I teach a media theory course at Columbia College Chicago that focuses on American television comedy, specifically sitcoms, satire, and sketch from 1990-present. And in less than two weeks at DePaul University, I’ll begin teaching a course solely on Seinfeld. (Yes, it is fun.)
In October 2010, on nothing more than my measly visiting-assistant professor’s salary, my husband and I flew to Washington DC to attend the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, helmed by satirists/funnymen Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. (There’s a fine line between stupidity and dedication.)
Finally, over the years I’ve paid my hard-earned money to see the stand-up acts of these comedians: Louis CK, Jon Stewart (yep, on occasion he still does stand-up), Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Gaffigan (three times), Sarah Silverman, George Wallace, Ray Romano, Brad Garrett, D.L. Hughley, Marc Maron, and Tommy Davidson.
Needless to say, I loves me some comedy.
It should come as no surprise, then, that I’m a bit fascinated by this new genre cycle that has exploded over the last few years in which comedians sit down and talk with each other before a camera. It’s something I’m calling comic conversations and am exploring in a presentation for the 2013 Cultural Studies Association Conference, scheduled May 23–26 in downtown Chicago.
What follows is my abstract for the presentation, essentially an overview of the comedy genre cycle itself and what aspects of Jerry Seinfeld’s “comic conversational” web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, I’ll be considering. (If I’m missing anyone or any show, please lemme know!)
Comic Conversations and Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee
Over the last five years, an unusual genre cycle has emerged: comic conversations. Shows in which comedians interview or randomly talk to other comedians have erupted both online and on television. Perhaps the three most successful are WTF with Marc Maron, a podcast which currently averages 2.75 million downloads per month; The Adam Carolla Podcast, which recently broke the world record for most downloaded podcasts ever; and The Ricky Gervais Show (with Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, and Karl Pilkington), a podcast that held the aforementioned Guinness record until Carolla broke it in 2011.
Comic conversations may also be found weekly on these podcasts: Never Not Funny (with Jimmy Pardo and Matt Belknap), Doug Loves Movies (with Doug Benson), Comedy and Everything Else (with Jimmy Dore and Stefane Zambrano), Comedy Bang Bang (with Scott Auckerman), The Greg Fitzsimmons Experience, The Nerdest (with Chris Hardwicke), and How Was Your Week with Julie Klausner? (significantly the only woman in the bunch).
This new genre cycle isn’t restricted just to iTunes though. Television has embraced the comic conversation with gusto as well. In 2012, for example, we saw the release of Comedy Bang Bang (IFC), a spinoff of the above-mentioned podcast with Auckerman and comedian Reggie Watts; Talking Funny (HBO), a roundtable discussion featuring Ricky Gervais, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Louis CK; and Inside Comedy (Showtime), a series in which Canadian comic David Steinberg talks with Ellen Degeneres, Don Rickles, Martin Short, and Sarah Silverman among others.
We can also add to this list The Green Room with Paul Provenza (Showtime), in which panels of comedians discuss their craft (but mostly try to one-up each other), as well as parts of Louis CK’s critically acclaimed experimental series Louie (FX), which occasionally features the comedian conversing with his colleagues around poker tables and offstage in NYC comedy clubs. Finally, Marc Maron is slated to star in a television show (IFC) in the summer of 2013 in which he, imitating his WTF podcast, conducts interviews with comedians out of his own garage.
It was only a matter of time, then, that America’s most well known stand-up comedian would toss his hat into this growing ring. Last summer, Jerry Seinfeld quietly released Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, a weekly web series in which he and a fellow comedian are documented driving around Los Angeles or New York, drinking coffee (or tea, in the case of Larry David), and “pouring over the excruciating minutia of every, single, daily event” as Seinfeld‘s Elaine Benes would put it. Yes, as Larry David observes at the end of the series’ first episode, “Jerry, you have finally done a show about nothing.”
While my presentation will consider this current wave of comic conversations and some of the reasons for its existence—the shows are cheap to make, self-distribution is possible (see Louis CK’s Live at the Beacon Theater experiment), comedians are presumably functioning as “the punk rockers of today” (so sayeth Mike Birbiglia)—it will focus primarily on Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.
Specifically, I’m interested in exploring the episodes’ length (at 12 minutes each, they’re by far the shortest of those cited in this abstract), methods of shooting (obvious digital camera platforms and wide-angle lenses that deglamorize guests), production values (total coffee porn), and selection of guests (fans have berated Seinfeld on Twitter for excluding female comedians). Moreover, I’ll consider how the series both directly and indirectly serves as an extension of Seinfeld (1989-1998), that little “show about nothing” which will likely always overshadow Jerry Seinfeld’s latest endeavor.