Sunday, March 12, 2023

Seinfeld’s Comedy: Jokes are Intricately Crafted Machines

Another working paper. Title above, link(s), abstract, contents, and introduction below.
Research Gate:

Abstract: I examine six jokes from Seinfeld’s book, Is This Anything? and provide some general cultural background for the material covered in each joke. In one case I use GPT-3 and ChatGPT to provide commentary. In another case, the joke exhibits a symmetrical structure where the first and last sections mirror one another, the second and penultimate sections mirror one another and so around a central point. I conclude with passages about his craft and his methods from an interview Seinfeld had with Tim Ferriss.


Are Jokes Art? 3
Left and Left 5
The Arrogance of Life Cereal 10
Seinfeld’s Narcissistic Parakeet [Hi, Mom!] 15 Screaming on the Flat Part of the Roller Coaster Ride [Does GPT-3 get the Joke?] 20
Dad’s Thermostat [Do not touch!] 26
Your Smart Phone Thinks You’re Dumb. 31
Jerry’s Path to Metaphysical Grace 41    

Are Jokes Art?

Why not? If they’re not art, then what are they, entertainment? That’s the standard contrast in our – by which I mean, more or less, Western in the 20th and 21st centuries –expressive culture. Shakespeare is art, Neil Simon is entertainment. Beethoven is art, Charlie Parker is entertainment. Van Gogh is art, Norman Rockwell is entertainment. And jokes, jokes can’t be anything but entertainment. And so it goes.

That conversation bores me. There’s something there to talk about, there are distinctions to be made. But that’s not the way to do it.

Meanwhile Jerry Seinfeld has given us this book, Is This Anything? (Simon & Schuster, 2020), in which he lists every joke he’s ever performed – up to the point he finished writing the book. Read it, treasure it, enjoy it. I’ve selected a few jokes from it for some commentary.

Why would you do that, you ask, doesn’t that spoil the fun? Why should it? Jokes are jokes and analysis is analysis. They’re two different things. All of us like jokes, and some of us like analysis, even analysis of jokes.

I can assure you, Seinfeld analyzes jokes. His jokes. Anyone’s jokes. He’s an artist. That’s how he perfects his craft. He talks about jokes as intricate, finally crafted machines. That they are. Analysis is a way of taking them apart and admiring the craftsmanship. That’s what I do. Now it’s your turn.

* * * * *

Left and Left – The first joke in the book and, presumably, the first one he ever worked on professionally. It plays on an abiguity in “left,” as an orientation that is opposed to “right”, vs. “allow to remain, leave in place”. Jerry’s a left-hander.

The Arrogance of Life Cereal – “Where in the world do you get your balls to call a breakfast cereal LIFE?” And he’s off. But they’re captians of industry who dream up such names, right?

Seinfeld’s Narcissistic Parakeet [Hi, Mom!] – And now we have a parakeet that’s fooled by a mirror. Not good.

Screaming on the Flat Part of the Roller Coaster Ride [Does GPT-3 get the Joke?] – This is the first joke Seinfeld ever performed on TV. I offer flawed commentary from AI engine GPT-3 in May 2021 and more satisfactry commentary from it’s descendant, ChatGPT, in December 2022.

Dad’s Thermostat [Do not touch!] – Why does Seinfeld make a big fuss about such a little matter as the thermostat, why does Seinfeld mention a specific age, and so forth? There’s a pattern there and that pattern requires an explanation. Hello, Uncle Freud!

Your Smart Phone Thinks You’re Dumb – Yes, it’s about technology, and about technology that maybe, possibly, thinks. But I love it for its form. It’s a ring-composition. The last half of the joke mirrors the first half, like this: A, B, C ... Ω ... C’, B’, A’.

Jerry’s Path to Metaphysical Grace – Not a joke at all, but some excerpts from an interview Seinfeld gave to Tim Ferriss. This is about how Seinfeld does what he does, his routines and methods, and what it all means: “There’s no greater reward than that state of mind you're in when that set is working. If you can extricate yourself from your Self, which is the goal in all sports and performance arts, if you get out of your mind, and are able to just function ... there is no greater reward.”

No comments:

Post a Comment