You can think of Jerry Seinfeld and Breaking Bad as competing myths of American manhood. In the Walter White version, you get a death sentence – a terminal disease, with just a short time to live. What do you do with your last shot? You become as evil and violent and corrupt as you ever could have feared, but you also become master of your domain – and you like it.
And then there’s the Jerry Seinfeld version. In this timeline, you reach the same plateau, dragging around the same bile and neurosis, except you get the opposite diagnosis: an endless future of infinite possibility. You achieve all the success you ever craved. You can retire, have kids, collect vintage cars. You can do whatever you want, forever. So you do nothing.
Jerry got a life sentence of nothing with Seinfeld and he’s still doing the time, as he shows on his new Web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Seinfeld is around the same age as Walt White, but you can’t imagine him spelling out his age with bacon for a laugh. Walt got a death warrant and feels born again; Jerry got a lifetime pass and feels bored. Which fate is tougher?
It’s baffling that nearly 15 years after Jerry pulled the plug on Seinfeld, at the height of its success, he still hasn’t figured out his Plan B. People still obsess over the continuing agony of Jerry Seinfeld. People love to fantasize: What’s it like to hit that kind of success, walk away from it while you’re on top, and then struggle to come up with an encore? How do you compete with the legacy of Seinfeld? And what the hell do you do all day?
Jerry wonders about that, too. So he makes a clever joke out of it with Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. He’s gone for the hipster cred of online video, taking a low-budget approach. In each episode, he picks up a famous comedian in one of his vintage cars, then they go for some coffee and talk shop. He picks up Larry David in a 1952 Volkswagen bug, and Ricky Gervais gets a 1967 Austin-Healey. That’s the whole concept. The simplicity of it raises the question: Why is Jerry doing this? It looks like Jerry has the same question, which makes Comedians in Cars compelling on an emotional level, as well as a pleasant hang with famous dudes. It has a “Ladies Who Lunch” feel. Nobody has to be there; nobody needs the exposure. They probably don’t even need the coffee. They drive around. They have a pretty good time. They wonder why this is all happening.
The fact that Jerry is still funny might be the weirdest part of his profoundly weird afterlife. Larry David is right when he tells Jerry that with Comedians in Cars, he “finally has done the show about nothing” that Seinfeld aspired to be. But it’s a different kind of nothing, because there really is something at stake here. Every scene is haunted by the questions any adult male asks about his life: Did I make the wrong decision? Could my life have gone in another direction? How much time have I wasted? Did I blow it?
And ultimately, that seems to be why people are still so fascinated with Seinfeld – we ask these questions about his life, because it distracts us from asking these questions about our lives. And somehow it’s touching that Seinfeld – despite his 46 or so Porsches and his $32 million mansion – has the same doubts. So Comedians in Cars is not anything as banal as Jerry Seinfeld needing to prove he’s still got it, or anything as simple as him needing to get off the couch. It’s just the need to do something. Because sometimes nothing isn’t enough.
This story is from the August 30th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.