The linguistic humour of Seinfeld

We use language to say things about the world. But we also use language to mark certain background assumptions that are common among the parties to the conversation. That is to say, in addition to saying with language, we also presuppose with it. I’m going to suggest that a central part of the humour of the TV series Seinfeld derives from its use of presuppositional language.

Here are some examples of presupposition. If I’m talking to someone about how I spent my day I can say to you:

I spent the afternoon reading Joyce

James Joyce is sufficiently famous that I can count on you knowing who he is, and thus understanding what I said. That is to say, I presuppose that you know that ‘Joyce’ stands for someone, and in particular for the writer of Ulysses.

By contrast, if I say:

I spent the afternoon reading Synge

I can’t rely on you — no offense — to know that by ‘Synge’ I meant the author of The Playboy of The Western World — he’s much less famous. Our conversation will grind to a halt, and you will, reasonably, ask ‘who’s Synge?’

The same thing applies to what are called definite descriptions, like ‘the king’. In the famous example, when I say

The king of France is bald

I presuppose that there’s one and only one king, and moreover, I typically assume you’ll know this. By contrast, you might be momentarily confused if, when you ask me why I didn’t sleep well last night, I answered

The rat that lives outside my window was squeaking

A natural thing for you to say, in this case, will be ‘A rat lives outside your window? I didn’t know that,’ and again our conversation will be waylaid.

(Pretty much literally every sentence I’ve written above needs qualification, but I won’t bother. You could consult this if you want a more accurate and nuanced treatment of presupposition.)

The key point is that in using names and definite descriptions we presuppose that our hearers know both that they stand for something and also know — in some sense — what they stand for.

One of the more notable features of Seinfeldian humour is its reliance of neologisms and uncommon definite descriptions. Here’s a sample of neologisms:

high-talker, close talker, low talker: Respectively, someone who talks with an abnormally high-pitched voice, or who stands right up in your face when talking to you, or who talks very quietly.
sidler: Someone who doesn’t make any noise when they move and so can just sneak up on you quickly.
regifter: Someone who gives as a gift something which they themselves received as a gift.
antidentite: Someone prejudiced against dentists.

And here’s a sample of uncommon definite descriptions:

the pop-in: When someone is in the area and comes to your house unannounced (see also: the break-out pop-in, when someone escapes from jail and comes to your house unannounced)
the day date: As it suggests, a date during the day time, involving less pressure, and not requiring wine and showering
the kiss hello: The unfortunate habit of kissing someone hello when you meet them.
the room-mate switch: when you’re dating someone and attempt to replace them with their roommate.

Here are some representative snippets of dialogue. Noreen’s boyfriend has a high-pitched voice; Elaine mistakes him for Noreen on the phone and asks whether he (thinking she’s talking to Noreen) is attracted to Jerry. We get:

Noreen: So anyway, it’s caused a lot of problems. Dan thinks I’m interested in
Jerry, he won’t let up.

Elaine: I’m really sorry, but you can see why I’d make a mistake like that.

Noreen: No, why?

Elaine: Well, you know, because he’s a high talker.

Noreen: He does raise his voice occasionally, but that’s normal.

Elaine: No. No, no, no, not a loud talker, a high talker.

(From The Pledge Drive)

Now, here’s a fact: “high talker” is not an expression which one can presuppose familiarity with. It’s not, as the saying goes, a thing (or at least it wasn’t before this episode of Seinfeld). But Elaine incorrectly presupposes that it is a thing, and that leads to the confusion as well as the humour above (which latter mere transcription perhaps doesn’t capture).

Next consider the following, where George is discussing the merits of dating someone who is in jail:

George: Jerry, I like being with her. Plus, I know where she is all the time. I have relatively no competition. And you know how you live in fear of the pop-in?

Jerry (shudders): The pop-in.

George: Yeah, no pop-in, no “in the neighborhood,” no “I saw your light was on.” And the best part is, if things go really well…

(From The Little Jerry)

Again, it’s a fact that “the pop-in” is not a phrase in common currency; it’s more like the rat outside my window than the King of France (well, when France had a monarchy, at least). It’s not the sort of thing that one can presuppose. But George does; not only that, Jerry immediately recognises it. The conversation doesn’t grind to a halt, as it would in most circumstances.

These sorts of scenes recur again and again: outsiders get confused by the gang’s presuppositional language, while they themselves are completely familiar with it.

The significance of this, I think, is the following. Seinfeld is widely known as the show about nothing — about the mundane things that make up life. And they are presented as sorts of savants about such things: they know in minute detail the rules that determine, for example, whether or not one has a girlfriend, as in the following dialogue, where George wants to know if the person he’s seeing is his girlfriend and Jerry says it depends:

Jerry: On many factors.
George: Like what?
Jerry: Well, how long you’ve been seeing her. What’s your phone call frequency? Are you on a daily?
George: No. Semi-daily. Four or five times a week.
Jerry: What about Saturday nights? Do you have to ask her out, or is a date implied?
George: Implied.
Jerry: She got anything in your medicine cabinet?
George: There might be some moisturizer.
Jerry: Ah hah. Let me ask you this. Is there any tampax in your house?
George: (Pause) Yeah.
Jerry: Well, I’ll tell you what you’ve got here.
George: What?
Jerry: You got yourself a girlfriend.
George: Ah, no, no. Are you sure? A girlfriend?
Jerry: I’m looking at a guy in a semi-daily with tampax in his house and an implied date on Saturday night. I would like to help you out, but..

(From The Virgin)

(Note the neologistic ‘semi-daily’ — as it’s (incorrectly I think) said Eskimos have many words for snow, so the gang need to resort to new words to mark the important romantic distinctions implied by phone call frequency, distinctions which we are more or less oblivious to.)

Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer are experts about modern life, noticing things we don’t notice and drawing distinctions we don’t draw. This is reflected in their use of presuppositional language: they have a background set of assumptions about the minutiae that they share and that no one else does, and this leads to a lot of the distinctive verbal humour Seinfeld is renowned for.

Alexander Pope, in the Essay On Man, writes “Why has not Man a microscopic eye?/For this plain reason, Man is not a Fly/Say what the use, were finer optics giv’n/ T’ inspect a mite, not comprehend the heav’n?”. Seinfeld is funny because they have fly-like eyes, eyes trained on the mites of life and ignorant of the heaven. Doing so, they’ve engineered a language to talk about it, and their familiarity with it, and our unfamiliarity, are two of the central sources of Seinfeldian humour.

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