“How is it that we can’t get enough of any two idiots talking?” Seinfeld asks comedian Brian Regan, one of his guests, as the two tootle around Los Angeles in a sporty 2006 Cadillac XLR and eventually stop for the requisite cup of coffee. “We’re all talking all the time and then we watch other people talking. Why? It makes no sense.” He notes that David Letterman, at the time of this ride, was about to debut a new show on Netflix. “Guess what he’s going to be doing? Talking to people! It’s idiotic.”
In another episode Seinfeld drives around with actor/comedian Zach Galifianakis in a well-worn 1972 Volkswagen Thing. “Will this be the end of our friendship?” Galifianakis wonders as the ride draws to its close.
“Of course,” Seinfeld says, preparing to drop Galifianakis off. “I just needed the episode.”
But the joke’s on Jerry: Galifianakis takes him inside a studio and forces him to sit for an episode of his own celebrity talk show, “Between Two Ferns,” where Galifianakis mentions “Comedians in Cars” in the same breath as James Corden’s hideous “Carpool Karaoke” bits on CBS’s “Late Late Show”: “What’s next in lazy, car-based, non-comedy?” Galifianakis asks. It’s mock cruelty, but it’s also a good question.
Watching “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” of which Seinfeld has now made 72 episodes since 2012, is as easy as polishing off a bowl of chips — it’s finished before you have time to realize the chips have gone stale.
Actual talk shows (of which there are plenty) seem to be too difficult to watch in linear format now; the best those shows can hope for is to get a short clip from yesterday’s episode to go briefly viral. “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” once seemed to be part of a new genre that could take our need for a quick-fix celebrity encounter and capitalize on it, turning the interplay between Seinfeld and a friendly, famous, funny person (most of them male; only one-sixth of the episodes have featured female guests) into something relaxed and impromptu. Profound insight was never the goal. At roughly 15 to 20 minutes per episode, the conversation is usually plug-free — there’s no burdensome requirement to mention any of the guest’s movies or shows or other projects, unless it becomes relevant to the gabbing.
Now the show plays as if Seinfeld has belatedly realized he’s part of a terrible surplus of chitchat, a narcissistic loop of elite gab. A project once meant to illuminate the mutual regard comedians have for one another now plays like one more task they add to their list of appearances on multiple platforms, from the full-glam, late-night appearance to lowly garage-set podcast.
In expensive, collectible cars that mainly emphasize the wealth gap between Seinfeld and the audience, celebrities are hopping in with Jerry and finding they have nothing much to say anymore. They’re talked-out.
The current season features a surprising degree of disconnect and even boredom with the idea — one dud ride after another: Ellen DeGeneres looks exhausted, almost as if she had the date wrong on her calendar but decided to go ahead and get it over with. John Mulaney, usually so quick on the draw, seems more interested in shopping for a hallway rug than engaging in any sharp interplay with Seinfeld. In lieu of actual conversation, Kate McKinnon reduces herself mainly to noises, crinkle-nosed smirks and appreciative laughter at Seinfeld’s attempt to engage her, causing the viewer to wonder if she’s simply not a fan of sentences and finished thoughts. Hasan Minhaj, the “Daily Show” alumnus who is also about to launch his Netflix talk show, spends most of the ride in a suspended state of regard for Seinfeld and the car (a 1992 Ferrari 512TR) and a seeming reluctance to divulge, ruminate, reveal.
Even Dave Chappelle — picked up by Seinfeld at Washington’s Four Seasons Hotel in a 1973 Citroen SM — fails to hold up his end of the conversation, for which he is punished by having to listen to Seinfeld hold forth (during breakfast at the Diner in Adams Morgan) on the intuitive powers of the human rectum.
For his part, Seinfeld seems to be forgetting how to listen. A born curmudgeon, he is now 64 and coming into a rightful and more acerbic crustiness at what may very well be the wrong moment for that sort of thing, when language and comedy are getting extra scrutiny from the perpetually unamused. These rides were taped in the fall of 2017; Seinfeld, as if representing the entire male gender, is obsessed and perhaps even spooked by the Harvey Weinstein revelations and the fresh attention on gender relations.
Driving with Regan, Seinfeld looks at passersby and observes, “Women like to be with women that are the same weight.” After a pause, he says, “I can’t use that in the show,” but he also attempts a recovery: “Their bodies are friends and the heads just go along for the ride.” When a diner waitress introduces herself as “Caritza,” Seinfeld says to his guest, Tracy Morgan, “Why do people keep making up new names?” (Morgan politely giggles but lets the comment pass; after all, poor Caritza is standing right there.) When Minhaj wonders why Jews and Indians seem culturally similar, Seinfeld’s answer is blunt: “We [both] really like making a buck.” Walking a Manhattan sidewalk with McKinnon, Seinfeld (whose net worth is estimated to be just shy of $1 billion) looks skyward and wonders aloud, “Isn’t it amazing that anyone could have trouble finding an apartment in New York?” (Because just look at how many there are!)
A viewer should skip past these duller, out-of-gas and sometimes awkward episodes to enjoy two genuine rewards at the season’s end. In one, Seinfeld goes to Las Vegas to take Jerry Lewis out in a red 1966 Jaguar E-Type similar to the one the late film star drove in his heyday. The segment was probably one of the last things Lewis did before his death last August at 91.
“I don’t drink coffee,” Lewis says.
“Why don’t we take a nap together, then?” Seinfeld says.
In another great episode, Alec Baldwin — who gets in a well-used 1974 BMW coupe for a drive with Seinfeld to breakfast at a diner in their shared Long Island hometown of Massapequa, N.Y. — is the only guest who seems ready and able to connect with Seinfeld on any subject, at any level, with real sincerity and appreciation for the time spent.
Baldwin is in an especially chatty mood, lapsing into voices and surfing from one funny anecdote to the next. Of course, he too has his own talk show (on public radio), where he interviews other notable actors and newsmakers.
Baldwin knows the drill, which Seinfeld and a number of his passengers seem to have forgotten: It’s not enough to just get two famous people together and attempt to hang. In the glut of shows and podcasts in which celebrities rub shoulders and riff away in friendly banter, it takes work to engage another person, famous or not. It’s not all Seinfeld’s fault that this genre is out of gas, but feigning interest is as bad as running on fumes.
Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (12 episodes) is now streaming on Netflix.