Tuesday 19 January 2021

Is This Anything?

In October 2020, comedian Jerry Seinfeld published a book titled 'Is This Anything?'. In this book he has collected most of the jokes he has written down and archived from a career that spans five decades.

This book is an intriguing document to me, as it is rare that a comedian's output is published in such a manner. The effectiveness of comedic material often depends heavily on the delivery by the performer and the context of its presentation. Audiovisual recordings of polished, rehearsed and tried performances are therefore the common and natural way to distribute a comedian's work. Put flatly on a page like this, a joke seems more like a memorandum than something to be widely circulated.
In that sense this book is analogous to an exhibition catalogue. In a catalogue there are also reproductions of the work, together with some short introduction and some factual information. This method of derivative distribution is not a way to enjoy the material in the way it's meant to be enjoyed, but rather a way by which the work can be analysed and ruminated upon after the fact.

Although Seinfeld himself has stated on numerous occasions that comedy is difficult to pin down, I noticed that many of his jokes constitute of a circumvention of common logic.
I have a working hypothesis that a joke, or perhaps anything that's considered funny, is the introduction of an idea within a logical construct that is compatible with that construct, but nevertheless has an unexpected outcome.
The jokes of Jerry Seinfeld certainly nearly always adhere to this principle and some of his jokes are in fact nothing more than a drawn-out logical statement. Take for example this early joke from the 1980's:
I have a leather jacket that got ruined because it got wet.
Suede jacket.
I was out in the rain.
Why does water ruin leather?
Aren't cows outside a lot of the time?
When it rains do they go up to the farm house,
"Hey, let us in, we're all wearing leather out here!"
"Is it suede?"
I am suede.
I've been living suede every day of my life!" 
The premise is of course that suede gets 'ruined' by rain, while another thing that is 'made of suede', the cow, is able to endure the rain without being 'ruined'. Whether you think that is funny or not, what is presented here is a simple incongruity of suede as a concept that applies to clothing, which is meant to look and feel a certain way, and the skin of a cow, which is what suede is made of, and how both those things can be 'ruined'. For clothing this would mean a diminishing of aesthetic appeal, while for the cow it would mean sickness or death.
This thread of pointing out apparent logical fallacies in everyday situations runs throughout Seinfeld's career and can thus likewise be found in jokes from his latest stand-up show:
The Donut Hole.
What a pathetic snack choice that is.
It doesn't even make any metaphysical sense.
You cannot sell people a hole.
A hole does not exist.
It is the absence of whatever is around it.
If it was really Donut Holes, the bag would be empty.
The only thing you could do,
is take what they are calling Donut Holes but are not.
They are Donut Plugs.
And you could shove the plugs into the holes,
but that would eliminate the plug, the hole and the donut.
Due to the sheer abundance of jokes in the world I can't claim that all comedy works this way, but certainly the jokes of some highly-rated comedians do. 
Mitch Hedberg is a comedian who never achieved mainstream recognition before he passed away in 2005. Nevertheless, his repertoire of self-contained logical statements continues to receive much praise from his colleagues.
'I'm against picketing but I do not how to show it', is one of Hedberg's more well-remembered jokes. It is a joke that is ultimately an example of contradictory self-reference, which is a domain of logic that has been considered by philosophers from Epimenides to Bertrand Russell and beyond. 
Hedberg also highlights other common logical constructs and fallacies, such as circular reasoning: 'I've got a belt on that holds up my pants and my pants have belt loops that hold up my belt. What the fuck is really going on down there? Who is the real hero?'
But it's not just analytical one-liners that seemingly adhere to the principle of unexpected logical outcomes. Steve Martin, whose physical 'absurdist' comedy made him one of the most famous comedians of the seventies, describes one of his opening jokes in his engagingly written autobiography: 'I would sing "I can see clearly now" and walk into the mike'.
Of course I can't analyse every joke in the world, but having a solid logical framework to refer to is likely a necessary, yet not sufficient, condition for the existence of a joke. Which gives indication that 'a joke' is different from 'that which invokes laughter'. An impersonation will likely invoke laughter in an audience, yet this is clearly less of a 'joke' than the deliberately bad and flat impressions that Andy Kaufman performs as his foreign man character, after which he surprises the audience with a remarkably energetic impression of Elvis Presley. 
Conversely it is also true that just because I didn't laugh at many of Jerry Seinfeld's jokes when I read them in his book, that doesn't mean that they aren't jokes. 
All of this has been studied in far greater depth by many others, but as these ideas easily cross the boundaries between the two fields, it's nevertheless good to place these observations within the context of an art blog.