2/10/14

Viewer's Notes - What's the Deal with 'Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee?'

Before we set off down the road about Jerry Seinfeld's web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, I want to say that I've been a fan of the show Seinfeld for a long time. I wasn't as quick to the party as some of my friends were back when the show was still coming out fresh year after year from 1989 to 1998.  Now, like millions of people, I will admit to having watched some episodes of Seinfeld more times than I can count -- with the two-parter, "The Cadillac," as a particular favorite.  Seinfeld's standup is a little too cute for my liking, but I wouldn't diminish his work in that area either; one's taste in standup comedy is too mysterious for me to speculate upon.

I can only imagine who excited fans of Jerry Seinfeld have been at his return to television (sort of) in the form of his ongoing web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.  It's a clever enough premise -- or straightforward enough, at least -- Seinfeld getting together with a comedy-minded friend, driving and eating and chatting.  I've watched almost all of the episodes of CCC through the current third season.  It's funny enough most of the time.  From time to time, though, I wondered if CCC was a little flat because it was a lazy program or a "reality" show that was a bit too slick for its own good.

First up, there's the question of originality.  Comedians talking with other comedians in a loose, do-it-yourself format is nothing new to the world of podcasting -- a style of media CCC seems to draw some of its inspiration from.  The most obvious comparison would be to Marc Maron's WTF, Comedy Bang! Bang!, or Adam Carolla's show, all of which have been around since 2009.  And I can recall the podcast Carpool, in which actor and comedian Robert Llewellyn, well, he drove famous people around while interviewing them.  So strike one on originality.

Next, there's the concern over what I think would best be called slickness.  Obviously, production values for shows should be high, but CCC seems a bit too good to be considered a do-it-yourself operation.  There's the sponsorship and sometimes obtrusive product placement by Acura, which can't be dismissed as ironic after the tenth wink to the viewer. Just run a commercial, please.  There's the use of stock "coffee-making" footage, which, along with the multiple camera shooting style of the show and the careful editing, suggests that Seinfeld has some sort of staff helping him put things together.  A quick check of IMDB suggests that there might be as many as five or six people helping Seinfeld with each webisode.  And finally there's "the call, wherein Jerry just dials up his buddies in comedy (Carl Reiner, Chris Rock, David Letterman) and casually suggests they go grab some coffee.  So are we to believe that Jerry Seinfeld just cold-calls Dave Letterman one day and they just go out for coffee?  Maybe I'm cynical about these celebrity matters, but I'm not buying it.

And this last matter of the faux-casual phone calls dovetails nicely with my final set of concerns.  There is a polite fiction to CCC that Jerry Seinfeld is just a regular guy who likes cars and having coffee with his friends who work in the same business. But Seinfeld has an estimated net worth of $800 million.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.  And when he has coffee with David Letterman ($400 million), it's plain that these aren't folks who live like you and me.  Are the folks sitting in the restaurant with Seinfeld and his coffee companions just plain folks?  Are they extras?  Did they have to sign a waiver?  Furthermore, while we might understand that Seinfeld likes cars, and we might like cars, we don't necessarily drive a different one to work every day.  Average prices for some of the different collectible cars Seinfeld has driven in the show are more than most people's annual salaries:.  We've got a 1952 VW Beetle ($40,000), a 1967 Austen-Healey ($60,000), a 1970 Dodge Challenger ($50,000), and 1970 Mercedes-Benz 280 SL ($60,000), just to name a few.  Leave it to Ricky Gervais to put it best, "You're like a young king."

And with royalty comes privilege.  And privilege is the very matter that caused consternation for some folks after Jerry Seinfeld, when asked about diversity on CCC, said that all he sees is funny and complained about political correctness.  In the context of the questions that have been raised in the past about racial stereotyping and lack of diversity on the original Seinfeld series.  Those racist and sexist and xenophobic characters were hacky from a comedy standpoint.  In short, they were lazy.  Let me be clear here.  I do not think that Jerry Seinfeld is a racist.  I do think he lacks a certain sophistication about cross cultural conversations that are typical of people who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s -- this idea that to be color blind is the best way to deal with racism.  Seinfeld's "All I see is funny," very much echoes a statement like, "I don't see color."  These days, the point is -- emphatically so -- that we should see color (or gender or sexuality) and be able to talk about it without getting defensive. Institutional racism (and show business is an institution) doesn't mean that you're a racist if you work in that institution.

Like I said, I don't think Seinfeld is a racist, and I don't think Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is a terrible show.  But, it its borrowing from earlier, more innovative shows, in its ham-handed product placement, in its reliance on celebrity and wealth to generate interest, and in its generally breezy approach to production, it's something that I've lost interest in.  I'm not saying that Seinfeld and his crew don't work hard;  but they could work better.  Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee seems like a vehicle for a comedian from a different time who's trying to keep up in an era that he's not entirely suited for any more.  For the sake of the funny, though, I think Jerry Seinfeld might figure it out as he goes along.  The road is long.

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1 comment:

Tom Snyder said...

Good read, Mark.
I'll have to check out this 'CCC' and see what Jerry is doing these days.