Jerry Seinfeld couldn’t shake off the previous night’s gig. Tough crowd at a casino, he explained: “Like stabbing a Minotaur to death with a kitchen knife.” But now he was in Washington, slipping into the buttery Naugahyde of a 1963 Corvette Stingray, and rough edges blurred, and women on Constitution Avenue were yelling “Cool car!” at him instead of “Mulva?!”
“Ugh, what a car,” Seinfeld said, stepping out of it near the Capitol Reflecting Pool earlier this month. “What. A. Car. It’s like having a hot dog on July Fourth with Scott Carpenter.”
Which is why he selected it to drive to the White House and pick up the president of the United States, an upcoming guest on his ongoing Web series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”
As the title would suggest, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is a bit of a detour for Seinfeld’s show, which last season featured the likes of Jim Carrey, Steve Harvey and his long-ago sitcom partner Julia Louis-Dreyfus rolling around on vintage wheels and trading wisecracks with the star.
But this kind of showbiz cameo — Obama’s episode will debut online Dec. 30 — is business as usual for the president, who has collaborated with entertainers to tout his policies, burnish his public image or nudge a national conversation. In 2014, he appeared on Zach Galifianakis’s talk-show parody “Between Two Ferns” to talk up HealthCare.gov after its bungled rollout. This summer, he sat in Marc Maron’s garage in Los Angeles for a wide-ranging podcast interview that touched on race and racism. Just last week, he appeared on NBC’s “Running Wild,” a nature-adventure show with British survivalist Bear Grylls, to voice his concerns over climate change.
After Obama cited Seinfeld as one of his favorite comedians on Maron’s podcast, Seinfeld jokingly suggested that his production team should reach out to the White House. The executive producer of “Comedians in Cars” did just that.
“This was an opportunity to pull back the curtain for Americans on life in the White House,” the president’s press office said in a statement. “The president and Jerry had a unique, candid conversation that focused largely on the lighter side of the presidency.”
Seinfeld came to Washington a day ahead of his taping with Obama to capture scene-setting footage around town; unlike his usual guests, this one could not go freewheeling with him beyond the gates of the White House.
At the Capitol, tourists were beginning to notice Seinfeld, but only after they noticed the car, a shimmering mirage of silver-blue metallic in a small parking lot on the building’s west front. Its back window, split down the middle, sloped into a dorsal haunch resembling its marine namesake. It was on loan from some rich guy in Connecticut who had already called the crew to ask about his baby, which hadn’t been out of his sight in 32 years.
“The lines,” Seinfeld gushed, as if describing the Ark of the Covenant. He pointed out the spatial intimacy between the body of the car and the wheels — tight but not too tight. Then he gestured to a nearby Chevy Suburban, a brute hunk of black metal, one of the production vehicles.
“See how much space is between the wheel and the body? That’s why it’s depressing. What’s really missing from the world are cars you can just stare at,” he said, hands on the waist of his dad jeans, flaring back his navy blazer. “We’ve decided it’s more important to stay alive than look cool.”
Jerry Seinfeld adores comedy and cars — he values the pursuit of precision and mechanical perfection — and a few years ago he combined them with his love of coffee and launched this series, which features short videos of wealthy funny people motoring around in classics that only they could afford. He picked up Ricky Gervais in an ice-blue 1967 Austin Healey 3000. He picked up Tina Fey in a candy-apple-red 1967 Volvo 1800S.
And in less than 24 hours he would pick up Barack Obama in the Stingray.
He was nervous.
“You learn over the years how to handle yourself when you’re taken out of your box and put into a situation that has different stakes and different jeopardy,” Seinfeld said. But the anticipation of being with POTUS for 60 to 90 minutes was different. “I don’t talk to anybody about tomorrow. I don’t wanna talk about it. I kind of like to pace around backstage a couple minutes before I go on, so I’ve been doing that for about five days now.”
The crew was also nervous, because the White House seemed nervous. The “Comedians in Cars” shoot was arranged over the summer, but now the San Bernardino, Calif., shooting was still fresh; while Seinfeld taped B-roll, the president was preparing for a prime-time address to the nation.
Seinfeld follows politics, but it has no place in his act. Political jokes rot on the vine. He likes his bits to be evergreen. Still, he considers the highlight of his career to be performing in the East Room in front of Obama and Paul McCartney in 2010, and he can’t think of another U.S. president who would be as good on “Comedians in Cars” as the 44th.
“He’s done some really good work as a monologist at those correspondents’ dinners — that’s how he qualifies to be on the show,” Seinfeld said, referring to the annual black-tie gathering of White House reporters.
“Where’s Kramer?” shouted a mustachioed tourist, eating popcorn at Fourth and Independence as the Stingray glided past. “Where’s Kramerrr?”
Seinfeld, who’s always looking for a novel camera angle, suggested attaching a GoPro to the Stingray’s windshield wiper.
“Oh my God, that’s genius,” he said after, watching the playback in a parking lot by the Capitol Reflecting Pool, his voice reaching that Seinfeldian pitch of hysteria. “Look at that shot! This is so funny. Look at that crazy angle!”
The gathering tourists started chanting “Jerr-y! Jerr-y!” as he opened the Stingray’s door to drive to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. He gave them a wave, his cuff links glinting in the setting sun.
“I haven’t been in here since I was a kid,” Seinfeld said, hot-footing through the museum, sunglasses on, so he could use the restroom.
Then back in the four-vehicle caravan, down around the Tidal Basin, past the World War II Memorial, onto Interstate 66 and the George Washington Memorial Parkway. The crew members hung out the open sliding door of a minivan to get car-to-car shots. Everyone was hooked up to walkie-talkies.
“Jerry, can you come around to our right?”
“They missed a turn.”
“Let’s meet them at Gravelly Point.”
Seinfeld drove the Stingray onto the grass as a jet screeched in for a landing at Reagan National Airport. The sun was nearly gone. A chill took its place. He emerged from the car and walked to his getaway vehicle, a ho-hum SUV of negligible make and model.
“A Festivus for the rest of us,” a biker in spandex called toward him, and Seinfeld twiddled a couple fingers in his direction, because you don’t deserve greater acknowledgment if that’s the best you can do.
The comedian was tired. The crew would get a twilight shot of the car at rest along the Potomac, but he headed back for room service at his hotel, where he would continue to pace and prepare. The conversation topics for the president would be quotidian. Seinfeld wanted to nab the normal in an abnormal life, the nothing in the everything.
“I want to know how far he can get in his underwear before it’s weird,” Seinfeld said from the passenger seat of the SUV. “And can you really get a good night’s sleep in this place? It’s like ‘Night at the Museum’ to me, sleeping in the White House. I just had another question: Are you ever talking to somebody and do you ever think, ‘This guy’s out of his mind’?”
Everything went as scheduled the following day. Obama drove the Stingray on the White House grounds. The pair chatted in a basement dining room, and Seinfeld asked about presidential bathroom routines, and the difference between presidential garbage and non-presidential garbage.
“It was out-of-body for me,” Seinfeld said by phone afterward. “I’m not a guy who likes honor. In fact, I hate any kind of honoring. That I get to be a comedian, that’s the honor. But this was an honor: that [Obama] was okay with me, that he trusted me to do some comedy with him in the real White House.”