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January 31, 2014

So, Seinfeld and his car collection walk into a comedian...

In December 2012, some 14 years after Seinfeld last aired, a now-famous Twitter account launched an attempt to “update” the series. What would Jerry, Kramer, and company be doing these days? @SeinfeldToday pitched new episodes to the Twitter-sphere, wherein the beloved characters had to contend with modern (in)conveniences: smartphones, fixed-gear bicycles, awkward Facebook conversations. For a time, the tweets were pretty funny. It’s since started to feel a bit flat—visit the account today and you’ll see a lot of hipster buzzwords shoehorned into old Seinfeld pitches. Besides, it’s no longer necessary to wonder what “Modern Seinfeld” would really look like—because it exists. It’s called Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

How do you really modernize a show like Seinfeld? Mainly: Put it online and make it free. Comedians in Cars is a web-exclusive series distributed by Crackle; you can find it on YouTube or on its very own slickly-designed website. It’s paid for by Acura, in the form of hilariously obvious product placements (“Hey, it’s one of those new Acura food-trucks!”) and dumb ads written by Jerry Seinfeld himself. But beyond that, the show is entirely Seinfeld’s baby, and without NBC executives around to get in his way, he’s been able to fully eliminate what’s always stood in the way of Seinfeld’s greatness: plot. As Larry David says in the show’s premiere episode, Jerry has “finally done the show about nothing.”

The format is almost exactly the same every time. Seinfeld fires up one of his hundred-odd vintage cars: a vintage Austin-Healey 3000, a 69 Jag, a Delorean. Seinfeld calls up a comedian friend for coffee: Ricky Gervais, Sarah Silverman, Patton Oswalt. And then Seinfeld announces, with obvious excitement, “I’m Jerry Seinfeld, and this is Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” Beyond that, there is no script—it’s just 12 to 20 minutes of two funny people talking about cars, coffee, good and bad gigs they’ve had, and why people tip after meals instead of before. As of late, watching this take place has almost always been the best 12 to 20 minutes of my entire week.

More overtly than Seinfeld, Comedians is a study on how comedy is made: It’s about how a particularly enterprising performer can take an awkward interaction, a weird social norm remarked upon by accident, and turn that into next month’s rent. No matter who Jerry is having lunch with, the show ultimately amounts to two craftsmen talking about their craft, albeit in a pleasantly meandering sort of way. It’s enjoyable to watch, in the same way that it’s enjoyable to overhear two plumbers discussing pipe repair at the next table over. I don’t believe I’ve ever audibly laughed while watching Comedians, but I tend to smile throughout.

Slow though the actual content may be, the show’s packaging is ridiculously slick. Gratuitous car and coffee porn shots abound. The camera pans lovingly over the liquid sex curves of an all-original 1949 Porsche 356/2 as slap-bass funk plays in the background. Switch to a close-up of roasted coffee beans, freshly plucked from the feces of a civet cat. And either it’s another feat of trick camerawork, or nobody at the café cares that Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno are having lunch right over there. (Most of Seinfeld’s friends, legendary comedians though they might be, are still only somewhat recognizable in public, although Alec Baldwin makes a bit of a scene.)

It’s not clear that Comedians was originally intended to be anything more than an elaborate joke on Seinfeld’s part. But at three seasons deep, the show appears to be hitting its stride, despite deviating a bit from Seinfeld’s original project. The season opener, in which he goes out on Louis C.K.’s boat, is my favorite of the series. And having exhausted his supply of old Jewish men in season one, Seinfeld seems primed to delve into yet weirder and more spectacular realms of coffee and conversation with some of the legends of comedy’s newer guard. This week’s episode features Tina Fey, and I’d love to see him have an espresso with some members of the Apatow Gang. If the talent pool in L.A. and New York City is half as deep as Jerry’s garage, we may have another 200 seasons in this one. Seinfeld in 2014 is not Seinfeld in 1998—and so far, there isn’t really anything wrong with that.

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