With Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, Jerry Seinfeld has done what few of his generation have: He’s adapted what he does (comedy) for the web. He’s also done it cleverly and in a way that makes money. In a talk with David Letterman this week at the Paley Center he gave away some of the secrets.
Just the other a day I saw a bunch of intelligent, well regarded journalists — including a vet of one of the most notoriously bad attempts at automotive television — looking at a show that aired on SPEED wondering why the hell no one watched it.
Forget that it was basically the same as every car show you’ve ever seen. Forget that few of us car journalists are that fun to watch. The biggest problem, beyond the network it was on, was that it was limited by the same formula that both network and cable television have foisted on us.
Jerry Seinfeld, who l’m guessing has made more money from network television than most, would seem like the person most likely to succumb to those same unwritten codes and obvious tropes. Yet, somehow, he hasn't.
“It was really kind of a guess. I mean really couldn’t imagine when I thought of the idea that it could be a show,” Seinfeld told Letterman in a talk (see the whole thing here).
“The show happening at the time that it did and the Internet and being able to watch things streaming… a few years ago I never could have done it. The fact that I could make the shows any length I wanted that gave me the freedom to do it.”
That’s an important point and something that certain web video makers, like /DRIVE, have figured out. It’s the first lesson from Seinfeld: Make the shows as long as you want so long as what’s there is interesting.
It’s a simple insight, but an important one.
Letterman, who is clearly still tied to the TV network idea, was amused and surprised by this and asked if he’d like to do the show on a network now that Velocity exists, which Seinfeld seemed to dismiss.
“I was really thinking what would be a good tv show for a phone, because you don’t have to follow a story.”
Thus he ended up with an "Anti-show about a non-event," which is a slightly more uptight way of saying "a show about nothing."
Later on Seinfeld mentioned that he met with "data gurus" from CAA and Facebook to find out how to do a show on the web and was told, explicitly, that anything long than five minutes wouldn’t work. Obviously, he ignored them, and asked if he thought they were wrong later on he gave a good look at his thinking:
“Screw it, I don’t care.”
Seinfeld then, and later when I had the chance to briefly converse with him afterwards, was able to talk about his own analytics and seemed cognizant of what his were and that his audience is largely comprised of people goofing off at work.
The lesson here is: Web “gurus” know what has worked, but not always what will work.
If you don’t have an hour to watch this, skip ahead to 11:01 to see a couple of episodes before and after editing, which reveals that what Seinfeld has done is made a tightly edited moving talk show. That’s it. It’s just a talk show, but while the length of the show varies, the length of each individual bit is short and web-digestible.
There’s a lot more insight in here, but what comes out at the end is great. A man asks how much they shoot per episode and he said it was about $100,000.
For the web, that’s a lot, but he wanted to make it a profitable venture, and it means that Acura probably gives him at least $1.6 million a “season” to produce it and produce their clever ads, which is the other interesting example of Seinfeld being ahead of most people.
He’s not alone in doing ads that aren’t just TV spots put on the web, but he’s definitely transformed some of Acura’s typically out-of-touch ads.
Which gets to the ultimate point that the show seems to get: Understand your medium.
I say all this not to suck up to Seinfeld (we’ve done enough of that, right?), but because I find it mildly terrifying.
I’m sure Seinfeld knows more about comedy than I’ll ever know, and it’s possible I’ll die not knowing as much about cars as he knows now, but the one thing I can usually take solace in is that I know more about how the web actually operates than most people.
Seinfeld called this an “experiment” and seems genuinely surprised that it worked so well, but he’s clearly got more of an insight into how people consume content than I’d have ever given him credit before until I heard him explain it. Seriously, go watch the whole thing.