In a conversation with Howard Stern (at c. 20:46) Seinfled characterized his type of comedy as “heady, wordy, phrasey, thinky” as opposed to “crazy guy” comedy (such as Jeff Altman). Let’s take a look at one of these heady, wordy, phrase, thinky bits. It’s about donut holes.
You can see fragments while it’s developing in one of the Single Shots from Comedians in Cars yada yada. The whole thing is in this clip from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert starting at about 0:41:
It runs to about 3:14, making it roughly two-and-a-half minutes long. But you don’t hear anything about donuts until a minute into the bit.
The Basic Bit
I’ve transcribed the whole thing below, but you should watch it first. A transcription can’t capture rhythm and pace, nor vocal pitch and quality – e.g. when Seinfeld gets intense, his voice rises in pitch, thins out a bit, and gets scratchy. Nor can a transcription capture audience response. There’s intermittent laughter throughout, but we only get applause about halfway through (which I’ve indicated), and at the very end.
I heard backstage, that one of the changes made to the theater, bigger seats – Why? A lot of people think we have a weight problem in this country. I don’t agree with that. I don’t believe we have a weight problem until we’re all physically touching each other, all the time. When it is solid human flesh. From coast to coast. A jar of olives just … [squeezes his head between his hands] … Someone’s gotta’ lose some weight; I can’t move.A lot of reports, investigative reports on TV, weight problem in America. Always start the same: sidewalk shot, regular people, right? Carefully angled, cutting them off at the head; we don’t want to see who it is. Aren’t some of those people at home later go, “Hey, that’s my ass on CCN! That’s not fair. Just got up to get some donut holes.”The donut hole. The donut hole. Let’s stop right there. What a horrible little snack. If you want a donut, have a donut. Why are you eating the hole?It’s such a freaky metaphysical concept to begin with. You can’t sell people holes. They… A hole, a hole does not exist. Words have meaning.[Applause]A hole is the absence of whatever is surrounding it. OK? If they were really donut holes, the bag would be empty. OK? And the donuts that you got the holes from wouldn’t have holes, because you took ‘em. Now if you want, you could take what they’re calling donut holes, but they are not. They are donut plugs.You could take the plug, and shove it in the hole which, I don’t even feel comfortable saying, for some reason. But that would eliminate the donut, the hole, and the plug, but, you still have a fat ass and people shoot’n you with a camera as you’re walking down the street. So it doesn’t work.[Applause]
From my point of view the single most interesting thing about this is that it starts out talking a weight problem in the country. And that’s how Seinfeld puts it, a weight problem; he doesn’t talk about fat people. Then he segues to donut holes about a minute in. The link, presumably, is that when you eat too many snacks you put on weight.
That’s obvious. Nothing deep there. I just want to point out what Seinfeld’s doing.
Once he’s taken the bit into the donut hole he works it in various ways. Before long we’ve forgotten completely about the national weight problem. Then, at the very end he comes back to it.
Surprise! Didn’t know the weight thing was still ticking, did you?
Well, not quite. It’s not the national weight problem. Seinfeld HAS left that behind. It’s one person with a fat ass getting shot with a camera.
Let’s Take Another Look
Again, nothing deep. I just want to note some obvious things. And I'm not trying to "explain" the joke because I think you or someone next to you doesn't get it. I'm just interested in how these things work. I like to notice things.
Notice first of all how Seinfeld anchors the bit in the current context–bigger seats in the theater. I’m guessing he doesn’t use that line everywhere, but here it works. Everyone knows that the Ed Sullivan Theater has been refurbished for Steven Colbert.
That motivates Seinfeld’s segue into the national weight problem. He doesn’t have to bring it in out of nowhere. He quickly works his way to the image of a jar of olives – maybe your mind’s eye flashes on a globe covered in olives. There’s the gesture with the hands squeezing his face. “I can’t move.”
Now the bit’s become personal, focused. Think of the territory we’ve just covered, from the globe to one person. Then Seinfeld switches perspective. We’re now watching TV news. And someone – could be anyone, you, me, someone’s Aunt Marge – notices their fat ass on TV.
And that takes us to donut holes. The logic is obvious enough, though mostly unspoken. If you eat a lot of snacks – perhaps while watching TV? – you’ll put on weight. And can put on just as much weight eating donut holes as eating donuts. Don’t let the bite size fool you.
As I said, Seinfeld doesn’t say that. But we all know it. It’s implicit in what he does say. It’s there lying in wait to be sprung on us in a bit of verbal sleight of hand. We all know that when someone talks of donut holes as a snack, they mean the chunk of dough removed from the donut to make the hole.
Seinfeld goes definitionally literal on hole. There’s nothing there. When he says this is a “freaky metaphysical concept” he’s being funny. But also true. Funny because it’s true.
Take the concept of zero in mathematics. Here it is, “0”, a something that represents nothing. That’s so freaky that a lot of cultures didn’t get there and it took us centuries to get there, with a lot of help from Arabs and Asians. Without it, no modern world.
“Words have meaning”, Seinfeld reminds us. He’s one of those “heady, wordy, phrasey, thinky” comedians. And we must be heady, wordy, phrasey, thinky as well if we’re laughing. Which we are. And applauding too, for the first time.
Look at how far we’ve gone in a minuet and a half, from a world covered in wall-to-wall people to linguistic metaphysics.
Now Seinfeld moves from exasperated frustration to patient explanation. He tells us what holes are, and so forth. This brings us to the really tricky part where everything piles up and explodes. Let’s take it step by step.
You could take the plug, and shove it in the hole …
“Shove” is such a violent word to use, don’t you think? But of course an image begins to form in the back of the mind. All of a sudden a good clean bit about donut holes has taken on obvious sexual undertones.
… which, I don’t even feel comfortable saying, for some reason.
Of course he knows the reason. But he’s got to say something to keep it going and to save appearances. And to let us know that he knows that we know, wink wink.
But that would eliminate the donut, the hole, and the plug, …
Now that the bit is long gone and we’re deep into explaining it, which of course you should never do in the first place, think about that sentence. It’s true, but in a sneaky sort of way. Comedy.
… but, you still have a fat ass and people shoot’n you with a camera as you’re walking down the street.
Eating donut holes is still snacking and snacking still makes you fat.
So it doesn’t work.