Emmys: Jerry Seinfeld on Why He May Never Go Back to TV (Q&A)

Jerry Seinfeld

The most successful sitcom star of all time, nominated for his online series "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee," lets loose about his former network ("Who is the head of NBC now? Anybody?"), late-night TV ("a sad feeling"), and Oscar hosting ("that door has kind of closed behind me").

This story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

With his electric blue 1996 Porsche 911 RS parked out front, Jerry Seinfeld slips into a corner table at West Los Angeles diner John O'Groats. But rather than pepper one of his comedian friends with questions, as he does on his year-old web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, he's the one fielding them on this August morning. During the course of an hour, Seinfeld, 59, opens up about a range of topics, including the Oscars, late night and his now-profitable "experiment" for Sony's Crackle that recently was nominated for a short-format Emmy he insists it won't win. ("Whatever that September 11th thing is, that's going to win. End of conversation," he quips, referring to History.com's Remembering 9/11.)

Statuette or not, Comedians' first season, which featured interviews with Larry David, Carl Reiner and Ricky Gervais, has been streamed 10 million times, and early installments of season two already have clocked more than 4 million streams. More impressive, viewers spend 19 minutes on average watching his interviews, which vary in length (between eight and 17 minutes) and tone (Michael Richards discussed his N-word saga; Chris Rock joked about Conan O'Brien's Tonight Show stint). "People love to see what makes Jerry Seinfeld laugh," says Sony Pictures Television president Steve Mosko of the series' appeal. "What's great about Jerry is not only is he one of the funniest people that you'll meet, but he also is very good at acknowledging how funny other people are."

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The Hollywood Reporter: Before you get in the car with Sarah Silverman or Mel Brooks, what's your preparation process?

Jerry Seinfeld: There are no notes. I like the stuff that just comes up because I'm really curious. David Letterman loved that I asked Alec Baldwin, "Who do you think has worked harder to get where we are?" Now if you can imagine that conversation happening on a talk show in front of an audience, it stops right there. All of a sudden there's a "Whoa!" And I don't want to deal with that. I felt like the talk show needs its next iteration, and I don't know if this was it. This was a personal experiment of mine. Talk shows as we know them are performances, and so I wanted to try to do one without an audience, clips and something to promote.

THR: Can this ever be something that translates to TV?

Seinfeld: I've heard some conversations about that. I have not really participated in those conversations.

THR: Do you watch the late-night talk shows? Do you have any thoughts on the landscape?

Seinfeld: I have to say that most talk shows leave me with a sad feeling, and I don't think that's the goal. When I was a comic in the 1980s, I was on the road somewhere every day, and I'd get back to the hotel and it was Carson and Letterman, and I looked forward to that all day. Those shows made me happy. I'm not quite sure what happened. It's probably just proliferation and fragmentation.

THR: Is there a way to do another kind of late-night show where you can have a more in-depth conversation with guests the way you do on Comedians in Cars?

Seinfeld: I don't think so. You need the audience and the band for the energy, and people want to show their clips. These shows are promotional vehicles for the industry. They're not talk shows, per se, they're kind of setup talk shows. "I'm gonna ask you this, then you say that." The shows are pretty cheap, too, so until it becomes an unworkable business model, I don't think you'll see change. Same as the movie business. Until this thing implodes from within, which feels like it's not too far off …

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THR: I have to imagine there are people who say to you, "Why are you doing an Internet show when you could be back on TV with a big hit?" What do you tell them?

Seinfeld: There are, and I'm kind of perplexed by them. I don't want to be too critical of what other people do, but when people go back to do the same thing that they did, I'm completely confused. I'm like, "Didn't you make that movie already?" I've been very fortunate, and I'm well taken care of, so the least I can do is try to go forward.

THR: Is there a scenario where you'd go back to TV?

Seinfeld: That's what I feel like I'm doing. Except television frankly feels small compared to the world I'm in now. I'm in Australia, I'm in Norway, I'm in the U.K. And I was from day one. I'm doing the smallest possible show on the biggest possible network. This all feels like fresh air to me, and if you don't seek fresh air as an artist, I'm not quite sure what [you're doing]. … Look, I think every artist needs to make a certain choice at some point just for the money to know what that is, but you should learn from it. And I've done that, when the money was the major part of the decision to do something. [He declines comment on what those choices were for him.]

THR: There are plenty of people in this industry who need to be making decisions based on money.

Seinfeld: That's true. Absolutely. That's the other reason I've been inoculated. Most people want that, "What would it be like to have your own show? What would it be like to have your own show that's a hit? What would it be like to have your own show that's a critical hit, a popular hit and award-winning?" I don't have to wonder that. And any attempt I would make to duplicate that would surely be less than that. Who wants to go to worse and worse restaurants?

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THR: You did the episode of Cars with Baldwin where he joked with you about hosting the Oscars. Of interest?

Seinfeld: I do get asked. To tell you the truth, I was at a point where I was saying, "This is the year I'm either going to host the Oscars or I'm going to try and make a show on the Internet." I can't really give you the beats of what happened there, but something happened, politically, and I said, "OK, then I'm going to do the Internet thing." And now that door has kind of closed behind me.

THR: Forever?

Seinfeld: The only thing I can tell you is fresh ground is highly addictive, and that's where I am right now. I can do anything I want with this show. When you're in that world and someone says, "How would you like to go into the most controlled possible environment?" it's not as attractive. And here's another thing: Nobody wants the Oscars to be good. Nobody really cares. I don't care. I'm going to watch it regardless. It's just something we need to do. It's like a husband and wife occasionally are going to have a fight. That's what the Oscars are -- something we need to do from time to time.

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