The biggest hurdle casual viewers will face when watching the new season of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is the fact that Jerry Seinfeld’s immense wealth has become one of the show’s recurring themes. To wit, my wife calls the show “Comedians in Cars Picking Up Paychecks From a Rich Guy.” This is not inaccurate. Though Seinfeld’s wealth alone doesn’t make him unlikable, the fact that he brings it up in every installment of his low-budget (but not very low budget) Netflix interview series is grating. That said, the show’s new best episode ever is largely about the wealth gap and money. It’s the episode with Zach Galifianakis and it’s almost worth watching twice because of the way it acknowledges the show’s flaws and directly addresses the hypocrisies indigenous to show business.
One way to enjoy all the entirety of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is to accept it’s not really supposed to be funny. Seinfeld himself has recently described the series as a “giant art project,” which is actually not a terrible way to think about it. If you’ve ever watched Agnus Varda’s travelogue art-interview series Here to There (I went to college!) or really any series of experimental interview-based films in an art museum, you will know that contemplative, aimless, and self-indulgent arty things have more in common with Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee than Seinfeld. Supposedly, Seinfeld’s longtime collaborator and Seinfeld co-creator Larry David came up with the name Curb Your Enthusiasm because he didn’t want Seinfeld fans to expect too much. Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee sets a similarly low bar. It is what it is.
And sometimes it’s really great, which bring us back to Zach Galifianakis, who was everywhere in 201o and now isn’t but remains deeply charming.
“If you have money, can you be a comedian?” Seinfeld absentmindedly asks Galifianakis at one point, referring to the idea that severe financial hardship is what makes a comedian good at the beginning of their career. Both agree that being broke is essential at the start of it all, otherwise, it’s implied you wouldn’t be creative. But, they’re not too sure about what having money and fame means for creativity now that they’re rich. Galifianakis seems to think his ability to notice the world has been altered by fame and success. This seems partially connected to the idea that no one takes him seriously anymore.
“I cried at my sister’s wedding …and 500 people started laughing because they thought I was doing a bit,” he laments. But Seinfeld, ever indifferent, is unsympathetic. He breezily dismisses the idea that a comedian can’t notice the world accurately after they’re successful.
“The idea that you can’t observe the world because you are no longer anonymous…I don’t buy that,” he says. “There’s too much world!”
This is, of course, easy for Seinfeld to say. He lives in a world where his immense success with a ’90s sitcom allows him to do self-indulgent things like pick up other comedians in very expensive (and often awesome) cars and talk about nothing. When Dave Chapelle drives around with Jerry in the second episode, Chapelle quips knowingly that “the guy off the stage is the fake,” which, out of context, could be read as an accidental indictment of Seinfeld’s “real” persona in the show.
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What is this version of Jerry Seinfeld really after? Not much. And that is, perhaps, evidence that Galifianakis is right. Money and success and fame have made Seinfeld softer. Still, Seinfeld isn’t exactly soft. He remains a guy who says it like it is — in his mind, anyway.
Which is why Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee crystallizes when juxtaposed with Between Two Ferns, Galifianakis’s gonzo fake talk show, which seems to exist entirely to deflate the irreversibly puffed up. As the Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee episode ends and an unexpected episode of Between Two Ferns rolls, things turn frosty. “Shouldn’t Seinfeld just have been called Larry David?” Galifianakis spits at his guest before doing a full-on Seinfeld impersonation that is — and it’s a compliment — deeply mean-spirited.
When Jerry is relegated to sitting on a milk crate as Zach’s other guest, Cardi B, holds court, it’s clear that Galifianakis has a perspective fundamentally different than Seinfeld’s. He thinks that myths ought to be undermined. Seinfeld is in the burnishing business. He believes, in the way that rich people often do, that his success was deserved (the fact remains that this is hard to argue with, given the greatness of his work).
You can either drive around and talk about money, or you can sit in one spot and just make fun of people relentlessly. Smartly, the best episode of the new Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee does both. The good news for new viewers, it’s the first episode. The rest of the season is good, but not as good. (Dana Carvey is very charming.)
Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is streaming now on Netflix.