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Aristotle’s Poetics Meets Seinfeld

Aristotle’s Poetics Meets Seinfeld

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


October 1, 2021

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Aristotle’s Poetics begins with a separation of art forms, such as literature, music, dance, and theater. He calls these imitative forms and says, “the imitation is produced by rhythm, language, or ‘harmony,’ either singly or combined.” The idea of harmony intrigues me, especially with regards to written or dramatic work. In what way(s) might a play attain harmony? How can a poem be harmonious and with what? The idea of harmony implies a composition of more than one structure, which is tangible in music, but where do you see its presence in literature, drama or comedy?

Recently, I had the idea to pair Aristotle’s Poetics with skits from the sitcom Seinfeld. Next week’s blog will provide a synopsis of HMU’s Quarterly Discussion which will revolve around this topic. To begin, I am curious about how a comedic routine might afford a view of both imitation, in the Aristotelian sense, as well as harmony. Seinfeld obviously mimics real life, being set in a modern day city apartment. The scenes generally revolve around Jerry’s apartment and characters come in and out of that space. This main space might be considered a part of the harmonious elements of the show, allowing for a cyclical structure that characters move into and out of. Furthermore, the four main characters form the show’s foundation, but they also interact with others in the outside world. One example of the four foundational characters can be seen in the episode “The Nap” where the characters move around Jerry’s new kitchen. The space actually becomes intrusive, which disrupts the harmony of their experience, but enhances the flow of the comedic routine.

The comedy routine throughout each episode also lends to feelings of harmony. The jokes often cycle throughout the episode. One way to enhance the impact of a joke is to have it repeat on various levels throughout an episode and Seinfeld often takes advantage of that. Frequently the jokes repeat words or phrases as a way of underscoring the humor. Take this short skit about making a car reservation, in which Jerry repeats the word “reservation” nine times in the space of about one minute.

Agent: Can I help you? Name please?

Jerry: Seinfeld. I made a reservation for a mid-size, and she’s a small. I’m
kidding around, of course.

Agent: Okay, let’s see here.

Jerry: Sixty-six years old?

Elaine: Yeah, well, he’s in perfect health. He works out, he’s vibrant. You’d
really like him.

Jerry: Why do people always say that? I hate everyone, why would I like him?

Elaine: What do you think, would you go out with a sixty-six year old woman?

Jerry: Well, I’ll tell you, she would have to be really vibrant. So vibrant,
she’d be spinning.

Agent: I’m sorry, we have no mid-size available at the moment.

Jerry: I don’t understand, I made a reservation, do you have my reservation?

Agent: Yes, we do, unfortunately we ran out of cars.

Jerry: But the reservation keeps the car here. That’s why you have the

Agent: I know why we have reservations.

Jerry: I don’t think you do. If you did, I’d have a car. See, you know how to
take the reservation, you just don’t know how to *hold* the reservation and
that’s really the most important part of the reservation, the holding. Anybody
can just take them.

– “The Alternate Side” Episode of Seinfeld

Or perhaps, one of my favorite episodes begins with Kramer golfing at the ocean and ends with George’s story of whale rescue. He narrates the tale to his friends at the table of the diner (another common setting for the show). No one expects George to be successful as a marine biologist, least of all himself, and so it is extremely funny to hear the triumphant story, which just so happens to circle back to Kramer’s golfing.

George is often a bit of a schmuck. His character is funnier, then, when he is seen doing something noble or heroic. Aristotle claims that comedy makes people appear worse than they truly are. This is another element that I hope to discuss because it seems counterintuitive. I am very curious about why focusing on a person’s worst features makes so many of us laugh and why laughter lessens the tension. Yet, comedy also seems particularly vital at a time like today, when stress levels seem higher than usual. I know that comedy won’t solve all of our problems, but it might just open the door to a difficult conversation or ease some tension. How it does this is a mystery to me and is why I will pose these questions in our Quarterly Discussion: Why do humans enjoy comedy? What does satire achieve that drama cannot?

I look forward to these questions for the October Quarterly Discussion. If you are interested in future discussions, email as****@hm*.edu for more information.

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