Thursday, January 13, 2005

Why I Hate Jerry Seinfeld 

Look, I'm a smart guy. For example, I use words like furthermore in actual conversation.

Furthermore, not knowing stuff bothers me. I'm one of those people who takes apart radios to see how they work. Never said I could put 'em back together afterwards, mind you. I just need to know. I insist on a world that makes sense.

And the stuff I most want to understand is culture. Institutional dynamics, behavioral phenomena, screen-to-mind connections -- the more complicated the better. I'd take brains apart like radios if it wasn't so messy and permanent. That's why I'm a professional synthesist -- someone who knows a bunch about everything, and helps others make connections between those disparate things.

And that's why I hate Jerry Seinfeld.

See, Seinfeldian humor depends on not knowing how the world works. The reason it's funny to say "Ever wondered why..." is because the behavior under discussion looks stupid on the surface. But unless you're making light of fictional phenomena, like Wonder Woman's invisible jet, surface appearances are funny if and only if you don't have a deep sense of how and why things tend to work.

Fair enough: surfaces often look stupid. But making fun of the surface of things isn't funny when your world naturally has depth. It's just annoying.

So when I get one of those stupid one-liner humor emails, a little voice in my head dissects it, like this:
1. Ever wonder about those people who spend $2.00 apiece on those little bottles of Evian water? Try spelling Evian backwards: NAIVE
Ever wonder about those people who spend 3 bucks on a box of mashed, dried wheat paste that costs a nickel to make? How about spending hundreds of dollars a year on sugar syrup, color, and more water. Unless you're an organic vegan, go back to your Crispix and Coke.

2. Isn't making a smoking section in a restaurant like making a peeing section in a swimming pool?
Only if the pool has a separate water and filter system for the peeing section.

3. OK.... so if the Jacksonville Jaguars are known as the "Jags" and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are known as the "Bucs," what does that make the Tennessee Titans?
The Tights. Nicknames are based on sound, not spelling. Can't you hear?

4. If 4 out of 5 people SUFFER from diarrhea...does that mean that one enjoys it?
Well, he could be a Buddhist. Or he could just not have it.


6. If people from Poland are called Poles, why aren't people from Holland called Holes?
See above. They'd be called Hols, pronounced "hall." Unless you pronounce that first one "Paul-land."


9. Why do croutons come in airtight packages? Aren't they just stale bread to begin with?
Nope. They're toasted bread, and crunchiness wanes -- humid air makes 'em soggy.

10. Why is a person who plays the piano called a pianist but a person who drives a racecar is not called a racist?
Because, by your own damn rules, he should only be called a carist (a pro who plays cars). No one calls them "racecars."

11. Why isn't the number 11 pronounced onety one?
Really, because names for numbers and other culturally-invented phenomenon mostly evolve to make for the most clarity, and the least potential confusion. But I'll tell you what: if you can tell me why onety one isn't followed by twoty two and threety three, I'll let you have this one.

12. If lawyers are disbarred and clergymen defrocked, doesn't it follow that electricians can be delighted, musicians denoted,cowboys deranged, models deposed, tree surgeons debarked, and dry cleaners depressed?
Argggh! I...Ahg. Envision your own three-page rant here: _______.

13. If Fed Ex and UPS were to merge, would they call it Fed UP?
Federal United Parcel? I significantly doubt it. (To be fair, I giggled at this one.) What about if Digital and IBM merged -- would they call it Cyberpoo (Digital BM)?

14. Do Lipton Tea employees take coffee breaks?
I didn't realize Lipton was the anti-coffee. Do tobacco farmers ever quit smoking?

15. What hair color do they put on the driver's licenses of bald men?


17. I thought about how mothers feed their babies with tiny little spoons and forks, so I wondered what do Chinese mothers use? toothpicks?
Yeah, which is why most Chinese babies have perforated lips. What are you, an idiot? I've never seen a tiny fork; the tiny spoons help you scrape the extra food off the chin and control portions.

18. Why do they put pictures of criminals up in the Post Office? What are we supposed to do, write to them? Why don't they just put their pictures on the postage stamps so the mailmen can look for them while they deliver the mail?
The Post Office is the only municipal building that most people enter (other than the DMV) on an even semi-regular basis. Obviously, the point of the pictures isn't for you to memorize the faces and go on a manhunt, but to say "hey, I know that guy!" If only mailmen were looking, there'd be much fewer people assisting in the mail delivery would suffer.

19. If it's true that we are here to help others, then what exactly are the others here for?
To help others, too. Oh, I'm sorry, were you planning to help everybody in the world all by yourself? Good luck with that.


21. Ever wonder what the speed of lightning would be if it didn't zigzag?
It would be slower, actually...or we'd all be dead. Think about it: lighting takes the path of least resistance, which is only straight in a vacuum.

22. If a cow laughed, would milk come out of her nose?
Hmm. When you laugh, does bile come out of yours? No? Then no.

23. Whatever happened to Preparations A through G?
They're for people suffering from Acne to Gout. H stands for Hemorrhoids, guys.

posted by boyhowdy | 10:42 PM |

But isn't polysemy the basis of all humor? The whole Fiske deal: things are humorous because they represent a "fissure" a space in which the multitude of interpretations are plain to a reader.

When the Japanese put up a banner that said "We Pray for MacArthur's Erection," it wouldn't be in the least amusing (and many probably find it not to be) if that had been the only intended reading of the sign. Indeed, precisely because we can easily step into the shoes of various people who might interpret it in different ways, it is amusing.
An astute point, Alexander. But there are levels of depth and breadth to the polysemic. The examples I ridicule here primarily "work" because of a lack of knowledge in the reader. On the other hand, your own example -- which I find hilarious -- is a jab at the effects of / calls attention to the semiotic and linguistic distance inherent in translation. Hence my attempt at defining this kind of humor as dependent on solely-surface understanding in the reader -- a situational to which your own example does not apply, I posit.

Your example is funny, in other words, because of someone else's "error," while seinfeldian humor, I believe, generally depends on a projection of reader error -- and is thus ineffective (or at least split -- half funny because of how other readers might miss it, but nonetheless still "obvious" in its incorrectness to the reader who knows) when a user happens to be aware of the reality behind the surface.

Surely depth is relative to the user, of course. Surely, too, humor depends on all sorts of other factors. For me, then, the distinction exists. For you...perhaps not. But though it's been a while since I perused his work, I'd be surprised if Fiske would have us believe that such things are absolute.
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