"You have finally done the show about nothing." So proclaims Larry David during the first episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Jerry Seinfeld's return to the comedy treadmill after an absence spanning a little over a decade.
The show, which launched on Thursday, follows a basic format: each episode will see Seinfeld pick up a chum in a vintage car, then drive to a restaurant for a hot drink and perhaps a snack. Cameras follow them, fly-on-the-wall style. They talk. Hilarity ensues.
Next week, the show will co-star Ricky Gervais; later in the season, Alec Baldwin. If you're a fan of Seinfeld, or its awkward stepchild Curb Your Enthusiasm, you'll be charmed. If not, you may find things meander. For better, or worse, the 15-minute show seems to be unscripted.
There is, of course, a ring of familiarity about this. In fact, judging by the first episode (all others are top secret for now), Seinfeld might almost be accused of stealing the format of his "show about nothing".
How so? Well the car journey portion, filmed with Go-Pro dashboard cameras, is essentially a rip-off of Robert Llewellyn's series Carpool. The restaurant scenes recall Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan's semi-improvised gastronomic travel documentary The Trip. At times, the resemblance is positively eerie.
For all that, there's at least a whiff of innovation about Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. It's nothing to do with the format, or punch lines, but revolves around the way people are supposed to view it. Put simply: it's a TV show you can't see on TV; it can only be watched over the internet.
Seinfeld's decision to forgo television – in favour of Crackle.com, a Sony-owned site – comes at a watershed moment for television's relationship with the internet. For years pigeon-holed as an experimental medium, used mostly for discovering fresh talent, online TV projects are now attracting blue-chip Hollywood stars. Tom Hanks launched his new project – a dystopian science-fiction animation called Electric City that he created and voices – via Yahoo. And the veteran TV anchor Larry King announced he was coming out of retirement to launch a weekly chat-show on Hulu. Netflix is venturing into TV production, with shows such as Lillehammer and Arrested Development, while Will Ferrell these days seems to spend most of his time online in Funny or Die sketches.
The online trend is partly driven by money, since the web accounts for a growing portion of overall ad spending, and partly by changing viewer habits, since the growing ubiquity of smartphones and tablet computers helps draw eyeballs to digital programming from traditional media.
But the Hankses and Seinfelds of this world, who have enough money for this lifetime, appear to also be drawn to the internet for artistic reasons. It allows them to experiment creatively without having to worry about interfering network executives, clunky TV timeslots, spiralling budgets and the other Hollywood blights.
"When I work with established TV stars, they're often interested by the freedom the internet provides," says Justin Gayner, the founder of ChannelFlip, a British online TV network that has made shows with Harry Hill, David Mitchell, and Richard Hammond. "The bigger the star, the more confident they are to experiment online. If they have conquered the Everest of TV then the internet is a new mountain. And the spontaneity of it all seems to remind them of their roots in stand-up comedy."
Seinfeld, then, is returning to comedy so he can play around. Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is primarily a show about wasting time. (As David observes, early in the debut episode, "nobody can waste time like you and me".) And what is the internet, if not the perfect medium for wasting time?Reuse content