Emmys: Jerry Seinfeld on Why He May Never Go Back to TV (Q&A)

Lacey Rose
Emmys: Jerry Seinfeld on Why He May Never Go Back to TV (Q&A)

This story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

With his electric blue 1996 Porsche 911 RS parked out front, Jerry Seinfeld slips into a corner table at West Los Angeles diner John O'Groats. But rather than pepper one of his comedian friends with questions, as he does on his year-old web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, he's the one fielding them on this August morning. During the course of an hour, Seinfeld, 59, opens up about a range of topics, including the Oscars, late night and his now-profitable "experiment" for Sony's Crackle that recently was nominated for a short-format Emmy he insists it won't win. ("Whatever that September 11th thing is, that's going to win. End of conversation," he quips, referring to History.com's Remembering 9/11.)

Statuette or not, Comedians' first season, which featured interviews with Larry David, Carl Reiner and Ricky Gervais, has been streamed 10 million times, and early installments of season two already have clocked more than 4 million streams. More impressive, viewers spend 19 minutes on average watching his interviews, which vary in length (between eight and 17 minutes) and tone (Michael Richards discussed his N-word saga; Chris Rock joked about Conan O'Brien's Tonight Show stint). "People love to see what makes Jerry Seinfeld laugh," says Sony Pictures Television president Steve Mosko of the series' appeal. "What's great about Jerry is not only is he one of the funniest people that you'll meet, but he also is very good at acknowledging how funny other people are."

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The Hollywood Reporter: Before you get in the car with Sarah Silverman or Mel Brooks, what's your preparation process?

Jerry Seinfeld: There are no notes. I like the stuff that just comes up because I'm really curious. David Letterman loved that I asked Alec Baldwin, "Who do you think has worked harder to get where we are?" Now if you can imagine that conversation happening on a talk show in front of an audience, it stops right there. All of a sudden there's a "Whoa!" And I don't want to deal with that. I felt like the talk show needs its next iteration, and I don't know if this was it. This was a personal experiment of mine. Talk shows as we know them are performances, and so I wanted to try to do one without an audience, clips and something to promote.

THR: Can this ever be something that translates to TV?

Seinfeld: I've heard some conversations about that. I have not really participated in those conversations.

THR: Do you watch the late-night talk shows? Do you have any thoughts on the landscape?

Seinfeld: I have to say that most talk shows leave me with a sad feeling, and I don't think that's the goal. When I was a comic in the 1980s, I was on the road somewhere every day, and I'd get back to the hotel and it was Carson and Letterman, and I looked forward to that all day. Those shows made me happy. I'm not quite sure what happened. It's probably just proliferation and fragmentation.

THR: Is there a way to do another kind of late-night show where you can have a more in-depth conversation with guests the way you do on Comedians in Cars?

Seinfeld: I don't think so. You need the audience and the band for the energy, and people want to show their clips. These shows are promotional vehicles for the industry. They're not talk shows, per se, they're kind of setup talk shows. "I'm gonna ask you this, then you say that." The shows are pretty cheap, too, so until it becomes an unworkable business model, I don't think you'll see change. Same as the movie business. Until this thing implodes from within, which feels like it's not too far off …

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THR: I have to imagine there are people who say to you, "Why are you doing an Internet show when you could be back on TV with a big hit?" What do you tell them?

Seinfeld: There are, and I'm kind of perplexed by them. I don't want to be too critical of what other people do, but when people go back to do the same thing that they did, I'm completely confused. I'm like, "Didn't you make that movie already?" I've been very fortunate, and I'm well taken care of, so the least I can do is try to go forward.

THR: Is there a scenario where you'd go back to TV?

Seinfeld: That's what I feel like I'm doing. Except television frankly feels small compared to the world I'm in now. I'm in Australia, I'm in Norway, I'm in the U.K. And I was from day one. I'm doing the smallest possible show on the biggest possible network. This all feels like fresh air to me, and if you don't seek fresh air as an artist, I'm not quite sure what [you're doing]. … Look, I think every artist needs to make a certain choice at some point just for the money to know what that is, but you should learn from it. And I've done that, when the money was the major part of the decision to do something. [He declines comment on what those choices were for him.]

THR: There are plenty of people in this industry who need to be making decisions based on money.

Seinfeld: That's true. Absolutely. That's the other reason I've been inoculated. Most people want that, "What would it be like to have your own show? What would it be like to have your own show that's a hit? What would it be like to have your own show that's a critical hit, a popular hit and award-winning?" I don't have to wonder that. And any attempt I would make to duplicate that would surely be less than that. Who wants to go to worse and worse restaurants?

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THR: You did the episode of Cars with Baldwin where he joked with you about hosting the Oscars. Of interest?

Seinfeld: I do get asked. To tell you the truth, I was at a point where I was saying, "This is the year I'm either going to host the Oscars or I'm going to try and make a show on the Internet." I can't really give you the beats of what happened there, but something happened, politically, and I said, "OK, then I'm going to do the Internet thing." And now that door has kind of closed behind me.

THR: Forever?

Seinfeld: The only thing I can tell you is fresh ground is highly addictive, and that's where I am right now. I can do anything I want with this show. When you're in that world and someone says, "How would you like to go into the most controlled possible environment?" it's not as attractive. And here's another thing: Nobody wants the Oscars to be good. Nobody really cares. I don't care. I'm going to watch it regardless. It's just something we need to do. It's like a husband and wife occasionally are going to have a fight. That's what the Oscars are -- something we need to do from time to time.

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THR: Your personal car collection is legendary, and you pick a specific car for each of your guests on the show. If you were a guest, which car would you choose for you?

Seinfeld: I have a '57 Porsche Speedster, which is the most minimal car. It's a little piece of perfection, and it was a very inexpensive car when it was made. It's like a good piece of comedy. It doesn't have one extra thing on it. It's just boiled down to an essence, and so I would hope that someone would pick that for me.

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THR: Do you ever look back at Seinfeld and wish it had gone on longer?

Seinfeld: Oh, no. It really wasn't doable.

THR: NBC thought it was, and the Brink's truck was parked outside your door.

Seinfeld: Yeah, but I'm sure you've talked with showrunners, and you know how hard that life is. You're not supposed to be a showrunner, head writer and star. That's three people. Even when I was doing it with Larry [David], who is a genius. And the one thing the show did not deserve was to be abused for money, and that's what I saw coming.

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THR: Could you do Seinfeld the same way today?

Seinfeld: Sure, it was just funny. Though if we did the show today, it would feel very dated in four or five years because of the technology. In the 1990s, the technology was moving much slower. And so many problems are so easily solved now, I think it might be a little harder to be funny. With sitcoms, you need problems that are hard to solve. It's so easy to communicate with things like texting, why would you go over to somebody's house? So you'd need phony excuses to go over to people's houses to push sitcom stories.

THR: When people talk about must-see-TV comedy, often they're still referring to the Seinfeld era. How does that make you feel? Odd? Pleased?

Seinfeld: Odd. I don't understand why someone hasn't come along and made a better show. That's supposed to happen. I would like it to happen. It should happen.

THR: You still spend a significant amount of time on the road with your stand-up act. Why?

Seinfeld: If you're a surfer, you just want to surf. You don't know if anyone's going to see you, and you don't really care if they see you. You just live for that feeling.

THR: You're close with Jay Leno. What kind of advice have you given him about life post-The Tonight Show?

Seinfeld: Jay's got a pretty strong internal driver. He kind of knows what he wants; he knows what he doesn't want. So I'm not really directing him, I just listen to him. He'll figure out what he wants to do, and when he figures that out, I'll encourage him to do it. Whatever it is.

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THR: What would you have done if the network had come to you while your show was still at the top and said, "We're pulling you off in a few months"?

Seinfeld: After I stopped laughing, what would I say? It's quite a story, isn't it? And a struggling network, by the way. We have a No. 1 show, and we're going to take it off the air. … So what do you do? Do you keep him on there until he's Andy Rooney? Do you wait until the numbers start to slip? I don't know. Who is the head of NBC now? Anybody? This is a good question for you to ask them. I'd read that interview.

THR: You did return to NBC a few years ago with an unscripted show called The Marriage Ref. What was behind that move?

Seinfeld: I was curious to see what it felt like to spin a top and then walk away from it because I'd seen people do that. I never really wanted to have my name on it. But I got a lot out of that show.

THR: What did you learn?

Seinfeld: I made Comedians in Cars out of that show. If you look at it, you'll see what I was going for on that show. I think it's interesting to hear people talk about something that's powerful and interesting to them out of the box. But I couldn't make it happen. One of the big things I realized was that the audience is stopping these people from talking. The other thing I realized is that I was much more interested in comedians than I was in a lot of other people whom I thought I was interested in. So, in some ways, I took that pot, smashed it on the ground, took four or five pieces and re-glued them into another thing.

THR: Now I'm going to have to go back and watch …

Seinfeld: There's nothing much to watch. (Laughs.)