The big Comedy News yesterday was that Netflix announced a massive deal with Jerry Seinfeld, writer and producer of the 2007 film Bee Movie. Netflix will henceforth be the new home of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, previously the crown jewel of Crackle, the little streaming service that could. He will produce 24 new episodes of the series, which cost about $100,000 apiece at Crackle, to be released later this year. He will also create two new stand-up specials and develop unspecified scripted and unscripted programming. Here is what Netflix’s Chief Content Officer, Ted Sarandos, said of the deal: “Jerry is known the world over as both a great TV innovator and beloved comic voice. We are incredibly proud to welcome him to the Netflix comedy family.” And here is what I have to say about the deal: please no more Seinfeld.
It is customary in essays like this to clarify that actually I respect the thing I’m trashing. Well, folks: I respect the thing I’m trashing. In my younger and more vulnerable years I watched Seinfeld every night before The Simpsons. My favorite episode was the one where Kramer burst in through the door all funny-like. My second favorite was the one where George Costanza George Costanza’d his way into some zany happenstance. My third favorite was Curb Your Enthusiasm. Both Seinfeld and Seinfeld were instrumental forces in comedy and television, paving the way for every young comedian to tell jokes about stuff they see and make sitcoms about hanging out with their buds. Without Jerome “Jerry” Seinfeld, creator and producer of The Marriage Ref, the tastes and styles that dominate contemporary comedy would certainly be very different, unless someone else did what he did instead. Who can say! Would Bernie have won? Yes. But in recognizing Jerome “Jer-Bear” Seinfeld’s incredible influence over popular comedy today, it seems important to recognize how much popular comedy today totally blows chunks. This is why I am asking: please no more Seinfeld.
Broadly speaking, Jerry “Larry” Seinfeld occupies his current cultural stature because he perfected the form of mundane observational comedy in which one takes a common experience and explains that actually it is ludicrous. Ovaltine? It should be called Roundtine! On account of the can is round. This sort of stuff is funny because it gently jogs our own perceptions of the world. We always suspected something was off; now it’s been confirmed, with more clarity than we could have produced ourselves. It’s surprising but non-confrontational, validating but not condescending. He’s just saying what everyone’s thinking. It’s the style that defined Seinfeld’s Seinfeld and post-Seinfeld work and it’s what makes Seinfeld Seinfeld. His 1998 HBO special I’m Telling You for the Last Time was filled with jokes about airplane travel, grocery shopping, the differences between men and women. In this 2009 New York Times video he explains in excruciating length how he wrote a joke about pop tarts. The punchline is, “They can’t go stale because they were never fresh.” Get it? Pop tarts are bad. You know what else is bad? That joke about how pop tarts are bad. And for the third beat of this bit, you know what else is bad? Every joke everyone else tells in every club and bar show and open mic that’s exactly like that pop tart joke. This style of comedy is everywhere. It is the dominant form. It is only rarely good and usually mediocre. Sometimes it is legitimately harmful. It is for these reasons that I humbly but desperately request: please no more Seinfeld.
Of course Jerry “Very Merry” Seinfeld is not to blame for the bad lame boring comedy that followed him. He made a good sitcom and a fine show about marriage referees. The man is well within his rights to ride his success into whatever gated community people like him ride their successes into. But instead he has elected to ride around in million-dollar cars with other millionaires, making transphobic jokes and whining about political correctness. Why do people like Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee??? Oh, right: Because it feels weird and good and sexy to watch celebrities do celebrity things, for the same reason that it feels good to watch a YouTube star fly first class. We are not celebrities but what if! I have my share of problems with shows that glorify comedians purely for being comedians, with the main one being that most uber-successful comedians don’t know about anything but how to be a comedian, so they really have nothing to give poor little plebs like me except for the envy that fuels American capitalism, which, by the way, is evil. Until now I have put these qualms to the side because Comedians in Cars has been on Crackle, which I remember exists maybe twice a week. Now that it is on Netflix we can look forward to seeing Jerry “Scaaaary!” Seinfeld’s face on subway posters and billboards and maybe Tesla ads, if they do a cross-promotional deal or something. The message of these ads will be: This Is What Is Good. Worse is the thought that he surely made many big piles of cash from this deal. Reports indicate that Dave Chappelle made $20 million per special for the three specials Netflix ordered from him. It seems safe to assume that two specials, the rights to Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and vague development deals paid well over $50 million. The message of this money is also: This Is What Is Good. Netflix has tremendous power to dictate tastes. By keeping Seinfeld on a pedestal it will continue to inspire tepid, ideologically hollow comedy for years to come. But there is nothing that makes a Seinfeld joke intrinsically more valuable than an Aparna Nancherla joke, save for the fact that he made much better jokes twenty years ago. Now that his public life consists mostly of flaunting his wealth, one has to wonder whether he really has anything new to offer. So I must respectfully file this motion: please no more Seinfeld.
I recently attended the taping of a popular stand-up’s hour special for a major comedy network and/or streaming service. I won’t say his name on account of access journalism but I will say that he has steady work and you have probably heard of him and perhaps even heard him. He performs nightly at comedy clubs around this great city of New York City and has been on Conan no fewer than a few times. He is, by most of the metrics, what young stand-up comedians strive to be. He sucked. Approximately every third joke took the form, “Why do women get to do this? If I did this, it would be like that!” And then there were all the late night monologue-style jokes: “You know this Common Thing We Don’t Consider Absurd? That’s like if Something That’s Obviously Absurd!” Perhaps I would not gripe about these were there not so many in a row, but there were so many in a row. They were obvious. They were hack. Some were baldly sexist or racist. They said nothing new about human experience. They put no value into the world beyond the quick laugh of recognition. “Ah yes, I have felt that too!” This is the bar Jerry “How Dare He” Seinfeld set for success in stand-up comedy. This particular comic is not an outlier, nor is his special unusual. He has simply mastered the formula that so many comics in his class are working to master. It is true that alternative comedy is blossoming and that now is the best time to be a weird or un-categorizable comedian, but it is also true that Seinfeldian comics see more and faster success. There is a reason for that and that reason is this: They are broadly accessible. You don’t have to think about what they say because they say what you already think. The market disproportionately rewards comedy that encourages you not to think, compared to comedy that even remotely pushes you to think differently. I hope it’s obvious why this is fucked up but if it’s not, consider where millions of people not thinking have gotten us lately. The answer is, nowhere good and in fact somewhere very bad! It is for the sake of our future, and specifically my future that I beg: please no more Seinfeld.
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor.