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Is Jimmy Fallon Really Comedy’s New Cutting Edge?

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For nine years, Jerry Seinfeld played a character named “Jerry Seinfeld” on the most popular show on television. During that time, he never revealed a single thing about himself. Sure, both Jerries wore sneakers, ate cereal, and dated a procession of young brunettes. The two were even ostensibly in the same profession. But the point of Seinfeld wasn’t to tell us anything in particular about Jerry Seinfeld. It was about giving a weekly showcase to the small observations and even smaller annoyances that populated Jerry Seinfeld’s act.

It’s a distinction that suddenly seems more old-fashioned than his turtlenecks. The wall between comedian and comedy that Seinfeld spent decades defending has been crumbling for years. It’s been chipped away in small chunks by the 24/7 access of the Internet. And then bashed in great, gasping swings by Louis C.K., a brilliant stand-up whose eponymous sitcom explores the gaping hole revealed when the laughter stops, and by Marc Maron, a career comic who has remade himself as a podcasting pathologist, sitting down with professional funny people and asking them where it hurts. These days, being a fan of comedy means being as much a fan of the inner workings of comedians as of the particulars of the jokes they tell.1 It’s no longer enough to cull your daily life for material; in the age of Twitter, comedians’ daily lives are their material. Which is perhaps one way to explain why, after a long hiatus, Jerry Seinfeld is suddenly back on our screens playing Jerry Seinfeld. Only this time without the air quotes.

When it appeared in 2012 on the Sony-backed web network Crackle, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee seemed like the quintessential vanity project. After all, each episode provided an opportunity for Seinfeld to indulge his three primary fetishes: classic cars, strong coffee, and graying stand-ups. And each has followed a predictably baggy path. First, some establishing shots of Jerry lovingly running his hands over a carefully selected vintage ride before hopping behind the wheel and tootling over to pick up a guest. Once the seat belts have been clicked, there’s some banter in the car, some banter over coffee, and some banter on the drive back. Sprinkled throughout are product placements for the show’s sponsor and shots of high-test espresso porn, the type rarely glimpsed outside of Portlandia.

Despite all the caffeine, the show is defiantly low-key. The best installments — Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, Louis C.K., Carl Reiner with Mel Brooks — have featured Seinfeld interacting with simpatico friends and legends, trading war stories and chuckling over ephemera. These are people to whom comedy is as much a craft as a calling; sets are dissected and discussed with a mechanic’s precision. For those interested in the technical side of silliness, you’ll find no better user’s manual. And unlike his prickly fictional persona, the real Seinfeld is a generous laugher and a surprisingly welcoming host: He picked up admitted nerd Patton Oswalt in a DeLorean, withstood every barb Howard Stern threw at him, and made Alec Baldwin seem like the funniest, most pleasant guy alive. Everyone Seinfeld encounters is sponge-worthy. There is soup for all.

Now in its third season (and fresh off a Super promotional boost), Comedians, like Jerry’s coffee order, is light and sweet. But it’s not nothing. It’s quietly revelatory in spite of itself. Though there have been thousands of opportunities to see Seinfeld share the screen with his longtime collaborator Larry David, in many ways their episode felt like the first. The two are wildly famous, but, as it turns out, not all that well known. There wasn’t a shred of Costanzaesque shrillness to be found, none of the arch iciness glimpsed during Seinfeld’s multiple appearances on Curb Your Enthusiasm. What we got instead was warm and strangely wonderful: two longtime friends cracking each other up. It turns out the real Larry David is absolutely a picky loon, just not in the way Curb would have us believe: He’s an herbal-tea-quaffing health-food freak who won’t taste a pancake, let alone Palestinian chicken. The specifics of what he and Seinfeld said weren’t particularly memorable or even all that funny. What mattered was the ease and intimacy with which they said it and the way the cameras allowed us to crash the party.

In January, on the cusp of yet another forced retirement, Jay Leno was unexpectedly punchy and spry for his turn in the passenger seat. He reminisced about following Richard Pryor at the Comedy Store and cheering for Seinfeld on The Merv Griffin Show. He told wildly entertaining stories both professional (golfing with wiseguys) and personal (his mother hitting him in the head with a frying pan). From a distance of 30 years, he quoted, then raved about, the highly specific way David Letterman had phrased a joke about orphans. A famous teetotaler, Leno was so energetic and amenable that he even agreed to try his first-ever sip of coffee. (He hated it and quickly switched to Coke.) He was open, he was engaging, and he was hilarious. In other words, it was everything that Leno’s buttoned-up TV tenure — and particularly his unemotional break-room party of a finale — wasn’t.2 At one point, Leno, ever the traditionalist, disagreed with Seinfeld about the upheaval in their business, arguing that “comedy does not change.” But who’s going to believe that, after seeing Leno be funnier in 20 minutes of a minor web series than he had been in 20 years hosting The Tonight Show?

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Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is a buffed and polished new-media vehicle for demonstrating how the old ways no longer work. The majority of the guests are, like Seinfeld himself, part of an aging generation of funny people who draw a bright line between onstage and off, between work and life. (“Is this a bit? Are you doing a bit?” Seinfeld says in the Leno episode, imitating the way people converse with him. “No!” Leno yells in his trademark timbre. “I’m talking!”) It’s an insular, clubby community. These are people who take more pleasure in making each other laugh than in the hoots and applause of a paying crowd. Seinfeld is about to turn 60, and while his rules have bent, they haven’t broken: There’s no hugging and very little learning. But just seeing him relax feels momentous.

Because there was good reason for his rigor. It used to be that standing in front of strangers and speaking into a microphone was the easiest way to be funny in public, an ongoing audition that eventually morphed into an art form. It was a way to control the cruelties of show business, a way to be judged on your own terms. And so the audience was the adversary, the jokes were weapons, and vulnerability was to be avoided at all costs. The goal was to kill. And maybe get a sitcom in the process.

And so all the greatest 20th-century comedians, from Pryor all the way to Maron, painstakingly honed their acts, minute by minute, laugh by laugh, in pursuit of a bigger and better job. A career wasn’t an elevator — first stop SNL, next stop fame — it was a cliff. All of them talked about stand-up as their true love, but it was a true love that didn’t come with health care or stability; it was the sort of love that’s better appreciated when you have 46 Porsches in the garage. I criticize Leno for being distant and unknowable, but really he’s just one of a long line of funny men who made their bones (and millions of dollars) squeezing into suits that didn’t quite fit.3 So what if the skills required to host a late-night talk show have almost nothing to do with those needed to put on a tight 20 minutes at the Laugh Factory? To paraphrase Seinfeld, there’s no such thing as a bad gig as long as you’re being paid for it.

Even among those who made hosting look easy, there was always a professional remove, a slight chill running just beneath the vamping.4 Distance kept you employed. Distance kept you sane. On CBS, Letterman is a wry conductor, keeping the silliness on schedule. We didn’t know a thing about his private life until his heart surgery in 2000, a reticence that seems like charity in light of his “sextortion” scandal a few years back.5 On ABC (which is, like Grantland, part of the Walt Disney Company), Jimmy Kimmel runs his ascendant show like a raucous kegger. But a key aspect of his schtick is the way he stays sober even while he’s taking shots. He doesn’t push his audience away so much as he puts them — and the occasional Canadian mayor — in their place.

On NBC it’s a different story entirely. The network is well known these days for being out of step with popular tastes — that’s a polite way of saying it’s fallen and it can’t get up — and its ham-handed transfers of late-night power have fueled the monologues and ratings of its competitors. Its business decisions have long been spurred by fits of pique and messy bursts of emotion. But this time NBC may well have stumbled directly into the zeitgeist. Messy is in. Emotion is trending. Entertainment can be found anywhere, at any time. But what about comfort?

If Johnny Carson was the dry martini at the end of a long day, Jimmy Fallon is a soothing mug of chamomile. In the two weeks since it debuted, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon has established itself as the cuddliest show in the history of late night. The first episode began with Fallon thanking every single person who helped him get from Saugerties, New York, to that glittering new stage in Rockefeller Center. He praised Jay Leno. He waved to his parents. He gushed about his baby daughter. Fallon didn’t want to kill his audience; he wanted to hug them. No — he wanted each and every one of them to hug him.

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And after two weeks, Fallon shows no sign of changing his emo M.O. He still professes to be a “huge fan” of nearly every celebrity. The only guests who aren’t buddies are pals. “I love you” pours from his lips the way sarcasm once leaked from Letterman’s. At times it can be a bit much, like sitting on your couch and suddenly finding yourself entombed in a Snuggie you neither want nor need.

But Fallon’s warmth is now radiating real heat. Over the course of 12 shows, his confidence and presence have grown exponentially. A truly gifted mimic, he no longer seems like he’s imitating an old-timey host as he works his way through the extended monologue. He’s become the thing itself, jamming his hands into his pockets and creeping up to his tippy-toes on the punch lines like a junior Johnny. Better, his charm now services the jokes, not the other way around: The other night, he and announcer Steve Higgins took a throwaway zinger about McDonald’s and bent and folded it into a gleefully silly bit about Billy Bob Thornton ordering a McDLT. All hosts deal with clunkers. Only the good ones can make them purr like one of Seinfeld’s Boxsters.6

Back on Saturday Night Live, Fallon’s goofy affability seemed like a bug. But now it’s his defining feature. The “breaking” that earned him so much ire in the hot-tub days with Will Ferrell turns out to be the perfect expression of his unique charm: Fallon’s humor is unbounded, inclusive, and infectious. He will sing. He will dance. He will do absolutely anything to make people feel welcome, at ease, and willing to prance around the stage like Freddie Mercury. Thus far, Fallon has gotten Will Smith to Dougie, Cameron Diaz into his pants, and the normally taciturn Denzel Washington to giggle like a schoolkid. Under his relentless stewardship, The Tonight Show feels fluid, jittery, and alive. Leno’s Tonight often felt like a promotional still. Fallon’s show is a giant selfie, and all of Hollywood is desperate to get into the picture.

When Tina Fey was a guest on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, she was friendly but reticent, wondering aloud how she’d continue to “stay opaque.”7 But these days, transparency is a requirement for a young comedian. Audiences don’t want to be told jokes, they want to be in on them. Flubs and falls are endearing; seeing the cracks is what cracks people up. Jimmy Fallon has proven himself to be the ideal comedian for this moment because he understands that being funny is now a full-time gig, that oversharing is just another way of being generous. Forget leaving them wanting more: Fallon can’t ever leave them at all. He always has to be on, and so too does his show, tweeting out gags, offering up videos, and, with the help of the incomparable Roots, making Studio 6A feel like a madcap launching pad for creativity and joy, not just a destination for A-listers with projects to push. From across a generational divide and, for now at least, several tax brackets, Jerry Seinfeld and Jimmy Fallon seem to have reached the same conclusion at exactly the right moment. Comedy has a new mantra and it’s working like gangbusters: Always let them see you sweat.

Filed Under: TV, jerry seinfeld, LouisCK, Jimmy Fallon, The Tonight Show, NBC, Tina Fey

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Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ andygreenwald

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