October 4, 2019
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
In a 2014 interview with David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld says that he was inspired to create Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee to play with a new format, something that could be viewed on a phone. This occurred to him at a time when recent changes to technology have really disbanded old-school structures in media. No longer must a sitcom, for example, be 22 minutes long with breaks for commercials. Rather, on-demand and streaming devices leave the show length up to writers, directors, and artists. Seinfeld says, “The show happening at the time that it did, and the internet and being able to watch things streaming, a few years ago, I never could have done it. The fact that I could make the shows any length I wanted – that gave me the freedom to do it.” While Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is not a sitcom, but rather an interview, Seinfeld completely upends stereotypes. Camera angles move, cars drive the scenes, and interviews are chopped from three hours down to fifteen minutes.
During this same interview, Seinfeld relates the story of the show’s development. He explains that most of the tech-gurus steered him away from longer formats. They claimed that five minutes was a social-media breaking point and that the majority of people would not watch programs longer than five minutes. Seinfeld disregarded this advice in order to include all of the elements that he wanted to address. The show has no consistent length, but generally runs twelve to eighteen minutes. These edited interviews move between cars and coffeeshops. Seinfeld believes that since the show has no plot or narrative, the action must be artificially introduced. He says, “I think part of what makes the show watchable is that it’s moving. There’s an energy. When you have no narrative drive, you’re not telling a story, no one’s waiting to see what happens – we know they’re gonna get coffee, that’s the only story – you need a kinetic energy. So it’s like, take a talk show and make it move and make it outside and then maybe you could sit through the eleven or twelve minutes that it takes.” This is done via the car as well as moving into different locations. The show usually begins with a focus feature of the car for the episode, picked to match the comedian. Then, Seinfeld includes a phone-call invitation to coffee. After Seinfeld picks up his guest, the conversation is taped and then edited. They may choose scenes from the car, while walking, and while ordering and eating.
One of the most important aspects of comedy, for me at least, is the way that it resonates with so many people at one time. While anyone can be funny within the confines of their family or friends, it is much more difficult to craft a joke that grabs the diversity of a crowd. When discussing his previous television hit show Seinfeld, he explains the amount of years and experience that it takes to get to the point where jokes can be universal. Of course, a joke can capitalize on contemporary rhetoric, but it mostly has to do with rhythm, pacing, grammar, brevity, and timing. In short, it has to do with language.
During his 2017 Netflix stand-up routine Jerry Before Seinfeld, Seinfeld stands on a city street among a series of notes written on yellow legal pads. These notes are actually jokes that he spent years writing and perfecting. He begins with an idea, sketches it on paper, and crosses out bits that may not (or did not) work. Later, in a Wall Street Journal article, he explains why a joke about cereal is funny with Nietzsche’s name included, but in the end, he cut out the part about Nietzsche because it wasn’t universal enough. “You’re always trying to trim everything down to absolute rock, solid rock,” says Seinfeld. “I will sit there for 15 minutes to make it one syllable shorter.” Seinfeld labors over the rhythm of the words, their sound, the delivery and their brevity. Furthermore, in the Letterman interview Seinfeld compares a stand-up routine to a machine built. While the act has been carefully crafted and structured, it often appeals more when it sounds off-the-cuff.
The elements of movement, of unknown length, comedic focus, attention to craft, and diverse personalities all remind me of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. (I am guessing that you didn’t see that coming.) In truth, Chaucer knew all of those pointers and learned them the way that Seinfeld did – by trial and error. Chaucer read poetry in a small, private salon for much of his life in London, but rarely read in public. We consider him one of the first English poets, but truthfully, he combined so many elements that I hate to pin him to a single genre. He lived at a time in England when language was a mix of Latin, English, and French. Chaucer collected tropes and rhetoric from all three of these cultures in a way that was unique and universally appealing. In The Canterbury Tales, he often repeats a joke throughout an entire narrative. For example, in “The Miller’s Tale” (one of the more humorous in the collection), Chaucer alludes to a variety of flowers when describing Alisoun. An awareness of this seemingly small detail sets up the ironic ending when, instead of smelling like flowers, Alisoun offers her backside and a nasty smelling toot to Absolon’s kiss. A key to Chaucer’s success with The Canterbury Tales is his effectual buildup of symbols which overemphasizes the ironic or humorous – the same is true of stand-up. In other words, Chaucer was playing with these ideas of stand-up comedy way back in the 1380s and 90s. As Seinfeld explained, it also took Chaucer most of his life to compile these jokes and organize them into the very appealing Canterbury Tales.
While I traditionally study language and literature, I have become increasingly interested in humor. Luckily for me, humor can now be formally studied through the Ideas for Inquiry at Harrison Middleton University. Scroll through the list of Ideas on our website for a sampling of what we offer!
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