How do Netflix and Jerry Seinfeld plan to change comedy? With cars and coffee, duh

As streaming services push farther into original content, the push to fill their near-bottomless libraries has created a new wave of opportunities for artists, particularly comedians.

Dan Balilty/AP
Jerry Seinfeld performs at Menora Stadium in Tel Aviv, Israel, in Dec. 2015. Seinfeld and Netflix announced a deal on Jan. 17, 2017, that will bring the star’s interview show “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” to the streaming service later this year.

When Jerry Seinfeld conceived of a web series in which he drove around and grabbed coffee with fellow comedians, he had a cult following in mind: “comedy geeks” and stand-up fans.

“It was like a little garage project,” Mr. Seinfeld, one of the world's highest-paid comedians, said in a Facebook Live chat last year.

Five years, 59 episodes, and three Emmy nominations later, the series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” will move from Sony-owned Crackle to online streaming heavyweight Netflix. Seinfeld and Netflix reached a deal that will bring 24 new episodes exclusively to the streaming service starting in late 2017, as well as two new stand-up specials, they announced on Tuesday.

Since Netflix first introduced online streaming to the United States in 2007, it has created new opportunities for both itself and artists, as it pushes to fill its library, not limited by the 24-hour schedule of a traditional TV networks. Netflix and its competitors, including Amazon and Hulu, race to provide viewers with any video they might want, all at the click of a button. Streaming services offer a new venue to stand-up comedy, in particular, a form of comedy The New York Times described in 2012 as a borderline obsession for Seinfeld: “a creative itch he can't scratch.”  

Gone are the days when online video-watching meant surfers stumbling on short, amateur clips of a dancing baby or a man destroying his office – a shift television and media experts say occurred with large-scale productions such as Netflix’s award-winning political drama that premiered in 2013, “House of Cards.”

The Seinfeld deal, these experts say, is a reflection of the new life streaming services have breathed into all different types of genres and personalities of Hollywood as the likes of Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu look to pad their catalogues with as much content as possible.

“Back in the day, there were three major networks with 22 hours per network…. Now you’ve got Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. In many ways, they’re unlimited with what they can do. There is no linear restriction,” Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, tells The Christian Science Monitor. “I think streaming services, first of all, are providing a resurgence of every genre. They have opened up a whole new place for shows to go. They are giving stand-up comics new venues to perform.”

As part of the agreement with Seinfeld, 24 new episodes of “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” will come to Netflix in late 2017, with more to follow in 2018, according to a statement. The show’s whole back catalogue will also soon be available on Netflix.

In addition to the two new stand-up specials Seinfeld will film for Netflix, he will also take on a development role for the service, helping it with scripted and unscripted shows, according to the statement.

In the web series, Seinfeld wheels around a guest in a sleek car. With cameras pointed at the front seat, Seinfeld and passengers who have included late night host John Oliver, “Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels, and President Obama, just chat, often continuing the conversation over a cup of coffee.

The internet talk show was met with mixed reviews when it first debuted in 2012 on Crackle, as the first show exclusive to the Sony-based streaming service. Variety’s Brian Lowry described it as “breezy but ultimately empty calories.” In a column for The New York Times, Anand Giridharadas noted that Seinfeld dispensed with the “observational examination of regular life” that defined the sitcom that bears his name.

“Instead, we watch pairs of rich guys chatting about the gilded joys of their lives and careers and cars, about the sealed-off world they inhabit and we don’t. As with watching royal weddings, we are supposed to bask in the reflected glow, not covet what they have,” wrote Mr. Giridharadas, citing seemingly entitled behavior from guests like actor Alec Baldwin and talk show host David Letterman.

But the web series has survived, capitalizing on the popularity of front-seat conversations also made famous by James Corden, host of CBS’s “The Late Late Show.”

“One of the things that make it so appealing is it really does seem like we’re a fly in the car or a fly in the coffee shop,” says Dr. Thompson, of Syracuse University. The low-budget quality of the show compared to others like “House of Cards” “gives us the illusion we’re in the car or in the coffee shop with them,” he says.  

But the appeal for Netflix was likely as much about Seinfeld, the person, as it was the show, he and other experts add.

David Craig, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a fellow at the Peabody Media Center, describes the web series as a bonus item thrown onto the larger package that is Jerry Seinfeld.

“You bought the ice cream. The sprinkles are just the perk,” he tells the Monitor over the phone on Wednesday. “Basically, Netflix is saying ‘We will incubate the Seinfeld brand,” which extends beyond the shows he starred in to the shows he now produces, and also the talent he wants to nurture, grow, and hopefully morph.”

Hulu holds the SVoD (subscription video on demand) rights for the “Seinfeld” series. But the stand-up specials Seinfeld will film for Netflix are a large prize. While Seinfeld regularly tours and performs his stand-up, he has not released a TV special since the 1998 “I’m Telling You for the Last Time,” according to Rolling Stone.  

In a statement, Seinfeld said he is excited to work with Netflix and its chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, “a guy and a place that not only have the same enthusiasm for the art of stand up comedy as I do, but the most amazing technology platform to deliver it in a way that has never existed before.” 

“I am really quite charged up to be moving there,” said Seinfeld.

The move also mirrors deals Netflix reached with other iconic comedians. This past year, Netflix reportedly agreed to give Chris Rock $40 million for two new comedy specials. Dave Chappelle also agreed to three new-stand up specials, his first in 12 years. In 2014, Adam Sandler also agreed to star in and produce four films to be shown exclusively on Netflix.

Dr. Craig at USC said the Seinfeld agreement also is another manifestation of the “tectonic shift” occurring in the TV and movie world, as the popularity of streaming services continue to grow with the internet and mobile access – a trend that has changed not just viewers' habits, but the products themselves.

"When I first started thinking about Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, the entire Netflix business model consisted of mailing out DVDs in envelopes," Seinfeld reflected in a statement. "I love that we are now joining together, both at very different points."

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