October 8, 2021
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
During the 90s, Seinfeld garnered a huge viewership. In an attempt to bring the classics to the present, our recent Quarterly Discussion drew connections between Seinfeld and Aristotle’s Poetics. We also tried to discover keys to the sitcom’s great appeal. Considering the characters’ petty, stubborn behavior, what exactly did viewers identify with? The characters remained fairly static throughout all nine seasons. Aristotle would say, however, that comedies are not about change. In Poetics, Aristotle defines tragedy as the leading art form. In fact, he likely defines comedy mainly for the sake of comparison. Poetics seeks to separate one from the other, allowing Aristotle to then claim that tragedy is the higher art form. This is interesting considering Seinfeld’s huge success (and the success of comedy in general). Aristotle also explained that plot is largely unimportant for a comedy. Rather, comedies focus on characters who often appear worse than in real life which allows us to laugh at their situation. So the unchanging characters fit right into Aristotle’s ideas.
We focused our discussion on a skit from “The Pitch.” Applying Aristotle’s ideas to the contemporary sitcom allowed for an excellent conversation. First, Aristotle labels both comedy and tragedy as “imitative arts.” This term, “imitative,” derives from the Greek “mimesis,” which also participates with ideas of perfection. Rather than trying to perfect, however, imitation might refer to mimicking some particular, rather than a thing in its entirety. In other words, tragedy and comedy seek to find the universal behind various particulars. This is one of their few links.
Aristotle claims that comedy has no history, by which he means that comedies existed as interstitial pieces between longer tragedies. They began as “mere improvisation” which lacks any written text. So unlike tragedy, there is literally no written record of early comedic works. Also, Aristotle believes that comedies lack any significant plot or emotion which would equal the power of tragedies. He classifies this as “dramatizing the ludicrous.” In fact, he feels that fear and pity are powerful emotions, both instructive and useful. So, while tragedy attends to noble ideals, he finds comedy to be base, ludicrous and ugly. It lacks instructive abilities, and is viewed as indulgent and light. On the other hand, the fact that Aristotle includes a breakdown of comedy in the larger body of Poetics might be considered a first legitimizing step for the art form. Whether Aristotle intends to grant legitimacy to comedy, or if he simply wants to define tragedy in opposition to comedy, we do not know.
Jump forward more than 2,000 years to Seinfeld, a show admittedly about “nothing.” While Seinfeld may not have a plot in Aristotelian terms, each episode is carefully crafted. It is interesting to compare Aristotle’s idea of plot with the way that a successful comedic sketch must be written. These sketches revolve around a single idea or punchline, weaving specific language throughout a full episode. Punchlines poke fun at the human condition and tap into some universal human need or ideal. “The Pitch” begins with Jerry and George imitating the accents between seltzer and salsa. This absurdity inspires George to say: “See, this should be a show. This is the show.” Jerry replies with the question: “Well what’s the show about?” And George says: “It’s about nothing.” Jerry remains skeptical, asking about the storyline (there is no story) and characters (only Kramer is a real character in Jerry’s mind). Foregrounding the elements of a show allows the audience to also ask the same questions. Then, the punchline arrives during the final part of the skit when Jerry sees “nothing” turn into “something”.
JERRY: So, we go into NBC, we tell them we’ve got an idea for a show about nothing.
JERRY: They say, “What’s your show about?” I say, “Nothing.”
GEORGE: There you go.
(A moment passes)
JERRY: (Nodding) I think you may have something there.
The joke works on a linguistic level, turning nothing into something. But it also makes the viewer (who is fully participating in the nothingness) wonder what something is, or what nothing is.
Whether or not Aristotle would have approved of Seinfeld is not the question. We mostly agreed that the show was actually carefully crafted in Aristotelian terms. The plot may be of lesser importance, while characters take on more focus, yet it is not without plot. A major distinction between tragedy and comedy (in Aristotelian terms) is that characters in a tragedy experience great change (usually through suffering). However, Seinfeld’s characters do not change. Throughout all seasons, they maintain a pettiness and consistency of character. Their consistency in itself is funny, but also allows viewers to identify with some of our own petty natures. Identification with the absurd or petty opens up conversations of allowance and judgment. Many of us also have underlying characteristics that are inherent and unchanging. So, while tragedy affects some major change, comedy might grant discussions of petty annoyances which never change. Laughter might even propose a desire for minor changes once we have identified our ludicrous behavior through the lens of Seinfeld’s characters.
In Poetics, Aristotle never weighs the importance of laughter. In fact, only in the recent past has comedy come to be viewed as a legitimate art form, though it has always played a role in human history. This ability to laugh, then, requires more thought and attention. Though Aristotle claims that pity and fear are the strongest human emotions, our discussion group questioned whether comedy opens the door to other important emotions. Laughter may play more of a role in shaping human behavior than Aristotle noticed.
Thanks to everyone who spent a part of their day discussing Aristotle and Seinfeld. What a great way to spend a couple of hours! If you are interested in future discussions, email as****@hm*.edu for more information.
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