I can’t stop thinking about that coffee conversation between Obama and Seinfeld.
But let me come at it sideways. Somewhere on YouTube there’s an interview with David Letterman where he talks about doing a talk show. He talks about his admiration for various talk show hosts, Johnny Carson of course, but also Regis Philbin (I agree with him on both), and about the craft of it. YOU are the host; it’s your job to keep the conversation going.
Some guests understand that, yes, this is entertainment; it’s an act that merely appears to be spontaneous conversation. The conversation, if it goes well, IS spontaneous. It is also IS an act and the good guest works it like that. The bad guest just sits there, the proverbial lump on a log, and the host has to pull teeth to get something going.
Well, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” is a talk show. It doesn’t look like the standard talk show. There’s no live audience and the host isn’t behind a desk. But make no mistake, Seinfeld is the host. It’s his job to keep things going.
THAT’s what’s behind his remark to Obama (see the transcription in yesterday’s post), “Come on, you do some work”, with a pitch and slight volume raise on you. He says that in response to Obama’s, “Why is that do you think? Let let let me ask you.” Obama was thus asking for the lead role and Seinfeld granted it to him.
And what happens? A couple of seconds later we get this:
BO: But, I’m gonna’ probe this. The question is, how did you calibrate dealing with that [wealth and fame]? At a certain point you might have thought to yourself “You know what, I’m more than just a comedian...JS: Nah.BO: I’m gonna make a Jewish version of Citizen Kane.” You know. How did you keep perspective?JS: I’ll give you the real answer. It’s gotta be similar to your life. I fell in love with the work.BO: Um huh.JS: And the work was joyful. And interesting, and that was my focus.BO: So, now that you’re like a quasi-retired man of leisure...JS: I work a lot.BO: Do you?JS: Yeah.BO: Are you still doing stand-up?JS: Are you still making speeches?
And what’s with that word calibrate? That keeps popping up in my mind. It comes from a whole different universe than the rest of the conversation, a very technical universe. And what’s Seinfeld’s answer, what’s his method of calibration? He loves his work. Love and calibration.
But why with Obama? Perhaps because all Seinfeld’s other guests – talk show, remember? – are in show business, but not Obama. Seinfeld could assume a certain common ground with them and so didn’t have to express it. With Obama that assumption fails, so they had to work toward it. Or maybe it’s that, while Obama’s not rich (something Seinfeld did remind him of), he’s got a whole different order of recognition and power from Seinfeld. So again, they had to work at common ground.
And were willing to do so.
Is that it? Don’t really know. I just made it up.
* * * * *
But I’ve watched a few more episodes of the show. And I think maybe the Michael Richards episode is as good as the Obama, though the dynamic is very different. Seinfeld knows Richards quite well, at least professionally, as they’d worked together on Seinfeld for nine seasons. Thus they have quite a lot in common.
As you may recall, Richards imploded on stage back in 2006:
Confronting black hecklers, Richards bellowed the word “nigger” seven times, an outpouring caught on camera. In the controversy that followed, it was hard not to see the rant as a moment of unfiltered ugliness, but Seinfeld says this interpretation reflects a category error. Speech on a stage, delivered in a performative context, is unique, he argues, and bits — even those that come off the cuff — are different from straight confessions. “It was a colossal comedic error,” Seinfeld said. “He was angry, and it was the wrong choice, but it was a comedic attempt that failed. In our culture, we don’t allow that, especially in the racial realm. But as a comedian, I know what happened, he knows what happened and every other comedian knows what happened. And all the black comics know it, and a lot of them felt bad about it, because they know it’s rough to be judged that way in that context. You’re leaping off a cliff and trying to land on the other side. It was just another missed leap.”
Without directly mentioning the incident, they talked about it, and its effect on Richards. It devastated him: “I busted up after that even. It broke me down.” They had a good, perhaps even a healing, conversation about that.
However you think of that, Seinfeld couldn’t possibly have that intimate kind of conversation with Barak Obama. The shared context isn’t there. But note that Seinfeld and Richards could have that kind of intimate conversation over coffee while the cameras were rolling.
* * * * *