A look at Seinfeld Elizabeth Magnotta and Alexandra Strohl University of Montana Using the Incongruity Theory of humor (Attardo, 2001; Morreall, 1983; Schwarz, 2010) and the Interactional Sociolinguisitic Methodology of discourse analysis, we examine the incongruous elements, such as moral short-comings, ignorance, and impersonation used in Seinfeld to set up a situation conducive to humor. We analyze the contextualization cues used to support these incongruities, such as genre change, footing alteration, exaggeration, prosody, intonation, marked lexical choices.
We present an examination of two scenes taken from the episodes, “The Marine Biologist” and “The Red Dot”. We identify the specific incongruities, and then formulate an in-depth analysis of the contextualization cues and how they are implemented, resulting in humor. Our research provides an original contribution to the field of linguistic studies of humor not only by using a new corpus of data, but by providing an analysis of the contextualization cues implemented to create humor, contributing to the linguistic field of research on humor. 1 Introduction
Humor can be created in various ways, and there are many theories explaining the mechanisms by which humor is created (Attardo, 2001). Our research addresses the specific issue of which contextualization cues (Gumperz, 1982) are used and how they are employed to create humor in the hit television show Seinfeld. 2 Background For the scope of this research, we have adopted Paolos’s (1980) definition of humor that states that humor has two essential ingredients: incongruity and an appropriate emotional climate; terminology defined in section 3. .
Paolos iterates that these two ingredients are at once necessary and sufficient in creating humor. Seinfeld has a unique standing in the realm of American pop culture. Hurd (2006) describes Seinfeld’s as the pivotal emergence of a phenomenon in the history American television sitcoms. The phenomenon being the remarkable success of Seinfeld and its extraordinary reign as one of America’s most popular sitcoms up to and including its ninth season. This is owed in part to its trans- 127 enerational appeal as well as its ability to cross social, economic, and cultural boundaries in its target audience. Linguistically, Seinfeldisms, the lingo, vocabulary, and phrases coined by the writers of the show, have taken on a life of their own within the American lexicon. This can be seen via direct incorporation with such forms and phrases as master of your domain and yada yada yada, and via re-analysis, where lexical items take on meanings derived from the original meaning and become productive in the language.
Some examples of re-analysis of Seinfeldisms are soup nazi and anti-dentite which could potentially produce examples such as grammar nazi: someone who is strict about grammar, and anti-grammarite: someone who doesn’t care for grammar. The amount of influence that Seinfeld has had on American culture is vast, making it a significant corpus for research. Previous work on related topics include Schwarz’s (2010) research on Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up comedy, and Karmen’s (1998) research of comedy in television sitcoms.
As far as we know, Seinfeld is a previously un-researched corpus. 3 Methodology Assuming the Incongruity Theory (Paolos, 1980; Morreall, 1987; Schwarz, 2010) and the Interactional Sociolinguistic discourse analysis (Gumperz, 1982) as theoretical frameworks, we analyze the discourse from two clips of Seinfeld focusing on the following linguistic components used to create humor: genre changes, footing alterations, metaphors, exaggeration, moral short-comings and ignorance.
The Incongruity Theory claims that humor is created out of a violation of an expectation. For humor to result from this unexpected result, the event must have an appropriate emotional climate, comprised of the setting, characters, prior discourse, relationships of the characters, and the topic. Crucially, according to Morreall (1987), the unexpected result must fit within the setting of the given situation.
Incongruities laid out under the Incongruity Theory include moral shortcomings, a violation of an understood social code; ignorance, a violation of understood knowledge; impersonation, pretending to be someone or something that you are not; physical deformities, a violation of how we view the way in which we ought to appear; and failed actions, a violation of the successful completion of an action. These incongruities along with an appropriate setting set up the climate in which humor is generated.
The Interactional Sociolinguistic Methodology for discourse analysis (Gumperz, 1982) focuses on the significance of social interactions in discourse; the way in which relationships are formed, power and hierarchies are negotiated, and how identities are built as components which influence the way in which speakers choose their words, structures, and prosodic elements. The way The Working Papers of the Linguistics Circle of the University of Victoria 21, 126–135 © 2011 Elizabeth Magnotta & Alexandra Strohl 128 peakers communicate is ultimately and significantly influenced by the social interaction itself and interlocutors have specific roles to play within these interactions. According to Gumperz (1982), contextualization cues are any linguistic feature that contributes to signaling understood knowledge and presupposition in a given context. Speakers then use contextualization cues to facilitate the meaning they want to convey, while listeners make inferences depending on their understanding of the situation, their relationship to the speaker and how each utterance relates to what precedes and follows it.
Given these components of social interaction, the contextualization cues implemented in any given social interaction are context specific and depend heavily on the situation, the interlocutors relationship and previous discourse. 4 “The Marine Biologist” The “The Marine Biologist” episode takes place at the beach and the coffee shop in which the characters of the show frequent. The characters in this scene are George, his girlfriend, Jerry, Kramer, Elaine, and the whale. In this episode, George meets a girl and tries to impress her by lying and claiming to be a marine biologist.
While at the beach, they come across a suffering, beached whale. Having established himself as a marine biologist in his girlfriend’s eyes, George must continue in this role finding himself obliged to save the poor animal in order to keep up appearances. Surprisingly, he sets out to save the beached whale and succeeds. Impersonation is the form of incongruity primarily used in “The Marine Biologist”. Impersonation is when something or someone seems to be something that they are not. The characters persona and the impersonated persona are viewed as opposites, not expected to go together, i. . incongruous. A marine biologist is adventurous, self-motivated, and educated, while George is unemployed, lives with his parents, is unambitious, and doesn’t know a fish from a mammal. Following Paolos’s (1980) definition of humor these essential ingredients, the incongruity of impersonation and the appropriate emotional climate laid out in the scene, create humor because they both fit into the given context of the story line. In the clip we analyze, George is recounting the story of the whale rescue to Jerry and Kramer, joined later by Elaine.
We examine several layers of incongruity and the linguistic components that are implemented to help create them, and subsequently help create the humor. 4. 1 Analysis We focus on the various contextualization cues implemented to render the intended humorous result. The primary linguistic tool utilized to support and The Working Papers of the Linguistics Circle of the University of Victoria 21, 126–135 © 2011 Elizabeth Magnotta & Alexandra Strohl 129 solidify George’s impersonation of a marine biologist is the genre change to a narrative style of discourse.
We identify and analyze the contextualization cues implemented to support this genre change. The clip starts out with 20 seconds without dialogue signaling the segue into George’s epic tale. Some of the contextualization cues under analysis here are prosody, pitch change and intonation. [20 seconds silence] So I started to walk into the water 1 Figure 1. In line 1, Figure 1, the long pause in dialogue is utilized to build up the anticipation and importance of what is about to be proclaimed; the silence before a story of epic grandeur.
When George starts his story, line 1, the timbre of his voice lowers, his voice exhibits very little change in pitch, and the contour of his speech becomes melodic. Working together these contextualization cues enable George’s genre change to a narrative style of speech. The next contextualization cue we analyze that supports George’s genre change to a narrative discourse style is the use of marked lexical choices (Gumperz, 1982). 8 17 38 Figure 2.
In the examples in Figure 2, George’s explicit use of words not commonly used in every day discourse in American society, like divine intervention, kinship of all living things and crashing down upon me, signal a change in discourse style allowing the listener to infer that, through the use of these lexical choices, the discourse style has been altered from that of the preceding dialogue. These contextualization cues further support George’s genre change to a narrative style of discourse, which in turn supports the incongruity of George’s impersonation of a marine biologist.