Comedians in Cars Getting Karaoke

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jan 25, 2017

Quick, what do Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke segments have in common? Well, how about…everything?

They're both (mostly) set in LA, and they put celebrities in the passenger seat, while the driver cracks wise. They’re both pretty funny and, oddly, intimate. I think that’s the key to understanding the appeal of these two remarkably popular entertainments. How much do they cost to produce? Fifty cents? A Go Pro and a chase car and you’re in business.

Obviously, the idea was Seinfeld’s, and at first it seemed a rather unusual follow-up to the most popular sitcom ever, but once you understand that he’s a) a total car guy, like his buddy Jay Leno; and b) a stand-up comedian who still performs and hangs out with that touring crowd, then it all makes sense. He doesn’t need the money, so why not do a show where he could drive cool cars (either one of his Porsches or somebody else’s classic) and hang out with his buddies? Of course, they talk about nothing--but also about the process of comedy.

Corden’s not a car guy, but he obviously recognized a good idea when he saw it, and it’s a highlight of the Late Late Show. He drives big black SUVs, obviously chosen because there’s more room to dance in place (and mount cameras). He also uses the studio audience’s applause, though the tendency to go crazy every time a famous person (usually a singer) gets into the car is somewhat distracting.

These shows could be called Famous People Lose Their Inhibitions. The guests say things you’d say to someone you were riding around in a car with. The situations are on the one hand very natural and on the other quite staged—many of the best moves were plainly rehearsed.

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee "Larry David" from Peter Holmes on Vimeo.

But is there somewhere else you can watch a very relaxed Michelle Obama boogie to the oldies? Another site that has Garry Shandling talking about mortality just before he, in fact, died? Didn’t think so.

Corden and Madonna seem to have a chemistry. If you thought she was a control freak before watching them together, you won’t change your mind. But she has a magnetic presence on the video. She’s so, I don’t know, present, in a way artists of her stripe never are in music videos or concerts.

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee "Alec Baldwin" from Peter Holmes on Vimeo.

So it’s about the kind of intimacy that you somehow don’t get in a setting designed for it—the talk show couch. It’s like you’re in the car with them.

Which one of them do I like better? Seinfeld’s, for several reasons. I like the cars (I’m a car guy myself, after all), the banter is wittier and less sycophantic, comedians are funnier than singers, and—most important—I can take only so much karaoke, even if the original artist is singing it. Through the magic of the web, I find myself fast-forwarding through the singing parts. Could it be that dance pop is not really my thing? That’s part of it, but ultimately all those segments look alike.

I might have predicted, the first time I saw Comedians, that it wouldn’t last very long—Seinfeld would run out of comedians. But I also predicted that rap would be short-lived. But now Seinfeld is getting even richer than he already was by selling the online show to Netflix. And this is just after he made $22 million selling some of his Porsches. Talk about a charmed life. And no wonder he was dour when I interviewed what was then a Pinto-driving comic back in the 80s. Better things than a phone call with the likes of me were on the horizon.

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