After President Obama’s stellar performance in the season seven debut of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee last week, Steve Martin had a lot to live up to. Martin may have elicited the fewest laughs of any episode in a while, but that doesn’t mean the episode was bad. It was more of a discussion of the hidden side of comedy, which was interesting, even if it was significantly less funny than the actual joke telling.
SPOILER ALERT – WATCH THE EPISODE, THEN KEEP READING
I realize that Jerry Seinfeld is a car guy, but he spent the opening 1:45 of the episode describing the 1954 Siata 8v, a vintage Italian sports car with the build quality of a Yugo. It isn’t a particularly fast car, nor is it particularly unique looking. I laughed when Seinfeld snapped the turn signal knob off, but all of the driving around and montages were unnecessary, especially as a cutaway right at 1:45 more or less spoils the fact that the car is going to break down.
That said, the banjo music in the background is a nice touch considering Steve Martin is a Grammy winner known for his banjo skills. Unfortunately, like the episode as a whole, the section feels stretched out and the pacing a bit slow.
Early on, it was clear this episode would talk about the creation of comedy, specifically stand-up, rather than just stories and jokes. Seinfeld loves the subject and Martin wrote a book on it, so the conversation was off and running. Anecdotes of bad comedy experiences snowballed into Martin sharing a story of an unnamed comedian playing a show in the Hyatt hotel atrium on the water in Boston. Apparently, during this act, there is a crane on the pier fishing out someone in a wheelchair who had committed suicide the day before. It’s one of those jokes that shouldn’t be funny, but the two comedic legends knew how to make it work.
During the episode, there were a handful of cutaways to an old Steve Martin stand-up special, as well as one of his appearances on Saturday Night Live, with some holding up better than others. These helped illustrate the points that Martin talked about when explaining the choices he made when performing, but also his decision to quit performing at such a young age.
It is obvious Martin has reflected on his stand-up career many times over the years, as he is at peace with his decision to move on from performing comedy in 1981. In fact, he seems thankful that he was able to move past his routine and become a successful actor, writer, and musician.
Sometimes, even the best comedians tell jokes that fall flat and aren’t funny. I fear that is the case for this episode, as between sections of in-depth conversation were cutaways that had mediocre one-liners and didn’t elicit much of a reaction from me.
After the retirement section, Martin and Seinfeld workshopped a joke about aging and shrinking, an issue my father is starting to go through himself. I laughed at the entire section. The conversation cut to more of the wheelchair suicide topic, which was still funny because the conversation was quick.
Then the car died. The two had to pull over and continued chatting on the side of the road, joking about what people who see them are thinking. It was funny because Martin had his neat story about playing poker in Las Vegas with Johnny Carson, but he would not have told it had the car not died. So maybe it was a blessing in disguise.
Eventually, the pair settled on a diner in Pleasantville, N.Y. By the time they entered, it was 15 minutes into a 23-minute episode. Martin orders an egg salad sandwich and does his best Guy Fieri impression when he bites into it. Afterward, Martin asks Seinfeld about his performance schedule and then the two discuss opening lines before workshopping one Martin came up with. The stories were neat, but the conversation itself was just that: a conversation. It wasn’t laugh-out-loud funny.
Martin then talks about his final stand-up shows before retirement and how he realized that he needed to move on. “I didn’t announce I was stopping.” Martin said. “I just stopped.” It took a little longer for him to realize the decision he’d made. “I didn’t realize I quit until I wrote that book!” His explanation made me think of the episode of SpongeBob SquarePants when the titular character starts acting like a “normal” person. It seems like Martin took the same approach, removing himself from his stand-up character so he could live a “normal” life.
After the diner scene, Seinfeld and Martin hopped in a 1966 Mustang 298 V8. Luckily, the last few jokes were funny, between a stroller comment from Martin and a back-and-forth on seat belts. The comedy wasn’t memorable, but at least proved that the 70-year-old Martin still has some jokes left in the tank.
Anyone having to follow up the leader of the free world is in for a difficult time. Martin drew the short straw and ended up having a nice conversation with Seinfeld about the underbelly of comedy. Too bad the episode itself lacked the laughs of typical Comedians in Cars episodes. It was fun to hear them talk, but when watching two legendary comedians in a car together, there should be more jokes. Unless you’re a big fan of Martin from his 1970s stand-up days, this is an episode you can skip. 5/10
[You can read Alex’s other recaps of Comedians in Cars here.]