The last thing I was expecting, when I sat down to watch the 11th season of Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” on Netflix, was to be sent scuttling down a rabbit hole of Holocaust humor. I was expecting some entertaining chat about comedy, some typical Seinfeld insouciance and maybe to laugh a couple of times per episode.
If you’re not familiar with the show, the title pretty much says it all. Each episode features Seinfeld – who, of course, shot to superstardom and mega-wealth thanks to a show about nothing – and a friend or colleague from the industry.
In the standard opening sequence, Jerry introduces the car he has selected for that episode’s guest, explains why the car fits his or her personality, and then picks up his guest. Together, they drive somewhere to get coffee and talk comedy. The show started out on Crackle, a digital network owned by Sony, and last year migrated to Netflix, which produced seasons 10 and 11 and has made most of the previous episodes available.
It’s hard to begrudge Seinfeld this vanity project. He’s the kind of famous we all like to think we’d be: unaffected by, unimpressed with and uninterested in the celebrity lifestyle, but very much enjoying its benefits. One of those benefits, in Seinfeld’s case, is automobiles. He reportedly owns around 150 cars, and he uses this show to borrow a dazzling array of classic and ultra-expensive vehicles to ferry his guests around.
Seinfeld, it seems, has stumbled on the only format in which he could even remotely consider hosting a conversation with a guest. He’s far too comfortable with his own foibles and idiosyncrasies to worry about minor irritations like viewers, ratings or putting his guests at ease. And he famously doesn’t like interacting with members of the public (or even other celebrities). So he only invites people he knows and likes, people he admires and people he thinks he’d like to get to know better.
Which of us wouldn’t, given the opportunity, do exactly what Seinfeld did and use his show to spend a few hours shooting hoops and shooting the breeze with President Barack Obama?
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Each of the 84 episodes aired to date stands or falls on the chemistry between Seinfeld and his guest. Those episodes in which the guest really is one of Seinfeld’s friends zip by; the conversation flowed when “Seinfeld” co-star Julia Louis-Dreyfus was the guest star, but in this latest batch of episodes, for example, “Saturday Night Live” cast member Melissa Villaseñor’s only real contribution was to giggle, star-struck, at Seinfeld’s jokes.
For comedy buffs, however, any opportunity to see some of the biggest names in the business is a treat. The opening episode of Season 11, for example, gets underway with Eddie Murphy, while previous episodes have seen giants such as Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Don Rickles and Garry Shandling (in an episode aired just months before his death).
When Seinfeld is slightly in awe of his guests, his entire demeanor changes; he becomes less eager to show off his own cleverness and is happy to rely on the guest to provide the momentum. Similarly, there is a huge disparity between the quality of the episodes starring Seinfeld’s contemporaries and those with comedians who perhaps grew up watching “Seinfeld.”
One guest who has bucked all these trends in his three appearances on “Comedians” thus far (he was the second guest on the show back in 2012 and, in Season 11, his appearance was split into two episodes) is Ricky Gervais. The chemistry between Seinfeld the creator of “The Office” is obvious and there are more laughs from both men in those episodes than any other.
And it was – almost inevitably – Gervais who sent me down the Holocaust humor rabbit hole. You see, among the other causes that Gervais espouses – animal rights and militant atheism – he’s also a firm advocate for freedom of comedy. In other words, no subject should be off limits for humorists. This is something that he and Seinfeld agree on. Who can forget the “Seinfeld” episode in which Jerry and his girlfriend are caught making out during a screening of “Schindler’s List”?
While dissecting jokes and trying to understand what makes a comedian unfunny, Gervais told what he describes as “the most interesting joke.” To paraphrase: Solomon, an elderly Holocaust survivor, dies and goes to heaven. When he gets there, he asks to tell God a joke. God agrees and Solomon tells the Almighty a Holocaust joke. When he’s finished, God doesn’t laugh. “I guess you had to be there,” Solomon says. Not a particularly funny joke, I think we can agree, but, it leaves Seinfeld almost speechless.
Indeed, Holocaust humor is prevalent throughout “Comedians,” as it is among comedians. Matthew Broderick, another of this season’s guests, talks about appearing in Mel Brooks’ “The Producers,” both the stage production and the 2005 movie remake, and Brooks himself spoke at length about the humor he and others of his generation found in that most heinous chapter of human history when he appeared on the show. These are the moments when “Comedians” justifies its existence. Almost every episode contains some gem, some insight into the world of comedy (and the world). True, there’s something gauche about the ostentatious display of wealth. And there’s sometimes a concern that the mutual admiration between host and guest overshadows the whole episode. But, if this is how Jerry chooses to spend his post-“Seinfeld” time, who are we to complain?