Bit Too Close
08.02.12 8:45 AM ET
Jerry Seinfeld’s ‘Comedians in Cars’ Web Series Ruffles U.K. Feathers With Similarity to British ‘Carpool’
Jerry Seinfeld’s new web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, has been touted as the realization of his lifelong ambition to make a show about nothing. In the first episode, which aired on July 19 (new episodes premiere every second Thursday), Larry David joins his Seinfeld co-creator for a jaunt to John O’Groats in a 1952 Volkswagen Bug, during which time the duo performs an observational pas de deux around everything from their laziness to the difference between cigars and cigarettes.
“Nobody can waste time like you and me,” Seinfeld concludes.
Unfortunately, a large number of British people disagree. Following the release of the series promo on July 5, under the headline “Taken for a ride?” the Guardian wrote, “Jerry Seinfeld’s new Web series Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee looks a lot like Robert Llewellyn’s own web series Carpool.” The Independent went so far as to call Seinfeld’s series a “rip-off” of the U.K. show created by the man perhaps best known to U.S. audiences as the robot Kryten from Red Dwarf.
Llewellyn launched Carpool in April 2009 on iTunes, a series of 10—to 30-minute episodes in which he alternates between talking to comedians like Stephen Fry and to scientists like physicist Brian Cox as they drive around in his hybrid car. Unlike Comedians, which comes across as a series of humorous vignettes strung together, the aptly named Carpool’s Toyota Prius appears to sail along the ebb and flow of a conversation in which a passing Tesla can spark a discussion about the blandness of British politicians.
Having aired 105 episodes with an estimated (by Llewellyn) tally of 7.5 million page views, Carpool and its creator have an avid following in the U.K. Seinfeld, on the other hand, remains a cult figure across the pond, a phenomenon the Guardian has chalked up to his iconic, eponymous sitcom’s “erratic late-night scheduling on BBC2” as well as its lack of resolution. In a fight between Llewellyn and Seinfeld on Carpool’s home turf, the winner is clear.
“[I got] literally thousands of tweets from people going, ‘Jerry Seinfeld stole your show! Sue him! You’ll be worth millions!” Llewellyn told The Daily Beast on the phone from England.
In an effort to answer the barrage of complaints all at once, Llewellyn posted a message on Google Plus on July 7. He wrote that he had watched Seinfeld’s new web series—he told The Daily Beast he found it “very funny”—but that “while it’s clearly exactly the same idea, shot in an almost identical way, it’s hard to suggest it’s a rip off.”
But that didn’t stop Llewellyn’s “very upset” agent from speaking to her legal department.
“The lawyers confirmed that we couldn’t sue them and I wouldn’t want to,” he explained. “It just creates bad blood and I don’t want to be that person that does that sort of thing.”
Though Seinfeld declined to be interviewed for this article, his spokesperson confirmed with The Daily Beast that he was “not at all familiar with” Carpool. Crackle, Sony’s digital network that houses Comedians, directed all questions about the web series to the comedian’s spokesperson, who on Monday pointed out a breezy FAQ uploaded that day to the series’ Facebook page. In response to why he made Comedians, Seinfeld said, “talk shows and interviews can’t let you see this other side of the comedy world.”
Therein lies the main difference between Seinfeld’s and Llewellyn’s series. While the former is designed to give viewers outside a brief peek into an elite world, the latter is about drawing them into a discussion about the world.
“The driving motive behind it was to get really interesting people, some of whom I knew and some I’d never met before,” Llewellyn said. “I think the beauty of Carpool, if I can say it, is it’s so pared down to the absolute minimum—there’s a minimal amount of cleverness involved, it’s just a conversation.”
The Red Dwarf alum did not initially set out to make a web series. Llewellyn hosted the U.K. version of Junkyard Wars (Scrapheap Challenge) for 10 years, during which time he fell for the “lipstick cameras” they used to film inside machines. With the help of the show’s camera crew, he purchased two similar second-hand cameras—these days he uses the Sony HXR MC1 while Comedians uses Go-Pro cameras in the car and DSLR cameras outside of it—and, with the writing he had been doing on renewable energy, created Carpool. The first few installments were designed as test runs with friends for what was to be a short segment in a longer show. A friend helped Llewellyn upload it to iTunes and the rest is history, or that’s all he knows about it, anyway.
“Literally overnight somebody found it. I still don’t know to this day who found it or started the word of mouth, but over the weekend when I hadn’t even told anyone that I had done it, it got five and a half thousand downloads,” he said. “It then became an obligation to do one every week.”
Llewellyn admits that on YouTube his celebrity guests perform best (Stephen Fry has 131,675 page views so far), whereas on iTunes all episodes are on par with each other. By comparison, after a press release, a promo and only one episode, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee’s Facebook page already has 25,731 likes. And on YouTube, Crackle and Facebook the first episode has garnered more than 90,000 page views.
“Interestingly since Jerry Seinfeld’s show was announced, the views on Carpool have gone up quite dramatically,” Llewellyn said with a laugh. He even contacted Seinfeld on Twitter to see if he wanted to take part in his series.
“I’ve not heard a sausage,” Llewellyn said, adding, “I’m not expecting to hear.”
Not that he’ll be waiting by the phone. Llewellyn, who currently hosts another video podcast about renewable energy called Fully Charged, and is a prolific writer (he has 10 books under his belt), plans to shoot more Carpools this year. Meanwhile, a 10th series of Red Dwarf—the first since it closed shop in 1999—airs in the U.K. in September and is slated to go international before Christmas. Though he continues to spar with his fans about Seinfeld, Llewellyn clearly doesn’t take it very seriously.
“You know, hats off to Jerry,” he said. “He’s a very funny guy and he’s got lots of cars. I think he should have some electric ones, but, you know.”