One of the biggest stars in TV history is skipping TV to launch his latest project.
Jerry Seinfeld issued a promo Thursday for "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee," which will launch July 19th on Sony's digital-only network Crackle. Neither he nor Sony is saying much about it so far, but from the looks of the promo, "Comedians" is pretty much what its title suggests: Seinfeld chatting up fellow comedians including Ricky Gervais, Alec Baldwin and Michael Richards, as they drive vehicles from his vintage-car collection.
"Comedians" isn't entirely surprising considering Seinfeld had been teasing his new project for months via his robust social media presence, though the snapshots of him and other stars gave little sense of what they were actually up to. But the very fact that he was doing anything on his own like this gives a hint of just what a potential gamechanger a production like this could be: rather than buy commercial airtime or court the press, he's able to get the word out to millions at zero expense with zero intermediaries.
But is "Comedians" a gamechanger? At first blush, it would seem so. Here's a huge star who could probably be back on TV easily if he wanted to sidestepping the medium entirely taking a format that could work easily on TV straight to digital platforms. Money is not the point here, though it would be interesting to learn more about just what the arrangement is between Seinfeld and Sony, which has made billions of dollars syndicating his classic NBC sitcom on TV stations and Crackle itself.
But in all likelihood Seinfeld could have gotten a richer deal had he done "Comedians" on TV. The problem with going that route is in return for the big bucks he would have likely lost some degree of creative control. Not even the biggest celebrities are immune to some degree of interference from the networks and distributors who hand them the checks, and surely Seinfeld has gone through enough of that kind of relationship to want to give that up for good.
It will also be interesting to find out whether Seinfeld even bothered to pitch the usual networks with a project like this, and if he did, did any of them want it? Because as reflexively as you might assume that no programmer in their right mind would refuse Seinfeld in any shape or form on their air, a project like "Comedians" might give them some reservations. It's not Seinfeld in the sitcom milieu where he was was so successful, and he's already shown on network TV that he isn't a sure thing given his prominent presence in an unscripted series called "The Marriage Ref" on NBC a few years ago that didn't do too well.
Know this much about network TV shows: it's a lot of time and work if you are playing a significant role on either side of the camera. My guess is at this stage in his life Seinfeld doesn't want to work too hard anymore, and something like "Comedians" affords him the ability to film something that he just happens to be filling his luxurious leisure time with anyway. "Comedians" will likely come across like a lark, the kind of production someone given carte blanche to do what they wanted would do. More power to him–literally.
Regardless, will "Comedians" amount to hit programming, pulling the kind of audience Seinfeld could have gotten on TV? Don't be so sure. The obvious comparison to make here is to the groundbreaking experiments in one-man distribution Seinfeld's buddy, Louis CK, is up to but that's not entirely a fair comparison. While Louis CK is taking a product–his stand-up act–that could otherwise run on film or TV more or less unchanged and putting it out there himself online, "Comedians" isn't necessarily the kind of content a TV network would have put on its own air intact (especially if "Comedians' turns out to be a short-form series though several could be bundled into 30-minute form). And let's not forget it's not entirely an either-or proposition given Louis CK eventually sold a second window of his self-distributed performance back to TV, which Seinfeld and Sony could potentially do as well.
What may be even more telling about the intent of "Comedians" is the role that advertising will play in the production, which isn't clear from the promo either. Surely Crackle will sell ads in and around the series, which also airs on YouTube (though interestingly not as a YouTube original channel–now that would have been a huge coup for Google). But given the centrality of both coffee and cars in "Comedians," the brand integration possibilities with blue-chip marketers are endless. A production like this would have fit hand-in-glove with integration (get a sense of how it might have been structured with "Speakeasy," a recent tie-up between Bacardi and Break Media).
Given there's no sign of this in the promo, my prediction is it's not there and if that's true, Madison Avenue should be beside itself. Here's a comedian who has shown a rare interest and talent in creative collaboration with brands like American Express and Microsoft but for some reason didn't do so here. They could have conceivably bankrolled the entire production themselves, and yet it's possible Seinfeld saw fit to keep them out of the equation.
Maybe just as he's tired of the rigors and meddling of traditional TV, he isn't too interested in playing the shill, too. Strange as it might seem that Seinfeld would ignore his TV options, bypassing the brands may be even more remarkable.
UPDATE: Two weeks later, here's my take on the series now that it's out.