The post’s title is the name of a trope, and while you may not know it by this handle, you have probably run into it. Perhaps from someone combining the terms “old hat” and “just” — or maybe using the more continental “cliché” (ooh la la) about something once revered as ground-breaking. The trope arises from not recognizing the originator of ideas now in common use. For example, Airplane! and Die Hard seem lost among all the similar films that followed.
But this post really isn’t about the trope or the Seinfeld TV show. The title just makes a neat kick-off point and offers some connective tissue. I really do mean I don’t find Jerry Seinfeld all that funny. Ironically, I think the man is a comic genius, and I have high regard for his comic acumen. Yet his stand-up routines leave me cool.
So this post is actually about stuff I don’t find funny (and why not).
There’s an interesting connection between how I take Jerry Seinfeld and his stand-up and how I took his TV show. I intensely disliked every character on that show — wouldn’t have let most of them into my house! But the writing was so ground-breaking and brilliant that I couldn’t not watch.
And it truly was brilliant and ground-breaking. Elements of that show persist in culture today. Just about everyone knows what you mean by “soup nazi” or “sponge-worthy.”
(I’ve heard some claim terms such as “grammar nazi” derive from Seinfeld, but I don’t think that’s true. The idea of “[insert name] nazi” goes back further and already existed for the writers on the show to use.)
While it may not be true for everyone, I watch shows with stories I like involving characters I like. The latter, perhaps, being the more important. If I don’t like — or worse, actively dislike — too much of the cast, I find it hard to be engaged. I watch shows with people I wouldn’t mind knowing.
But back to Jerry Seinfeld and his stand-up comedy. I’ve seen him speak about comedy, and he understands it on a deep theoretical level. And I don’t mean that in any sense of “only theoretical.” I mean that he understands comedy on all levels — a real pro in the art and craft.
I once watched a 30-minute show where he and Bob Costas sit down and analyze one of the funniest comedy bits ever: Abbott and Costello‘s classic Who’s On First? dialog. The show is a gem; Jerry knows comedy!
My problem is that his stand-up follows a pattern of comedy that’s difficult for me.
Someone once asked me if being a film student ruined watching movies. The question is a bit like asking a music student if knowing music ruins listening to it. Knowledge may raise the bar of what you consider good, but it can also give you things to watch and appreciate that others don’t notice.
If a movie sucks, I may be able to enjoy the set design, lighting, camera work or even good actors trying to make the best of bad writing or directing. So really the answer is both yes and no — it depends.
My problem is that knowledge can ruin certain kinds of humor for me.
Jerry Seinfeld centers a lot of his stuff on the “dumb things people do” comic theme. A key role of comedy is to illuminate our dark corners, to speak about things we find hard to voice, and to get us to reexamine ourselves. As such, the ‘dumb people tricks’ theme can be comedy at its best.
My problem is that Jerry Seinfeld, for all his comic genius, seems very out of touch with science and technology. A lot of the “dumb things” he points out actually have a very good basis in physical fact. Once you know this, the “dumb” part just isn’t there, and the joke falls flat.
At least for me.
Jerry is saying, “Isn’t it silly (and therefore funny) how we…”
But I’m thinking, “Well, no, not really (silly or funny), because…”
And then I turn into the guy who explains why the joke isn’t funny.
The humor works for most people because they lack the “how things work” background that deflates the humor. “Yeah!” they think, “That is silly (and therefore funny)!”
So this, for me, is one place where knowing stuff does kind of ruin things. There is humor I know in my head is funny, but which doesn’t strike my funny bone.
The whole thing taps ever so slightly on a “that’s not funny” nerve I have regarding ignorance. I blame a lot of the world’s woes, large and small, on ignorance.
Remember that Dickens did the same in A Christmas Carol with the avatar children of Ignorance and Want. Of the former he wrote, “but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom.”
So I have a thing with ignorance. Don’t find it funny.
Humor that depends on the characters being dumb or careless or incompetent or clumsy ranks pretty low on my scale (unless it’s really well done). Even as a child I was never a big fan of slapstick.
I’ve actually had to stop following some humor blogs I liked. The bloggers line of humor depended too much on ignorance or slapstick. I’m often pretty sure the blogger is a lot more on the ball than is made apparent in their humor.
I get it. I totally get it. It’s the art of good humor. It’s Jerry Seinfeld.
My problem is it’s hard to read a blog and not comment. A big part of reading a blog is the ability to interact with the author. It’s great to be able to discuss points of the post.
But jokes based on ignorance, I just can’t keep my mouth shut. I have a need to be sure everyone is clear about the misinformation in the joke. (Because these days I’m never so sure everyone is and I fight ignorance every chance I get.)
But explaining someone’s joke? Just stamp “Asshole” on my forehead.
So I’ve found discretion the better part of valor and stopped following blogs where I find myself in an uncomfortable posture. Isn’t just humor blogs, either. There are some well-meaning bloggers with pleasant blogs that somehow bring out the worst in me.
If I find myself too often in opposition with a blogger’s posts, then I figure it’s best to move on. It gets old being the grumpy guy at the picnic; I’m pretty sure I wasn’t missed!
 I started this article long ago, and it’s been sitting in my Drafts folder. I had planned to link to the Seinfeld Is Unfunny page on the TV Tropes website. Unfortunately, that site has become obnoxious with ads (just like IMDB, another formerly wonderful site). So no links. The trope isn’t relevant to the article anyway.
 I’m generally opposed to “that’s not funny” nerves — they violate my sense that almost nothing is off-limits to comedy — so it’s embarrassing to discover I have one.
November 21st, 2014 at 9:32 pm
I have watched Seinfeld both before and after living in NYC. While I agree with you on disliking jokes based on ignorance and/or bad decisions and judgement, there are jokes written into the show that are specifically addressing life in NYC. For example, the 212 and 917 vs 646 area code. Seinfeld voiced what we were all thinking regarding having a 646 number. For me, the show if funnier now because it is more relatable to my life experience.
November 21st, 2014 at 9:40 pm
Oh, make no mistake, the TV show is a classic — it’s filled with wonderful writing! I watched it faithfully. But my issues with Jerry the stand-up comic can be seen in a lot of his stand-up bits at the end of those shows.
(I have read on theory that those bits were intended to be a bit on the lame side in contrast to reality of the show. [shrug])
November 22nd, 2014 at 3:13 pm
“If I find myself too often in opposition with a blogger’s posts, then I figure it’s best to move on. It gets old being the grumpy guy at the picnic.”
And some bloggers really seem to object to one showing up and expressing a counter view. You can sense it a mile off in the veiled tetchiness of the responses. Opinions get taken so very personally.
November 23rd, 2014 at 6:29 pm
And it’s totally understandable. I’ve been trying for over forty years and can’t say I’ve gotten any mastery of not offending or holding off my own sense of being offended. People are very good at detecting when you’re not aligned with them no matter how pretty you try to make your words. I spend a lot of time on my comments sometimes trying to keep them as on-topic as possible.
I can totally understand someone feeling attacked when one is, in fact, countering their opinion or facts. The one that really gets me is how hostile people can get when you don’t share their tastes. For example, tell a fan you don’t care for [insert favorite actor, band or sports team name here] and they act like you insulted their mother.
November 23rd, 2014 at 6:39 pm
Minnesota Twins suck!
November 23rd, 2014 at 6:58 pm
Care to step outside and say that ya soccer-loving… oh,… wait a minute,… no, you’re right. They do. 😦
November 23rd, 2014 at 7:00 pm
November 22nd, 2014 at 5:46 pm
Seinfeld was the last show to make me laugh so hard my side hurt. I’ve never really seen his stand up routines (well, other than the glimpses we saw on the show). I did see him recently on Real Time with Bill Maher and found him pretty funny, but he was reacting off what others at the table were saying, not really doing a routine.
On opposition to blogging posts, I find that to be one of the best parts of blogging. All of my best conversations have been with people who disagreed with me. It often forces me to more fully explain my views, and occasionally confront problems with them. As long as the opponent lays out their reasons, I love it. (Opponents who are just cantankerous, insulting, or non-interactive are much less enjoyable.)
November 23rd, 2014 at 6:49 pm
You made me ponder the question of what shows might be in the same class as Seinfeld… This is off the top of my head, but I’d be inclined to include Scrubs, The Office, 30 Rock, Mad About You, Newhart, Mary Tyler Moore and M*A*S*H in the category of ground-breaking, seminal half-hour TV comedies. There are probably a few others that just aren’t springing to mind.
I don’t think I could pick a funniest TV series… but I do think the final minutes of Newhart are the funniest sitcom minutes on TV ever. Nothing has ever topped that series finale! (I will say that the series finale of Seinfeld was a perfect ending!)
On the topic of opposition, I love a hearty debate with someone who also enjoys debate. Not everyone does — it makes some people very uncomfortable. What I was talking about in the post has more to do with bloggers where I find myself almost never seeing eye-to-eye with them. When I find that most of my comments have the form, “Yeah, but…” that’s when I start asking myself why I follow that blog.
I totally agree about the value to oneself in debating. I’ve not only clarified my thinking, but actually changed it on occasion. There is also the sheer mental exercise of it — helps stave off senility!
November 30th, 2014 at 3:50 pm
I liked Seinfeld, but my parents didn’t. I think the show was an ‘acquired’ taste for me. I absolutely felt that those who reviewed it and called the characters “self-absorbed” are right. But then, so are many of the other comedy shows of this time, anyway. I liked the fun that they had sometimes just using ordinary situations gone ‘bad.’ I love the classic where they go shopping (I think) but forget which level their car is parked on… Well, I stopped by to say hope you enjoyed your turkey, or whatever you chose to eat. Frankly, I would eat steak, if my family would allow me to break traditions… smiles!
November 30th, 2014 at 5:22 pm
Yes, exactly! One of the things Seinfeld (the show) was known for is building brilliant comedy episodes on a background of totally mundane events. Another classic is the entire episode that takes place with them waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant. The network executives couldn’t believe the script — they were sure there were missing pages. 🙂
December 3rd, 2014 at 7:21 pm
Oh, I remember the Chinese restaurant, too! Thanks for making me smile tonight! I also felt the last one while they were in jail was good one…. I think I have that one right, too?
Did you like Minnie D’s date in the nature with her singing and her date pulling a homemade flute/lute out of his backpack? That one was precious. I like the way she is a good mother but a little zany, too. (“About a Boy” show).
It was a shame that the Soup Kitchen situation turned accidentally ugly. (But I cannot remember what Richards did, but he got the Soup Nazi mad, in real life.)
Take care and thanks for being there on my rockers post (and others, too!) you had a great list of rock stars who should have made it, along with the great Stevie Ray Vaughan.
December 4th, 2014 at 1:39 pm
Yes, the final episode of Seinfeld was classic! A group of disaffected snots jailed for failing to intervene in a mugging. Just desserts, indeed! Some fans really hated it, but others who really understood the true nature of those characters found it poetic justice and a perfect ending!
Yeah, Minnie Driver’s character on About a Boy is a bit flaky, but I have a soft spot for “hippie Earth Mother” types. I’m an aging hippie myself! (In fact, today’s post will touch on the topic of hippie Earth Mothers. 🙂 )
December 3rd, 2014 at 7:23 pm
Michael Richards has been touted as a racist, is what I meant to add… but this is only a rumor, not necessarily his own personal way of belief. He rants but that doesn’t mean he believes his own stuff… (Kramer character)
December 4th, 2014 at 1:41 pm
I’m afraid I don’t know anything about this. Kramer was one of the characters I liked least on that show, and the antics of actors is one topic I actively avoid.
December 17th, 2014 at 8:02 pm
There are so many points to discuss here! The first one I picked up on was the need to identify with a character. I’m of course interested in that as a writer. I’ve never felt that need to like a character—which is probably why I love Doc Martin and yet I wouldn’t like to meet any character in the show. (Other people who like it tell me they identify with Louisa. Meh. I don’t like her.) So what is it about needing to like a character? Why do I seem to be the only one who doesn’t need that?
Then another point is about slap stick comedy. I’m generally with you there. I just find it stupid, not at all funny. I pretty much avoid movies with Jim Carey in them. But there are exceptions and I can’t figure out why those exceptions are funny. For instance, Doc Martin (sorry to bring him up again) sometimes runs into things and the way he does it is hilarious. But why is it only funny when HE does it? Is it because he’s such a seriously arrogant stick in the mud?
Which brings me to the final point. I wonder how much of comedy has to do with the delivery rather than the substance. So much of the writing is not actually that funny, but the way it’s done makes all the difference for me. Louis C.K. does an amazing job of taking those not-really-true, not-even-half-true tidbits and making them seem as if they just occurred to him. This cracks me up. It’s like he’s spinning off into la-la land right on the spot.
December 17th, 2014 at 9:09 pm
Heh, I don’t know who Doc Martin is. I wondered if you meant the guy on Breaking Bad (with which I’m also completely unfamiliar — never seen it). I see it’s a British TV series. News to me! 🙂
I think, in needing to like (at least many of) the characters on TV series, I’m more in the minority. I cannot fathom what interests people about shows like Breaking Bad (and admittedly I’m going on descriptions there) or Scandal or even Game of Thrones (which I stopped watching because the only character I could stomach was Tyrion, and I don’t find the writing interesting at all).
Likewise “reality” shows. Totally beyond me. I live in a world that is all too filled with assholes — why, oh why, would I watch them for entertainment? If I have to put up with protagonists I wouldn’t break bread with, the writing has to be excellent. Preferably ground-breaking (like Seinfeld).
But most people I know do find entertainment — even enjoyment — from such characters. They say they’re “funny” or “real” or “edgy” or “interesting.” [shrug] Hey, different strokes!
Heh, I know what you mean about Jim Carey. He does best when he’s just an actor (and he can be a good one) and is being directed and written for by someone who doesn’t share his zaniness. I really liked Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, for example (but, hey: screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, and I loved Being John Malkovich — amazing movie).
Interesting thing about comedians. Some of them make really, really creepy villains. Robin Williams in Insomnia and One Hour Photo, Steve Martin in The Spanish Prisoner (outstanding film by the always interesting David Mamet), or Jim Carey in The Cable Guy. Is it the contrast with their image as comedians?
Slapstick is a low and trivial form of comedy, although that’s not to say there aren’t masters of it. Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin raised it to high art, and while I’m one of those rare males who doesn’t “get” The Three Stooges, apparently so did they. Part of the problem is, being a simple form of comedy, now it’s all been done, and there aren’t many Lloyds or Chaplins around (Chevy Chase, in his prime, came close).
Totally true about comic delivery. Timing and delivery can be everything. The complete lack of it made President Obama’s recent turn in Stephen Colbert’s chair excruciating to me. Nails on a blackboard. Make it stop! It’s been said that great actors reading a phone book can make you weep. Great comics can have you in stitches doing the same thing.
You may not be old enough to have seen this, but Ruth Buzzi (as her dowdy spinster) and Artie Johnson (as his dirty old man) once did a skit on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In in which the only dialog word was “Hmmm.” exchanged back and forth as the dirty old man sits next to the dowdy spinster on a park bench. Each time, the word was used in a different — fully evocative — way that communicated entire sentences. Brilliant comedy!
December 18th, 2014 at 12:23 am
I haven’t seen the “Hmm” skit, but it sounds interesting. I can’t imagine being able to do much with that.
I wonder if you’ll like Doc Martin. It’s not a comedy really, but it does have a few comedic moments. I hated it at first, but got sucked in to the scenery. It takes place in Cornwall in a fictional town called Port Wenn (which is actually Port Isaac). The views are so lovely I just had to watch it. It’s about a top notch surgeon who suddenly finds that he has a fear of blood, so he becomes a GP in a small fishing village and goes about amongst local yokels and slowly (very very slowly) sheds a teensy tiny bit of his asshole former self. It’s clear that he has Aspergers and is never going to change, but you keep hoping he will get over it to tell a local school teacher that he loves her. Pretty standard plot, but Martin Clunes is great.
You know, I haven’t seen “Eternal S of the S Mind” but I’ll put it on my queue. I remember wanting to see it when it came out, but I never did.
I’m one of those people who loves “Breaking Bad”…it wasn’t something I liked at first, but then I got sucked in. After watching many episodes, I went back to the first and was amazed by how the character had changed. I like the slow degeneration of the character, the crucial moments when his decision changes everything.
I can’t watch reality shows either. They are so boring. What do people like about them? Where’s the escape?
December 18th, 2014 at 12:27 pm
Re Doc Martin, it often is the background or general nature of a show that attracts us. (Even with “reality” shows, there are those who like the cooking ones or fashion ones because of that background.) I have a definite soft spot for cop and lawyer shows, for example. This sounds like another anti-hero kind of show; the hero has qualities you can’t like, but is the protagonist even so. I have trouble with that, and I have some concerns about what it means in the larger context.
It’s interesting to me that Superman (the ultimate goodie two-shoes) is viewed by many as boring. We have what seems a growing interest in highly flawed characters (Showtime seems to be specializing in morally questionable protagonists: Dexter, Weeds, Nurse Jackie, Homeland, and so on). I can’t help but wonder about our love of dark, edgy, very flawed characters. Does it involve lowered expectations of ourselves and others? That combined with the ubiquitous violence concerns me.
Breaking Bad is a good example. It seems universally critically acclaimed, so I assume the writing, acting and directing must all be top notch. But it’s about a meth dealer, and meth is a huge problem in society. I have a really hard time decoupling that.
No drama or story or show or series can be a problem in and of itself. There are no limits on drama or comedy (quite the opposite: we depend on them to explore tricky social areas). It’s the preponderance — the aggregate effect — that’s got me concerned. I long ago stopped believing media doesn’t reflect or affect us.
But then, I’m old and curmudgeonly (and misanthropic), so I’m entitled to occasionally yell, “Get off my lawn you damn kids!” XD
As for the “Hmmm” skit, I can’t do it justice, but here’s a crude effort:
She’s sitting on the bench; he approaches:
Him [indicating seat]: Hmmm?
Her [grudgingly]: Hmmm.
Him [edging in lasciviously]: Hmmm!
Her [leans away alarmed]: Hmmm!
Him [touching her leg]: Hmmm.
Her [shocked, hits him]: Hmmm!
Him [apologetically]: Hmmm.
Her [leave me alone]: Hmmm!
Him [thinking to self]: Hmmm.
Her [looks away ignoring him]: Hmmm.
Him [offering a flower]: Hmmm?
Her [not buying it]: Hmmm!
Him [puppy dog eyes]: Hmmm?
Her [thawing a little]: Hmmm.
Him [begging a bit]: Hmmm?
Her [okay, maybe]: Hmmm.
Him [touching her leg]: Hmmm.
Her [shocked, leaving]: Hmmm!
Him [disappointed]: Hmmm.
December 18th, 2014 at 2:42 pm
You know, I can’t speak for everyone, but I like those flawed characters because they present in full glory bad aspects of ourselves. In seeing these characters we become more aware of these flaws and what happens if we keep them. The outcome for these characters is generally not good. I certainly wouldn’t want to live the lives of characters in Breaking Bad, but it interests me to see how each decision is made. Why is this interesting? Well the first happens when Walt (the main character) decides to kill a drug dealer. The scene is pretty gruesome and his decision to ultimately do it comes after a great deal of deliberation and angst—it plays out so realistically it’s comical. At first Walt talks to this drug dealer who’s tied up in the basement and even goes so far as to feed him sandwiches with the crusts cut off, and gives him beer. They discuss whether or not the drug dealer will kill Walt if Walt lets him go (of course, the dealer says no, and Walt is convinced, because Walt believes at this point in the goodness of people). Then Walt notices a detail that makes it clear the dealer is not going leave him at peace, and Walt decides he must kill the guy. This of course changes him and each such decision makes him devolve into a horrible person. There are a lot of interesting universal questions raised about good vs. bad. The scenes really force these questions to be asked and bring about a good discussion I think.
That said, I think these flawed characters have to be put to good use, and by that I mean they must present us with ideas and questions to be asked rather than just show us a world that is meant to reflect reality. I’m not a fan of gratuitous violence. Reality isn’t all that bad, after all, and if it is, I think you’re right to point to the aggregate effect of violence in TV and in media in some cases. Certainly in the cases of school shootings, I think the media is in part to blame.
Hmmm: I can picture this scene quite well, actually. Maybe you didn’t do it justice‚ I don’t know, but you definitely got the idea across!
December 18th, 2014 at 3:53 pm
I get that; I totally do. The “tragic flaw” is ancient and necessary in storytelling. As you say, they need to be put to good use. Oedipus is sometimes cited as the canonical example; Hamlet is another. (I suppose because most folks have heard of them and have some idea of their stories.)
For me (keeping in mind I’m twice your age and have been around the block more times than I care to remember), the scene you describe is very familiar to me. I’ve seen it enough times to recognize it immediate when you describe it. It’s a captive-captor framework, a variation on two-person strong interaction dynamic.
“Enemy Mine,” is a way to spin it; in that one, enemies become friends (it’s the redemption theme version, a favorite theme of mine). The “Stockholm” version is a variant of that (typically a romantic theme).
In the BB version, the bond created is ultimately thwarted by the recognition of impossibility. Here the theme seems to be Walt’s continued or increasing downfall into depravity. We see he is willing to kill in cold blood to protect his criminal pursuits.
My point in all that is that after long enough it’s all about the telling and the details. And then it’s about how well you think it’s told and how much you like the details and trappings and overall framework and even characters. Any of those things, in any combination, can be attractive and compelling to someone.
Or as they say: It’s all a matter of taste! 🙂
December 18th, 2014 at 11:39 pm
Well, the cutting off the crusts on the sandwich was one of those killer details. Plus the way he puzzles together a broken plate to figure out the way the guy in the basement plans to kill him. The details are great. But besides that, this is one of those shows that focuses on character in a way I haven’t seen before. You may have, but I haven’t. It’s a slow degeneration…you almost don’t notice it.
December 19th, 2014 at 1:13 am
I hope I haven’t given the impression I think the show doesn’t deserve its critical and fan acclaim! I don’t doubt that at all. It’s in that class of shows that are not “guilty pleasures” — like Dexter or Weeds. No explanation required being a fan of a well-done show!
Now if it was Housewives of Beverly Hills, you got some ‘splainin’ to do, Lucy!
December 19th, 2014 at 9:56 am
Ha, I’ve never even heard of Housewives of Beverly Hills. I did, however, find myself sucked into a reality show about fashion designers. I suddenly had an opinion about which outfit looked the least stupid and I wanted to see if the judges thought the same way I did (why did I care? I still don’t know). To my defense, I was sitting in my mom’s room in memory care and had about five channels to choose from.
December 19th, 2014 at 12:30 pm
That’s very much like why my buddy watches
Survivor — with his ailing mom! Which is something that also needs no defense!