Back in 2012 Jerry Seinfeld started a web series called “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”. In each episode he chats with a comedian about whatever, which generally means a lot of talk about comedy and show business. At the beginning of each episode Jerry picks up his guest in an oldish, through generally not vintage, car that is matched to his guest in some way – e.g. an ’69 Pontiac GTO in screaming orange for Howard Stern, a ’67 Volvo for Tina Fey – in which they chat while driving to a coffee shop or a diner. Where they chat some more, maybe have something to eat. And then Jerry drives the guest back to wherever, generally home.
I first heard about the show whenever but hadn’t actually watched it until yesterday. I’ve now watched maybe ten episodes and it’s generally interesting, some bits and episodes more than others. It can also be a bit cloying and self-congratulatory. But one of the episodes I watched is head and shoulders above the others, the one that features Barack Obama, from December 2015.
Obama, as you know, is not a comedian, though he does have a sense of humor. And, of course, as an experienced politician, he’s a seasoned performer.
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Moreover, we know Obama loves comedy and that he thinks about the craft of it, the techne, if you will – see the segment of the Mark Maron interview I transcribed in Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney 2: Performing Black, Three Discussions. Seinfeld, of course, has no choice but to be a student of the craft.
So, he picks Obama up at the Oval Office in a 1963 Corvette Sting Ray. The coolest American car for the coolest American president – those weren’t Seinfeld’s exact words, but that’s the sentiment. At about five minutes into the episode Seinfeld remarks: “Do you ever think about every person you talk to is putting on an act, a total show?” Obama: “It’s a problem.” Of course, their little drive doesn’t get past the guard at the gate and they have to go back to the White House.
They continue their chat in what appears to be the commissary. Let’s pick up the conversation at about 12 minutes into the episode.
* * * * *
Jerry Seinfeld: People you spend most of your time with, are they really smart, are they mostly head-strong, agenda-laden idiots.
Barack Obama: You know when you’re dealing with Congress, it varies. There’ gonna’ be some folks there that are foolish, just like there are in comedy...
JS: Well, everyone in comedy’s foolish. All my friends are knuckleheads.
BO: All of ‘em?
JS: All of em.
BO: I know some of your friends.
BO: Did I tell you I played golf with Larry David?
JS: No, because you and I don’t talk that much.
BO: I love Larry. When we play golf, he’s a fair-skinned guy, which is...
JS: Oh, the sun screen.
BO: He lathers the sun screen, and it’s dripping, it’s caked white all over, and it catches parts of his ears...
JS: Un, it’s horrible.
BO: and there’s big gobs of it.
JS: Yeah, yeah. Yes.
* * * * *
JS: What sport is politics. Is it chess, liar’s poker...
BO: That’s interesting. That’s a good question. It’s probably most like football.
BO: Because, a lot of players, a lot of specialization, a lot of hitting.
JS: A lot of attrition.
BO: A lot of attrition. But then every once in awhile you’ll see an opening.
JS: Uh huh.
BO: You know, you hit the line, you get one yard...
BO: You try a play, you get sacked. Now it’s like third and fifteen. But every once in awhile – you have to punt a lot – every once in awhile you’ll see a hole. There’s open field.
* * * * *
While the following segment follows immediately after the previous one – well, not immediately, there’s an interstitial shot of coffee being poured – that’s a matter of editing. There’s clearly some kind of break or, who knows? maybe this part of the conversation was even before that one.
But this is why I went to all the work of transcribing this stuff. This is where we get the “money shot” if you will, where we reach a ground truth that I didn’t hear in any of the other episodes I watched. This is where they unlock the motif that Seinfeld had planted up there at the five minute mark. That leads to a discussion of getting absorbed in your work. That’s what this is about.
* * * * *
JS: How many world leaders do you think are just completely out of their mind.
BO: A pretty sizeable percentage.
JS: Now these people, you must meet them, you must be chatting, and you see in the eyes, you look in the eyes, you go Oh...
JS: this guy’s gone.
BO: And part of what happens is these guys, uh, I think the longer they stay in office, the more likely that is to happen.
JS: Of course.
JS: They loose it.
BO: I mean, you just, at a certain point you’re feet hurt, an’ you’re having trouble peein’, you have absolute power, and...
JS: Privilege is toxic.
BO: It really is.
JS: Sadly. Things that people struggle to achieve, get to positions of power, influence, money, can do things. It has a toxic effect on their judgment.
BO: Yes. Has that happened to you yet?
BO: Why is that do you think? Let let let me ask you.
JS: Come on, you do some work.
BO: You’re a funny guy.
JS: Thank you.
BO: You go on some late night talk shows, people think you’re funny
BO: they give you a show
BO: and then next thing you know you’ve made like a ridiculous amount of money.
JS: So much more than you. And yet, how do I seem to you? Do I seem spoiled, out of touch...?
BO: Well I don’t know.
JS: So you have a pretty good instinct for people?
BO: Right now you seem like a completely normal guy.
JS: But I’m putting on an act, like everyone else does for you.
BO: That’s my point. That’s what I’m getting at.
BO: But, I’m gonna’ probe this. The question is, how did you calibrate dealing with that? At a certain point you might have thought to yourself “You know what, I’m more than just a comedian...
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?
BO: Are you still doing stand-up?
JS: Are you still making speeches?
BO: Do you still get hecklers? What’s your theory of handling hecklers?
JS: I say “You know what, you seem upset. I’m so sorry, I know that’s not why you came in here. Let’s talk.”
* * * * *
That’s not the end. There’s more conversation, even a plug for Obamacare, and Seinfeld lets Obama drive the ‘vette at the end, which he does with a bit of smiling swagger. But Obama can’t get the car out of the White House grounds either.
I assume the bits about driving off the White House grounds were set up ahead of time, as was the way Seinfeld got into the White House – he knocked on one of the windows as Obama was working at his desk. But I can believe that the conversation was improvised, all of it.
There’s lots of things one could say about it, but I’ll refrain. Except for this: Seinfeld may not be President of the United States, but he’s rich, famous, and has a bit of power within his sphere. Lots of people come up to him putting on an act. Including Obama. And yet somehow these two guys amiably (and skillfully) blowing smoke up one another’s posteriors manage to negotiate a way to a bit of truth, a few moments of metaphysical grace.