Where Jerry Seinfeld is doggedly, comically analytical, Stephen Colbert is not at all, ever. Whatever else he might be — a brilliant satirist, an unexpectedly accomplished beard-haver, a sorta devout Catholic — Colbert is basically a goofball. It should come as no surprise then that he and Seinfeld have almost no comedic chemistry. The two guys seem to like each other, but they seem to like each other in a way that requires them to say as much because it isn’t obviously the case. They don’t riff. They don’t conversate smoothly. They’ve got different stuff going on.
The other thing that obviously separates these dudes is the “why” of their famousness. Seinfeld is famous because he’s a good writer and a great stand-up. Colbert is famous because he’s a world class performer. One gets the sense that Seinfeld is always working out material, throwing spaghetti at the wall, whereas Colbert is just eating the spaghetti. Nom nom nom nom nom.
In the Colbert episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, our two protagonists take a small, vintage British roadster to a pleasant cafe and then stroll into a pleasant bookstore. When Colbert remarks that the “one thing he didn’t deny himself” when he was poor in Chicago was books, Seinfeld ends the conversation. “That’s pretentious,” he says. He’s, of course, wrong (that’s, in fact, totally reasonable), but Colbert, who’s never struggled to come up with a withering aside, gives him the pass.
Hell, Colbert tells Seinfeld that he’s making him happy. Colbert is just a very sweet dude.
What’s most interesting about the show — stilted convo aside — is the two men’s conversation about masculinity and George C. Scott. Seinfeld seems vaguely depressed by the feminization of men, wondering where the macho actors of the previous era have gone. Colbert could give a damn. Despite seeming like he stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting, Colbert isn’t foolish enough to engage in nostalgia. He’s the deeper thinker, those thoughts just come from an emotionally rather than a purely intellectual place.
But it’s sort of beautiful to see how the two men are doing things that suit them. Seinfeld has his weird show that he kind of cares about and kind of doesn’t. Colbert talks America to sleep. Water seeks its own level. Coffee too.