Welcome to this week’s “Cringe or Binge,” an ongoing series in which media critic Jennifer L. Pozner guides you toward intriguing media … and saves you from the rest.
CRINGE: “The Jeselnik Offensive,” Comedy Central: TV for folks who miss junior high
Last July, journalists, bloggers and comedians spoke out when Daniel Tosh, host of Comedy Central’s “Tosh.0,” advocated the gang rape of his heckler in a comedy club. The incident sparked an intense ongoing conversation about, among other things, the power of comedy to do harm, and whether comedians should consider the impact of their art on their audience and on the larger culture. As a media critic, I collaborated with video remix artist Elisa Kreisinger on a supercut of victim-mocking rape jokes on “Tosh.0,” and suggested that Comedy Central and parent company Viacom grapple with larger questions about programming standards, accountability and corporate responsibility.
In response, Comedy Central took the concerns of feminists and comedy fans seriously, releasing new public interest guidelines for the programming it airs.
Psych! Kidding. Nope — half a year later, the network doubled down on Tosh’s smug, juvenile drek, green-lighting “The Jeselnik Offensive” with promo ads touting, “Life Is Cruel. So Is He.” (Recent commercials promise “The assault continues!”) Giving a show to a guy who tweeted “This Daniel Tosh rape joke controversy really has me second guessing some of my rapes,” Comedy Central repurposed that entire public debate as an anti-advertising campaign for yet another self-satisfied bro whose concept of humor stagnated in eighth grade. Slapping offensiveness right into the title, they’re daring me to get irate. But, I just can’t be bothered. Who has the energy to waste?
Instead, I’ll just give you a few “Offensive” highlights from the first two seasons:
The regular segment “Defend Your Tweet,” with comics accounting for their social media ramblings, is usually reliably amusing. And last night’s episode featured a well-crafted joke about a serial killer who leaves haikus at crime scenes (“They’re searching for him/ Trying to find a pattern/ The soft wings of cranes”). That the writers know how to aim higher makes the show’s usual bottom-feeding material all the more sub-par. Ironically, the comedians who guest on the weekly panel are relatively diverse in terms of gender and race — which seems just fine to Anthony, so long as they parrot his bigoted boys-club sensibility.
Jeselnik ends every episode with the send-off, “Good night, kids, go read a book.” You should, instead of watching this crap. Splitsider has 57 suggestions funnier than his show.
BINGE: “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” Web-only: Catnip for comedy geeks
Ricky Gervais is not having a good day.
Sandwiched into the bucket seat of a 1967 Austin Healey 3000 he’s convinced is “a death trap,” he’s made the mistake of telling Jerry Seinfeld, creator of the Web series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” that he’s “a very nervous passenger.”
So now the two comics are careening down New York’s Pelham Parkway at 70 miles per hour, Gervais white-knuckling the dashboard for dear life, screaming, “Be sensible. Oh, Jerry! Are we in ‘The Italian Job’? Why are we doing this?” His pleas seem directly connected to the gas pedal. “Ahhhh! That [complaining] made it worse! Oh, Jerry! Oh, God. Jerry!!!” The petrified one-liners come in rapid succession, while Seinfeld full-body laughs at his friend’s desperation. “Come on, Jerry, this is mental. For fuck’s sake — you don’t need to do this. We’re going for coffee … we’re not trying to defuse a fucking bomb. Right? There’s no need for this! Even Jack Bauer had an hour!!!”
Bauer may’ve had an hour on “24,” but Gervais only gets 11 minutes, 33 seconds for this episode, and he makes every moment count. Seinfeld drives faster, but the infamously irreverent Brit is easily more quick-witted, as we learn just after they set off for coffee, when Jerry asks what kind of cereal he ate for breakfast. “We can’t be running out of stuff to talk about already. If we’re going into detail on the cereal, we’re struggling,” Ricky retorts, mocking this mundane chit-chat. He dismantles enough of Seinfeld’s shtick that when Jerry insists “Fear is funny” on the highway, it’s possible he’s just screwing with Gervais for ripping his jokes.
DVD blooper reels and jokey outtake shows are so popular because we all want to be in on the hilarity we suspect is happening, secretly, behind the scenes of our favorite TV shows and movies. “Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee” brings us into the process, turning viewers into backseat drivers eavesdropping on iconic comics’ repartee. There’s enough playful ribbing and meandering banter in each car and diner scene to keep the average TV fan entertained, from Alec Baldwin calling Seinfeld a “lazy, shiftless, no-good bastard” whose “life has been one unbroken boulevard of green lights,” to Chris Rock riffing about why bullying could end up freeing America from fossil fuel-dependence (or joking nervously when he and Seinfeld get pulled over by the cops that “if you weren’t here, I’d be scared. Yeah, I’m famous — still black!”). Feed your “celebrities: they’re just like us!” fix with Seth Meyers or Sarah Silverman sipping lattes, or get to know the person behind the comedic persona, as when Jerry tells Colin Quinn “you’re not going to believe what these young kids have done to Brooklyn” and the usually gruff, conservative-leaning Brooklyn native lets loose with a rant about real estate speculators and investment bankers that would’ve been more expected at an Occupy rally than on Quinn’s early-2000s Comedy Central talk show, “Tough Crowd.” And what ‘90s sitcom lover wouldn’t squee at the mini-reunion of Jerry Seinfeld palling around with Michael Richards, who played Kramer (unless they remember him more for his N-bomb-spewing tirade, for which Seinfeld absolves the apologetic actor)?
At the core of “Comedians in Cars” is the delicious appeal of watching creative people play together without pressure to perform. Nuanced insights about the nature of funny come equally from luminaries like Don Rickles and cult faves like “Mystery Science Theater 3000” creator Joel Hodgson (movies are so much more fun to mock than TV because “they’re aspiring to present God’s point of view. It’s big. This is LIFE, in all its fury”). Quiet gems are littered throughout, none more unexpected than when David Letterman tells a waitress to “get a little something for yourself,” then admits he got that line from Jay Leno, who “used to say that wherever we’d go,” followed by an affectionate impression of his prime-time adversary, a glimpse back to their pre-late-night wars camaraderie.
On the other hand, if you’re expecting a laugh riot, you might not enjoy the ride. “Comedians in Cars” is lovingly created for, and will be most appreciated by, comedy nerds. This isn’t Seinfeld’s powerhouse sitcom about nothing —it’s a modest little series about something very specific: comedy as a craft, and those who practice it. Mining for comedic gold yields shiny nuggets. Listening to legends like Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, friends for 62 years, talk about the making of Hollywood classics like the western spoof “Blazing Saddles” over deli take-out is a dream (even if it rankles to learn that Mel brought his friend Richard Pryor onto the team because “I needed a black guy to justify our inordinate use of the N-word”). And did you know Brooks’ Broadway farce “The Producers,” with its over-the-top centerpiece “Springtime for Hitler,” won theatrical awards in Germany? Or that Mel comes over to Carl’s house every night for dinner, and then they watch movies or “Jeopardy” until Mel falls asleep on the couch while Carl drinks from his “Old Jews Telling Jokes” mug? You do now. And if you listen carefully to the talk of joke structure, risk-taking and comedy history, you may find that “Comedians in Cars” offers an instructive mini-class for those who aspire to the consistent laughter these greats have inspired throughout their careers.
“Seinfeld” fans may be disappointed to find that although most of guests are witty and enlightening, “Comedians in Cars” is often funniest when Jerry himself isn’t talking. He laughs constantly, even at neutral or boring filler, like a human laugh track as tedious as the ones on most multi-camera sitcoms. And it’s fascinating, though sometimes uncomfortable, to watch the brilliant stand-up comedian straining to make an idea land. For example, musing as he passes a truck:
Look at that dump truck. Now that’s a great vehicle. Now that’s a thing that’s made to be shrunken down so you can get it in your hand. People love to repurpose a phrase. I mean, dump truck is just sitting there waiting for some new type of elimination process to be branded. We’re calling it [Seinfeldian pause] The Dump Truck.
Jerry looks at Joel Hodgson expectantly — eh? eh? — and laughs at his own joke. Joel smiles politely. You can see the early makings of Seinfeld’s process here, but it doesn’t get there. At times like this, “Comedians in Cars” resembles a TV writer’s room on the first day of work, when ideas are tossed about freely, most bomb, and a few sparks are honed into brilliance. The difference is that TV viewers don’t see what’s left on the floor, just as comedy club patrons are not privy to the months of writing, editing, tweaking and working out the kinks onstage that a stand-up often puts in just to produce a solid 25-minute set. In improv comedy, the entire writing/revising/workshopping process doesn’t exist — spontaneity and wacky exuberance are king. Jerry Seinfeld is an exceptionally successful stand-up, but the skill set needed to headline in Vegas or write and star in a hit sitcom are very different than what would ideally sustain the kind of off-the-cuff hilarity this series should have more of. As entertaining as “Comedians in Cars” is, it would be far more fun if Seinfeld stayed on as producer/director but gave the driver’s seat to an improviser like Amy Poehler (co-founder of the star-making Upright Citizens Brigade Theater), Zach Woods, Tina Fey, Paul Scheer or Chris Gethard.
It’s also unfortunate that the automobiles provide the only diversity in this series. Every episode features a different vintage car: a powered-by-rust-and-duct-tape VW bus for Michael Richards, a “slinky” Jaguar for Sarah Silverman (“It looks like you!”), a 1966 Lamborghini that reminds Jerry of Chris Rock because when it came on the scene “it was so shocking and so different it blew everybody else away.” Comedy as an institution has always had a diversity problem — and so does this series. When Seinfeld introduces Don Rickles, he says his face should be on the Mount Rushmore of stand-up comedy, and “the other three would be Pryor, Carlin and Cosby.” Yet even though 50 percent of Jerry’s comedy idols are black, Rock is the lone performer of color to get his own episode over the course of two seasons. Likewise, Silverman is not only the sole woman interviewed by Seinfeld, she’s the only woman even mentioned during both seasons. As they chat about comedic heavyweights past and present, some famous and others known only inside the industry, neither Jerry nor his pals ever brings up Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Betty White, Gilda Radner, Whoopie Goldberg, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Wanda Sykes or even Jerry’s former costar and current “Veep,” Julia Louis-Dreyfus. In contrast, show sponsor Acura is discussed by name several times.
“I don’t think comedy has changed [or] it ever will change,” Seinfeld tells Letterman. Dave seems skeptical. “What about the mechanisms of comedy?” “No. No change,” Jerry insists. “It’s justice. Comedy is the closest thing to justice. If you’re funny, you survive. If you’re not, you don’t.” The myth of meritocracy is easy to buy when you have the genitals and skin color preferred by the gatekeepers when Dave and Jerry were coming up. Club bookers back then wouldn’t allow more than one “girl” to perform during any given night, sometimes during a whole week. And on Carson’s “Tonight Show,” only the occasional Roseanne Barr and Ellen DeGeneres, or Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, would be invited to sit on Johnny’s couch, an instant career-maker primarily reserved for the white male comics who dominated the guest list. It’s not “justice” that led Seinfeld to unintentionally replicate those patterns in his own series, it’s just this: shaped by the biased institution that has made him a favored son, he has had the luxury of not noticing those performers whose comedic chops had little to do with why they didn’t make it through the door in the first place. And there’s also the typical, dull truth that most people like to hang out with their pals, and most of Jerry’s pals are white dudes.
Comedy may not look like it’s changed from a quick glance at the pale male (though not-at-all stale) comedians featured in Jerry’s cars — but the institution behind it has expanded. The mechanisms of comedy have democratized and the gatekeepers no longer have complete control over whose comedic worldview is allowed to find an audience. Comic writer/performers like Issa Rae have independently produced successful Web series like “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” which she parlayed into a deal for an upcoming ABC show, and stand-ups like W. Kamau Bell, whose “Totally Biased” will be airing daily in the fall on FXX, was discovered by his producer, Chris Rock, partly because word of his talent had spread through social media.
We all know Seinfeld is “the master of his domain,” but he’d do well to enlist a broader assortment of funny people to play in his sandbox. It would make the already enjoyable “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” even more binge-worthy.
For more from Jennifer L. Pozner, check out her book “Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV,” and her Web series, “Reality Rehab with Dr. Jenn.”
Jennifer L. Pozner is a media critic, public speaker, and the founder and Executive Director of Women In Media & News. She is the author of "Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV," and the host of web series Web series "Reality Rehab with Dr. Jenn."More Jennifer L. Pozner.