I’ve been a huge fan of Jerry Seinfeld’s delightful quasi-talk show: Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (or as Austin Kleon suggests we rename it: ‘Rich People in Expensive Cars Getting Coffee and Looking Nervous About Not Having Proper Seatbelts’).
At its best, the show serves us a warm cup of wisdom extracted from both the host and his guests’ long, and illustrious careers in the entertainment industry. At its laziest, it still manages to capture those relaxed, dynamically flowing moments you get when you spontaneously decide to spend a weekend morning with a friend.
And for a show that’s allegedly about ‘nothing’, it covers an awful lot. Stories about Frank Sinatra and the Copacabana club, debates about why comedy can’t and shouldn’t be taught, and meditations on how the creative process is like being in a car; the show’s conversations are wide-reaching.
But whenever I think about the show, there is one conversation that always jumps out as particularly hilarious, but subtly poignant. The conversation features in the episode with Larry David (the co-creator of Seinfeld and creator of Curb Your Enthusiasm) as he recalls that his particular dietary choices and inability to drink coffee just may have resulted in the breakup of his marriage:
(Larry) David: People are disturbed by it. My ex-wife hated it. I think that’s one of the reasons our marriage ended.
(Jerry) Seinfeld: She couldn’t take the way you eat?
David: You know, because I stopped drinking coffee. And she hated it. I said, “What do you care?” I had tea in the cup!
David: Well she said, “We can’t even share a coffee in the morning anymore.” I said, “But there’s something in my cup! [PAUSE] You can’t see into my cup! I’m still sipping, there’s still steam coming out of it. - What’s the difference?!”
Seinfeld: I know. I ordered soup the other day. Somebody said, “That’s all you’re gonna get?” [PAUSE] “What the hell do you care?”
Later in the episode, both knowing there is something unresolved, some insight not yet fully uncovered; the pair return to the challenging issue of what is in the mug.
And despite originally agreeing with the sentiment that what beverage sits in the cup matters not; Jerry decides to take a different stance as the conversation takes an interesting turn.
David: [HOLDS HIS CUP CLOSE TO HIS FACE] Hey, look. I’ve got it in a cup. You don’t know what it is… And so if this is tea rather than coffee, a person should find that so disturbing?
Seinfeld: [HE THINKS FOR A MOMENT] I’m sorry you’re not going to like what I’m about to say, [PAUSE] but I’m afraid your wife has a bit of a point.
David: Really? There’s a point? Look, [HOLDS HIS CUP, AGAIN, CLOSE TO HIS FACE] I can talk just as well holding this cup as if there were coffee in it. What’s the difference?
Seinfeld: [LEANS IN] You wanna know the difference?
David: Yeah, I do.
Seinfeld: We go to an ice cream shop, I get a cone… and you get a salad. That’s the difference. And you go “What? I’m eating, you’re eating…” [PAUSE] It’s the mood!
And that’s the thing. It really is all about the mood.
But even Larry David knows this, for he reflects upon exactly this issue in his own show: Curb Your Enthusiasm.
In the episode titled: The Shrimp Incident, Larry’s character (also, Larry) and his wife (Cheryl) get into an argument following a suggestion she makes for the two of them to stop off at a bar for a drink before arriving at the restaurant they’d plan to go that evening.
Larry, hilariously confused, sees only the inefficiency of going to two different locations when one could quite easily serve the need for both the drink and the meal.
(Larry) David: But it’s the same drink? What’s the difference where you have the drink?
But Larry has missed the point. What’s important for Cheryl here is not the drink or the meal in particular, but the mood that she wants to create with the mini-romantic-adventure the two of them could go on.
The same episode later shows the two of them getting along as they move toward the end of a meal, until the waiter asks if they’d be interested in seeing the dessert menu, to which Larry says yes, but Cheryl quickly counters by saying no - asking instead for the bill.
Confused by this, Larry looks to Cheryl, to which Cheryl explains that perhaps they could get a dessert elsewhere; thus adding another layer to the exciting evening the two of them are having.
But yet again Larry fails to see the adventure in this, instead opting to create conversational chaos by stipulating that he’d like to have a coffee before they leave and that the very place that they’re currently sat in does indeed… offer dessert.
Growing up, there was a Japanese saying that my mother often spoke of: “Kuuki wo yomu” (空気を読む), which translates to:
“To read the air”.
I believe that mood is in that air. Recognising it is difficult. It’s the subtle, less obvious things… The level of comfort we feel. The degree of presence we experience. The feeling that we belong.
It exists not in the contents of the conversation, but rather in the space between the people having that conversation.
Mood is that unknowable part of our favourite experiences; and the only thing that can be felt again upon reflecting on them.
As you pay more attention to it, you begin to see its importance: it’s quiet but gigantic power. Perhaps this is why that Japanese saying exists - to encourage us to see that which is invisible.
Seinfeld: Who could say what creates mood? Mood is a thing that’s just there. The only reason we know it’s there is that we feel it.
And with that, maybe getting a drink somewhere different before dinner isn’t such a bad idea, and maybe trying to enjoy the same drink with your partner might just be worth it… for the sake of the mood.