In an industry that’s always hunting for the next gimmick to electrify new life into an established and well worn set-up, it is refreshing to find a web series where the stripped-down concept of driving around and chatting amiably is the sole appeal. Throw in a celebrity presenter best known for a wildly successful comedy show from the 90s and what you are left with is cut to the bone content at its best.
And then there is also 2012’s Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee.
Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee is in no way a carbon copy of Robert Llewellyn’s 2009 web series, Carpool, and you’d be a fool and a communist to think otherwise. Llewellyn wryly said, in typical English understatement, that, “while it’s clearly exactly the same idea, shot in an almost identical way, it’s hard to suggest it’s a rip off”. Despite rather murky origins, Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee has been a massive success. The show features comedy giant, Jerry Seinfeld, picking up a fellow comedian in a flashy car of some sort (a different car features in every show) and then driving them off to some local eatery for lunch and coffee; all the while shooting the breeze with the kind of snappy back-and-forth witticisms that only professional comedians can provide.
The show launched in 2012 and has racked up over 3 million views for season one. Season two currently sits at around 410,000 plus views, but the show is currently apparently on a mid-season break. Information on what constitutes ‘season two’ is a little conflicting with a press release detailing that 24 episodes have been ordered to be released through 2013 and 2013, whilst Seinfeld stated on his Twitter feed that the show will run with seasons of 6 episodes each, twice a year.Either way, there is plenty more to come. The concept can continue so long as there is guests to book, as Carpool has shown with 100+ episodes to date and more to come in later this year. Speaking of which…
I was already a fan of Carpool before Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee was released and the differences are certainly interesting. The former would feature a variety of ‘guests’, comedian or no, and was always shot in the same car: Llewellyn’s electric Toyota Prius. Fixed cameras on the doors provided the only shots and the conversations were about whatever came up during a short journey.
The latter is much more, well, American. By that I mean it focuses more on the style of the thing: the conversations are usually back slapping pally chats about what it means to be in comedy; there is a constant jazzy soundtrack; there is a big focus on the cars themselves (which are all gorgeous); extra camera work showcases the cars and stars from a distance, and there are many quick cuts gloriously lingering over close-ups of coffee preparation and snazzy food. Although the basic premise is the same, the approach really couldn’t be more different. Both shows seem to reflect the personality of the person behind them: Llewellyn’s environmental concerns and no frills warm personality versus Seinfeld’s jet-set lifestyle (Seinfeld winces when David Letterman takes him for a ride in an electric car), celebrity-stuffed friend circle and a coffee culture that is uniquely American. It’s a case of functional and understated versus glossy and stylised.
As to be expected in a show that is based around chin-wagging with funny people, the strength of Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee is in the inherent funniness of its guests. Ricky Gervais’ terror at being driven around in a classic ‘death trap’ and his confusion at Seinfeld’s American food order (“two yolks and two whites? Is that four eggs or two?”) are great to watch. Larry David (co-creator of the mega-hit that was ‘Seinfeld’, along with Seinfeld himself, of course) has an easy relationship with the man and their shooting the breeze over David’s odd eating habits provides many laughs, both on-screen and with me. Alec Baldwin teasing the hell out of Seinfeld by calling him a ‘a lazy, shiftless bastard’ for not getting into straight acting is also a highlight. Most likely your enjoyment will be in direct proportion to how much you like the comedian in question. There is even a heartfelt scene where disgraced Seinfeld co-star, Michael Richards (who played Kramer), talks about the outburst that had him shunned from the comedy scene, and his gratefulness to Seinfeld for sticking by him.
Season two does nothing to change the formula. Why should it? In an interview entitled ‘Calling Shotgun’ (shot at AOL Studios, a fact they do not fail to bring up several times), Seinfeld said the concept, and the comedians featured, are ‘immutable’: they are so stripped to the core that they cannot be broken down any further. When asked why he had done the show as a web series, he said that he detests sequels and that, ‘… fun [in] life is to venture out into unknown worlds…I want to try something in a new medium’. He went on to say that the first season, consisting of 10 episodes of 10 – 15 minutes each, was an ‘experiment’. This leads me on to the one key difference in season two: corporate sponsorship.
Season two is prominently sponsored by Acura Cars. They cut in with an ad break near the end of each episode (on hosting platform, Crackle; not on YouTube) and have several cars dropped into the show in not-so-subtle product placement. Indeed, Seinfeld unashamedly points one out to Sarah Silverman and even states that it’s part of ‘product integration’. She responds, “oh wow…sure looks like a great car!’. Despite the casual sarcasm, this appears to be the nature of the beast for season two. In the ‘Calling Shotgun’ interview, Seinfeld said that Acura, “saved the show” and that other ‘fun’ product drops will be included as the season progresses.
So why is Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee so popular? I think it is because there is a difference between watching a stand-up comedy act and watching innately funny people be themselves. Sure, the former is a crafted experience designed to make you laugh your ass off, but the humour presented in a naturally witty conversation always has that extra something due to the spontaneity of it. In addition, Seinfeld says there was a conscious decision to bleep out all swearing so that, although the cadence of the conversation can be left intact, people who want a portable quick burst of funny people chatting can watch without having to worry about younger ears. Very sensible indeed.
Perhaps the best summary of the show is from Seinfeld himself: the show is ‘funny people in pretty places’. Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee certainly delivers that. If you like a smooth easy-going charm and the tingle that comes from people sparking from each other’s anecdotes, then this is the show for you.