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Jerry Seinfeld’s New Web Series: Java, Jalopies and Jokes

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Web series have famously become an outlet for creators for whom it affords opportunities and freedom of expression that they can’t get in traditional media—Joss Whedon, Felicia Day, Issa Rae of Awkward Black Girl. But now the Web has also attracted the attention of stars who have all the freedom and attention they need. Tom Hanks went online this week to launch Electric City, his so-far pulpy and enigmatic dystopian animation series. And Thursday night, Jerry Seinfeld premiered his series of webisodes, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, about, well, that.

Let us be clear: Jerry Seinfeld does not need the Web. Seinfeld could walk into any major broadcast network today, say he wanted to make a new show about, say, vacuum cleaner repair, and executives, after fainting, would rush to get the checkbook lest he change his mind. Jerry Seinfeld, let me remind you, got NBC to make The Marriage Ref.

Seinfeld does not need the Web, but that doesn’t mean that the Web might not, in many ways, be better suited to what he wants to do now: drive around, have some coffee and talk to his comedian buddies about comedy, while you watch.

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That’s pretty much what there is to Comedians in Cars—available at Crackle and the series’ own website—in which Seinfeld’s first guest is Larry David, co-creator of the Seinfeld sitcom. Well, no: his first guest is his antique 1952 VW Beetle, a gorgeous collectors’ item that Seinfeld described lovingly but with a dry observation about its meekness: “If, like me, you feel that true humility is always in short supply, this is the car for you.”

It’s a curious statement to introduce the series with, since there is something arguably… un-humble about making a show, the premise of which is showing off your fantastic car collection en route to picking up your old collaborator and reminding us of one of the greatest triumphs in TV history. But it’s never not interesting to get the Beatles back together, and when David slides into the car, the observations start flying: about David’s fussy dietary habits, about the car’s peculiar (and awesome!) “semaphore” style turn flags, about the etiquette of ordering tea when your companion is having coffee.

There’s something appealing about the idea of Seinfeld, a guy who could command the legions of Hollywood at the slightest command, deciding instead that he already has a pretty good life, opting to do low-stakes comedy and schmooze with his pals in a state of semi-retirement. It’s fun, and it can be intriguing, especially when David and he get not just to making jokes, but to discussing, in a sidelong way, how and why jokes work.

Toward the end, they talk about why David would opt to smoke a cigar rather than a cigarette when working on Seinfeld and ruminating on the show. Trying to get at the difference, David pantomimes the act of smoking both: a cigarette is fast and nervous (he mimes sucking at his fingers tetchily), while a cigar is contemplative (he takes a slow, thoughtful fake drag). “A cigar takes time!” Jerry pipes in, in what could either be a documentary conversation moment or a scripted exchange from the show Seinfeld.

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The show feels it’s meant to be casual and spur-of-the-moment, but it sure doesn’t look that way. The video is crisp, rich looking and edited within an inch of its life. It cuts quickly, every second or few, to a different perspective on the comedians, to a luxurious-looking crema on a cup of coffee, to a detail on the car or a plate of pancake. Seinfeld has put as much meticulous energy into making a casual conversation look highly produced as David, with Curb Your Enthusiasm, puts into making a highly planned operation look utterly casual.

The whole aesthetic is a little distancing, and it gives the show a feel of watching a 13 1/2-minute long commercial. But for what? Just for how good a time these guys are having, being themselves, being with each other, having coffee and breakfast at God knows what hour in the day.

“You continue to have one of the finest minds I’ve ever met,” Seinfeld tells David, earnestly, after the cigar analysis. “You know I take that as a great compliment,” returns David warmly. Adds Seinfeld: “Here’s an analysis of something by two idiots that no one else is doing.” Aren’t they? Or maybe they are, in diners and on YouTube channels, and simply not issuing highly produced and promoted video of their doing it.

Regardless, talent is talent, and I can’t blame Seinfeld and David for knowing and acknowledging how much they have. But by the end of that exchange, it feels like we’ve receded away as viewers rather than having been brought into their intimate circle; I feel like I should ask if anyone needs me to freshen up their coffee or if I should just clear the table.

None of which is to argue that they’re not right: these guys really are the Lennon-McCartney of comedy, and still it’s intriguing and fun in any format to watch them get together and jam. If you’re not interested—well, no harm, no foul is the attitude of this webisode. Jerry Seinfeld doesn’t need the Web, he doesn’t need TV either, and if you find other ways to spend your time than with him, his coffee and his cars, he’ll do just fine.