Before the summer began, I told myself I would read and write more. In a sense i did okay, I’m several hundred pages into a thousand page tome on the Russian Revolution, and about halfway through a few other smaller books, but my choices have left me limited in terms of actually finishing things, so writing has been scarce on the ground. So what have I been doing instead? Well, like any lazy uni student on break, I spent a long time watching TV, so I’ve decided I should have a go at writing about it.
Specifically, I’ve been tearing through Seinfeld. Most consider it a classic of course, and it has recently became available on Stan. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching the show chronologically for the first time, and enjoy so much about it. As with everything, it got me thinking. The question that plagued me throughout is simple enough, and I thought it would be worthy of a write up: what is it about this show that makes it so watchable?
The answer is simple in a sense, but it also leads to more questions. Fundamentally, Seinfeld is really funny.
Seinfeld is a show so big it has developed a kind of lore of its own. Famous for its composition and not just for its achievements, Seinfeld’s success has been attributed to countless factors. Larry David’s ‘no hugs policy’, and in general the show’s commitment to the ‘purity’ of comedy, has led to a well voiced misunderstanding that Seinfeld is ‘the show about nothing’. I would argue that it is mostly not a show about nothing. Seinfeld is often a densely plotted spectacle where a narrative is not just existent but crucial to the structure of the show. With that said however, when it’s understood correctly, the ‘show about nothing’ mantra is a real and captivating aspect of Seinfeld’s style. My assertion on this is simple: the plot of each episode does exist, with few exceptions. There is a story. However, the resolution of that story is incidental to the purpose of the episode. The purpose of the episode is to execute a bit, and to get laughs, and everything has to flow towards that laugh.
The cast and writers have strong opinions on what is funny. Recently, on Jerry’s current project, Comedians in cars getting coffee, Tracy Morgan was caught out saying “its funny because it’s true”. Characteristically, Jerry facetiously ripped into him, saying “Oh don’t be ridiculous. Funny can be true, funny can be false, it makes no difference. If it were just about being true people would sit down to read the paper and howl. Funny has an energy to it, it can’t be defined like that.”
I agree on one level. Often, the writing in Seinfeld reflects this comment, after all, it is not social commentary, it is comedy. However, a look at his own work tells a more nuanced story. Sure, funny has an energy, but it’s the structure of funny that gives that energy life. Let’s take on an example. One of my favourite episodes of Seinfeld is Season 5, Episode 14. In the height of the show’s success, The Marine Biologist took to the screens for the first time, and to me it typifies the character of the Seinfeld project.
Written by Charlie Rubin and Ron Hauge, one of whom also boasts a brilliant golden age Simpsons episode in “Homer’s phobia”, the episode where Homer thinks Bart is gay, The Marine Biologist has a simple enough concept. George pretends to be a Marine Biologist to impress a woman. Along with every other Seinfeld episode, the rest can be loosely defined as “shenanigans ensue”.
As I have found to be typical of Seinfeld, the Marine Biologist is the extended execution of a single bit, rather than a plot based narrative. The point I will get at though, is that the style of Seinfeld relies on the fact that the execution of that ‘bit’ is layered heavily with other, smaller jokes. This is the crux of the Seinfeld style, and in this specific example, we see it in what we can call Chekhov’s golf ball. Any good bit is structured around a punchline, and often there is a lot of information the viewer needs to make that punchline funny. Chekhov’s golf ball, and this episode generally, show the way that Seinfeld is brilliantly efficient in the delivery of that information. The Chekhov’s gun comparison here is simple, but it reflects the point i’m trying to make. In Seinfeld, the writers shy away from jokes that only service one laugh, instead, their jokes often provide the context needed for a later punchline. In the same way that in a narrative, if a gun is on the wall it will be fired at some point, in a comedy, if something is thrown out a window, it will always hit someone on the street in the head.
Let’s take for simple examples my two favourite jokes in this episode. In the first, Elaine tells Yuri Testikov, a famous Russian writer that is considering her publishing company that the original title of War and Peace was War, what is it good for?, this causes an argument, and when Elaine’s electronic organizer won’t stop beeping, Testikov throws the organizer out the window, hitting a bystander in the head, who later becomes the subject of further shenanigans within the episode.
For even this preliminary joke to work to the best of its ability, we need the context. In the opening scene, we see Jerry jokingly explain to Elaine this ‘original’ title of War and Peace, but it is under the guise of a smaller, more innocuous joke about his favourite T Shirt, ‘golden boy’. Elaine mistakenly believes that Jerry was serious, and repeats his story to the famous author, creating a very funny scene, but most importantly one which was only so funny because the viewer was given enough information to truly enjoy it, the previous conversation with Jerry. What brings the show its flow is the way that information was wrapped up in smaller jokes.
We see the same phenomenon in the Chekhov’s golf ball example. At the start of the episode, Kramer has collected 600 golf balls from a driving range and is ecstatic to hit them into the sea. In the same exchange, giving Elaine the electronic organizer. In this way, Kramer makes an innocuous amusing appearance, but this, and nothing else in the show it seems, is wasted by servicing only one joke. While stealing a laugh from Kramer’s goofy physical comedy, the writers efficiently pack the moment with information that will provide context for later punchlines, in the form of both the golf balls and the organizer.
We are briefly reminded of the golf balls when Kramer comes back into Jerry’s apartment upset and covered in sand, complaining of how poorly he swung that day. Again, Kramer can pop into a scene, get a few laughs, and give us something we need for later.
This trend continues throughout the episode, with the woman hit by the organizer becoming an important character, and other well layered jokes making up the middle of the narrative. At the end, the episode is brought to a climax, when George, who has been pretending to be a marine biologist, is at the beach with his date, Diane. A whale is beached, and concerned passersby are milling around it. Diane exclaims her concern, and, heroically in terms of the coming joke, a stranger shouts “IS ANYBODY HERE A MARINE BIOLOGIST!?”
George, without a way out, wades into the sea to complete the setup to an unforgettable ending to the episode.
The way this joke is executed screams of a signature Seinfeld style. No dialogue is wasted, and throughout the episode the foundation has been laid so that the viewer has everything they need for this moment to be funny. As George walks into the water, my stomach was gripped by the characteristic tension of the buildup of well executed comedy. In the inside look DVD specials for Seinfeld, Jerry describes the laugh that came from the golf ball as the biggest laugh in the history of the show, and also mentions the detail that Jason Alexander had to quick study the monologue. It was written the night before filming, and he hadn’t executed it before, but his delivery was so good that no further takes were needed.
There is a lot to enjoy about Seinfeld, whether it be this structure, or as Jerry alluded to in his anecdote about Jason Alexander’s monologue, the actors sheer chemistry and execution of their characters. For me though, there has been a specific takeaway from a lazy summer watching the ‘show about nothing’. It’s that while plot and funny can coexist, and can operate together, fundamentally they are separate. If a plot is sufficiently funny, it’s a well told joke. If a joke is sufficiently narrative, it’s a funny plot.
In every way, this episode for me typifies that, and provides the perfect example of what I like about Seinfeld. From the first joke, War, what is it good for? to its climax, I could not find a moment wasted in the Marine Biologist. True to the ‘show about nothing’ project, the narrative here exists, but it is incidental. The earlier parts of the episode are used not only for their own value, but to provide a background for the episode to reach a climax in comedic value rather than plot. It ends with a punchline, rather than a resolution. Fundamentally, that is Seinfeld. It is not quite that there are no hugs, no character development, no conflict resolution, and no interpersonal drama, but when there is, it only exists for the sake of the bit. The Marine Biologist is a classic example of the way Seinfeld layers its bits together, and executes an all time great punchline in the process. That is what makes it so funny.
I had a wonderful summer watching this silly enjoyable show, and it has earned a place in my heart as a favourite series forever, and it’s because of this commitment to a clean and efficient style. As Jerry said, funny has an energy to it, and Seinfeld ripples with that energy. But hopefully, a closer look at the work of comics as good as him could challenge his idea that it can’t be defined or explained, because a better understanding of funny may lead to better comedy. In turn, better comedy may lead to a little more fun in the world, and we can always use some more of that.