from Crackle to Netflix. Neither the switch nor the specter of a lawsuit regarding the creation of the series has led to any changes in format. As per usual, in each of the dozen new installments, Seinfeld rhapsodizes about each automobile he’s chosen to borrow, then swings by to pick up a guest. (This season, the guests include Dave Chappelle, Zach Galifianakis, Hasan Minhaj, Kate McKinnon, John Mulaney, and Ellen DeGeneres, among others.) Afterward, the two zoom around town while discussing their journeys in and attitudes toward comedy, then wind up at a diner or diner-like establishment where they talk further over a plate of food and a pot of joe, an experience occasionally interrupted visually by elegant shots of coffee being poured into Lavazza-sponsored mugs.

It’s tempting to call Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee Jerry Seinfeld’s second show about nothing, since sometimes that description rings true. A new episode featuring Alec Baldwin — who, like another repeat guest, stand-up Brian Regan, has appeared on the series before — is a meandering affair that offers little insight into Baldwin’s approach to humor. It’s surprising that the two talk for 20 minutes and Seinfeld never once asks him about his portrayal of Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live, the role that, at the moment, Baldwin is best known for playing. But this is the thing about Seinfeld: He doesn’t spend a second considering what audience members might want to know about his interview subjects and he doesn’t care what anyone watching thinks of him. He’s guided completely by his own curiosity and instincts, which is what makes Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee so interesting, particularly if you’re a Seinfeld fan, but also maddening at the same time.

Ultimately, there is no one we learn more about while watching this show than Seinfeld himself. That’s inevitable since Seinfeld gets more screen time than anybody else. But even when he gives his java-drinking buddies room to discuss their own experiences and opinions, he has a tendency to express his own feelings, especially about comedy, in a way that implies he knows best.

In more than one episode, he expresses contempt for younger comedians who base their stand-up on confessional, autobiographical material. “We’re not interested in amusing anecdotes from your journal,” he says during a conversation with Tracy Morgan that unfolds while they tool around the Jersey suburbs in a fire-engine red 1984 Ferrari 288 GTO. “I don’t care. Make something up.”

In that same episode, Seinfeld also says that comedy is like food because everybody likes different flavors. Yet, when Morgan notes that one of Seinfeld’s observations is funny because it’s based in truth, Seinfeld basically tells him he’s wrong: “Funny has nothing to do with being true and honest,” he says. This statement is extra jarring to hear right now, given the warm reception that Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette has received for being all three of those things.

Perhaps that’s why this first Netflix season of Comedians in Cars demonstrates, purely by accident, why Seinfeld’s humor felt so right in the 1990s and feels less in sync with the 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.

Ellen DeGeneres gets at this idea in one episode, when she asks Seinfeld some questions of her own: “The world is such a scary place right now in so many ways — and you have children. There’s North Korea, and there’s fires and there’s storms — it just overwhelms me with, like, dread,” she says. “Do you go to those places?”

“No,” Seinfeld says without a second’s hesitation. “You know, my attitude is that each generation gets this thing dumped in their lap to deal with.”

“When I talk to your kids,” DeGeneres says, “When I meet them, I’ll ask them what they think.”

“I don’t really care what they think,” Seinfeld replies. He laughs, but he doesn’t seem to be entirely kidding.

“See?” DeGeneres says, not cracking a smile. “That’s my point.”

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, as a concept, comes from a pretty privileged place: Hey, let’s watch rich people drive around in expensive cars and gab like they don’t have to get to work or deal with any responsibilities! Usually, the conversations are entertaining or substantive enough to distract from that fact. But it’s harder this season — either because of Seinfeld himself, the times in which we are living, or some combination of the two — to overlook how out of touch the whole exercise, including Seinfeld, sometimes seems. No one would ever accuse Seinfeld of being woke, but there are times in Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee when he seems to be the anti-woke.

“You know what I haven’t heard from anyone?” he says to Dana Carvey during a discussion of Harvey Weinstein’s fall from grace. “’I am not surprised.’” He means that as an indictment of the faux-outrage expressed by many people in Hollywood, but it’s a puzzling statement considering that many women were not surprised by Weinstein’s behavior, and said as much publicly when the stories about his abuse first broke. In another example from the same episode, Carvey picks up a guitar in a music shop and starts singing to Seinfeld, which prompts the former wearer of a puffy shirt to say: “I feel so uncomfortable right now. You’re looking me in the eye and you’re playing guitar. This is gay. We’re gay.” I waited for a “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” but it never came.

Of course, Seinfeld would have no patience for this type of critique, and he says as much at various points during Comedians in Cars. “That might not come off well,” he quips, after noting to Kate McKinnon that creators of entertainment don’t owe their public anything. “But screw social media.”

The upside of not caring what other people think is that Seinfeld is less likely to be irked by things that ordinarily would offend a celebrity of his stature. When comedian Neal Brennan, who co-created Chappelle’s Show, admits he’s only seen a few episodes of Seinfeld, the man who gave the NBC comedy its name could not possibly care less. (“Every time I turned on Seinfeld, you guys were worried about a jacket,” Brennan says, which cracks up Seinfeld.)

Seinfeld also tells Zach Galifianakis that he’s not bothered at all when people secretly film or photograph him in public. If you’re a well-known person, you have to accept that, he says.

“Wonderful,” Galifianakis says, “because I have a show I’d like to pitch you called Celebrity Toilet Cams.”

The Galifianakis episode is the best one of the season, partly because Galifianakis and Seinfeld make such an intriguing pair — I would 100 percent watch a buddy comedy starring the two of them — but also because the episode eventually segues into an episode of Between Two Ferns that flips their roles and lets Galifianakis act as interrogator. (Typical question: “You have Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. James Corden has Carpool Karaoke. What’s next in lazy, car-based non-comedy?”) It’s a generous, ego-free act on Seinfeld’s part that a lot of other comedians would never allow on their own show.

Hard-core comedy scholars may also take special interest in the Jerry Lewis episode, since Lewis’s conversation with Seinfeld is one of the last interviews he did before his death last August. Their back-and-forth veers from analytical to poignant to unintentionally macabre. “What’s left to kill you with? There’s nothing left here,” Seinfeld says while surveying the breakfast fare spread out in front of Lewis. (Um, poor choice of words?)

Of course, one of the best things about Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is how short the episodes are. That may sound like a backhanded compliment, but it’s an honest piece of praise. Given how bloated so much television is these days, the concise nature of this series is one of its best assets. There’s something pleasantly manageable about watching two famous people enjoy caffeinated beverages in less time than it can take to get in and out of a crowded Starbucks. Plus, when you get back into your car with your grande lattes, you and your friends can discuss the smart, frustrating, and complicated host of the program you just watched. Call it: People in Cars Discussing What Jerry Seinfeld Just Said on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee Isn’t Made for These Times