How Seinfeld, the Sitcom Famously “About Nothing,” Is Like Gustave Flaubert’s Novels About Nothing

"A show about nothing": people have described Seinfeld that way for decades, but creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David didn't set out to create anything of the kind. In fact, with Seinfeld himself already established as a stand-up comedian, they originally pitched to NBC a show about how a comic finds material in his day-to-day life. But in its 43rd episode, when the series had become a major cultural phenomenon, Seinfeld's character and Jason Alexander's George Costanza (whom David based on himself) pitch a show to television executives where "nothing happens," and fans seized upon the truth about Seinfeld they saw reflected in that joke.

In the video essay above, Evan Puschak, known as the Nerdwriter, figures out why. It's a cultural and intellectual journey that takes him back to the 19th-century novels of Gustave Flaubert. "Flaubert was a pioneer of literary realism, in large part responsible for raising the status of the novel to that of a high art," says Puschak.




In 1852, Flaubert wrote a letter describing his ambition to write "a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the internal strength of its style." Instead of wanting to "string you along with multiple suspense-heightening narrative developments," in Puschak's view, "he wants to bring you into the text itself, to look there for the carefully constructed meanings that he's built for you."

And so, in their own way, do Seinfeld and David in the sitcom that became and remains so beloved in large part with its numerous departures from the traditions the form had established over the past forty years. "It wasn't until Seinfeld that the conventions of the sitcom were deconstructed fully, when all forms of unity, familial and especially romantic, were wholeheartedly abandoned. For Seinfeld, these additional elements were just so much fluff," distractions from telling a story "held together by the internal strength of its comedy." The critic James Wood, quoted in this video, once wrote that "novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it really all begins with him." By the same token, two epochs exist for the writers of sitcoms: before Seinfeld and after. Not bad for a show about nothing — or not about nothing.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

What to Say When You Don’t Understand Contemporary Art? A New Short Film, “Masterpiece,” Has Helpful Suggestions

MasterpieceRunyararo Mapfumo’s short film above, will feel very familiar to anyone who has struggled for words to share with a friend after his or her underwhelming Off-Off-Broadway solo show, open mic performance, or art installation…

Equally familiar, from the reverse angle, to any artist who’s ever invited a trusted friend to view his or her passion project, hoping for approval or at the very least, interest… something more robust than the paltry crumbs the friend manages to eek out under pressure.




A British Film Institute London Film Festival selected short, Masterpiece focuses on a tight group of male friends… one of whom has reached beyond the communal comfort zone in the service of his art. His earnestness confounds his old pals, who clown around outside the gallery where they've gathered for an after hours preview of his work, one staunchly asserting that he only showed up because his mum made him, and also, he was told there’d be free food.

Once inside the friends are left alone to puzzle out his masterpiece. What to say? Maybe they should draw parallels to the current socio-political situation? Perhaps they could tell their friend his work  is reminiscent of German Expressionism?

Yoko Ono or Marcel Duchamp would have made a more apt comparison, as writer-director Mapfumo is surely aware. Masterpiece is notable for more than just its pitch-perfect take on artist vs. befuddled but still supportive friends. As Mapfumo told Directors Notes:

I’ve been told time and time again to “write what you want to see.” I started thinking about what that meant to me in a everyday context. These characters are black men that I recognize…I didn’t want the conflict to revolve around their identity but rather through their observations. 

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Her most recent artistic endeavor is Theater of the Apes Sub-Adult Division's production of Animal Farm, opening next week in New York City. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Cult Director John Waters Hosts a Summer Camp for Naughty Adult Campers: Enrollment for the 2018 Edition Opens Today

I hated sports at camp, so at this camp I think we should reward every team that loses. This would be the camp where the fat people get picked first in dodge ball. 

- Filmmaker-cum-Camp Director John Waters

I can think of many children who would scramble toward the refuge of the compassionate statement above, but Camp John Waters is a decidedly adult activity.

The Pope of Trash shares actor Bill Murray’s relish for oddball settings in which he can meet the public as something close to a peer. But whereas Murray specializes in surprise drop-in appearances—reciting poetry to construction workers, crashing parties—Waters favors more immersive experiences, such as hitchhiking coast to coast.

His latest stunt brought him and 300 fellow travelers to a rustic Connecticut facility (from Sept 22-24) that normally hosts corporate team building events, family camps, and weekend getaways for playful 20-to-30-somethings keen to make new friends while zip lining, playing pingpong, and partying in the main lodge.

ARTnews pegged the inaugural session thusly:

 The Waters camp combines two of the more absurd developments in contemporary leisure: the celebrity-based getaway (see also: the Gronk Cruise) and a certain recreational aesthetic that seems to advocate for a sort of developmental purgatory.

Here,  there were no reluctant, homesick campers, weeping into their Sloppy Joes. This was a self-selecting bunch, eager to break out their wigs and leopard print, weave enemy bracelets at the arts and crafts station, and bypass anything smacking of official outdoor recreation, save the lake, where inflatable pink flamingos were available for aquatic lollygagging.

“Who really wants to go wall climbing?” the founder himself snorted in his welcoming speech, adding that he would if Joe Dallesandro, the Warhol superstar who according to Waters "forever changed male sexuality in cinema," waited up top.

Naughty references to water sports aside, certain aspects of the camp were downright wholesome. Pine trees and s’mores. Canoes and cabins. Presumably there was a camp nurse. (In Waters' ideal world, this position would be filled by Cry Baby's Traci Lords.)

Waters’ recollections of his own stint at Maryland’s Camp Happy Hollow seem primarily fond. It makes sense. Anyone who truly loathed summer camp would be unlikely to recreate the experience for themselves and their fellow adults.

Camp Waters harkens back to the 1950s transgressions its director merrily fesses up to having participated in: unfiltered cigarettes and short sheeted beds, circle jerks and panty raids. From here on out the subversion will be taking place in the sunlight.

Another special camp memory for Waters is regaling his cabin mates with an original, serialized horror story. He retells it on Celebrity Ghost Stories, above:

At the end there was this hideous gory thing and then all the kids had nightmares and their parents called the camp and complained — and I’m still doing that! It was the beginning of my career…. It was a wonderful lesson for me as a 10-year-old kid that I think helped me become whatever I am today. It gave me the confidence to go ahead, to believe in things, to believe in behavior I couldn’t understand, to be drawn to subject matter I couldn’t understand.

Registration for Camp John Waters 2018 opens today at noon, so grab the bug spray and get ready to sing along:

There is a camp in a place called Kent

It’s name is Camp John Waters

For here we come to spend the night

For we all love to fuck and fight

Camp John Waters - rah rah rah!

Camp John Waters - sisboombah!

Camp John Waters - rah rah rah!

Three cheers for Camp John Waters!

Could Waters’ own contribution to such camp classics as Meatballs, Little Darlings and Wet Hot American Summer be far behind?

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She attended Gnawbone Camp in Gnawbone, Indiana, recapturing that happy experience three decades later as the Mail Lady of Beam Camp.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A Reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” in 100 Celebrity Voices

For every august personage who’s taken a crack Edgar Allan Poe’s evergreen poem, "The Raven," there are thousands more who haven’t.

Humorist Jordan Monsell is doing what he can to close that gap, providing a sampling of 100 mostly male, mostly white, mostly human celebrity voices. It’s a solo recitation, but vocally a collaborative one, with a fair number of animated characters making their way into the credits, too.

He certainly knows how to cast outside the box. Traditional Poe interpreters such as Vincent Price and John Astin bring some well established creep cred to the enterprise. Monsell picks Christopher Walken and Christopher Lee already have existing takes on this classic, and Anthony Hopkins and Willem Dafoe are welcome additions.




But what to make of Jerry Seinfeld, Pee-Wee Herman, Johnny Cash… and even poetry lover Bill Murray? Manic and much missed Robin Williams may offer a clue. What good is having an arsenal of impressions if you’re not willing to roll them out in rapid succession?

While some of Monsell's impersonations (cough, David Bowie) fall a bit short of the mark, others will have you regretting that no one had the forethought to record Don Knotts or JFK reciting the poem in its entirety.

The titles offer a bit of a misnomer. In many instances, it’s not really the performers but their best known characters being aped. While there may not be too great a vocal divide between playwright Wallace Shawn and Vizzini in The Princess Bride, The Dude is not Jeff Bridges, any more than Captain Jack Sparrow is Johnny Depp.

The project seems likely to play best with nerdy adolescent boys… which could be good news for teachers looking to get reluctant readers onboard. Show it on the classroom Smart Board, and be prepared to have mini-teach-ins on Katharine Hepburn, Walter Matthau, the late great Robert Shaw, and other big names whose day has passed. Shrek, Gollum, and Harry Potter’s house elf, Dobby, are on hand to keep the references from feeling too moldy.

The specter of Poe gets the coveted final word, a balm to the ears after the triple assault of Christian Bale’s Batman, Mad Max’s Tom Hardy, and Heath Ledger’s Joker. (It may be a matter of taste. You’ll hear no complaint from these quarters with regard to Mickey Mouse, Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion, or The Simpson’s Krusty the Klown, wonderfully unctuous.)

The breakneck audio patchwork approach doesn’t do much for reading comprehension, but could lead to a lively middle school discussion on what constitutes a successful performance. Who served the text best? Readers?

Furthermore, who’s missing? What voice would you add to the Monsell’s roll call, below?

Morgan Freeman

Kermit the Frog

Johnny Cash

Ringo Starr

David Bowie

Rick Moranis

Gary Oldman

Peter Lorre

Adam Sandler

Don Knotts

William Shatner

George Takei

Michael Dorn

Daffy Duck

Ricky Gervais

Foghorn Leghorn

Liam Neeson

Nicholas Cage

John Travolta

Anthony Hopkins

Rod Serling

Cookie Monster

Jay Baruchel

Jeff Bridges

Johnny Depp

Archer

Dr. Phil

Gollum

Mandy Patinkin

Wallace Shawn

Billy Crystal

Owen Wilson

Dustin Hoffman

Krusty the Klown

Apu

Christian Bale

Michael Caine

Tom Hardy

Heath Ledger

Mickey Mouse

John Wayne

Jerry Seinfeld

Phil Hartman

Goofy

Al Pacino

Marlon Brando

Jack Lemmon

Walter Matthau

Christopher Walken

Rowlf the Dog

John Cleese

Robin Williams

Katharine Hepburn

Woody Allen

Matthew McConaughey

Cowardly Lion

Jimmy Stewart

John C. Reilly

James Mason

Sylvester Stallone

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Stewie

Daniel Day Lewis

Maggie Smith

Alan Rickman

Dobby

Jack Nicholson

Christoph Waltz

Bill Murray

Dan Aykroyd

Sean Connery

Bill Cosby

Christopher Lloyd

Droopy Dog

Kevin Spacey

Harrison Ford

Ronald Reagan

JFK

Bill Clinton

Keanu Reeves

Ian McKellen

Paul Giamatti

Sebastian

Stan Lee

Jeff Goldblum

Hugh Grant

Kenneth Branagh

Larry the Cable Guy

Pee-Wee Herman

Shrek

Donkey

Charlton Heston

Michael Keaton

Homer Simpson

Yoda

Willem Dafoe

Bruce Willis

Robert Shaw

Christopher Lee

Edgar Allan Poe

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch Author Chuck Palahniuk Read Fight Club 4 Kids

The first rule of Horsing Around Club is: You do not talk about Horsing Around Club.  ― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club for Kids

Retooling a popular show, film, or comic to feature younger versions of the characters, their personalities and relationships virtually unchanged, can be a serious, if cynical source of income for the original creators.

The Muppets, Archie, Sherlock Holmes, and James Bond have all given birth to spin-off babies.

So why not author Chuck Palahniuk?

Perhaps because spin-off babies are designed to gently ensnare a new and younger audience, and Palahniuk, whose 2002 novel Lullaby hinged on a nursery rhyme that kills children in their cribs, is unlikely to file down the dark, twisted edges that have won him a cult following.

That said, his most recent title is formatted as a coloring book, with another due to drop later this fall.

The same spirit of mischief drives Fight Club for Kids, which mercifully will not be hitting the children’s section of your local bookstore in time for the upcoming holiday season (or ever).

Much like Tyler Durden, Palahniuk's most infamous creation, this title is but a figment, existing only in the above video, where it is read by its putative author.

If you think Samuel L. Jackson’s narration of Go the F**k to Sleep—which can actually be purchased in book form—represents the height of adult readers running off the rails, you ain’t heard nothing yet:

The horseplay would go on until it was done

And everyone who did it would always have fun

Especially the Boy Who Had No Name

Who once just, like, beat this dude, who was actually Jared Leto in the movie, which was so fuckin’ cool and intense, and he’s just pummeling this guy and of course, being Jared Leto, he was essentially a model, but when our guy is done with him, he’s just this purple, bloated, chewed up bubblegum-looking motherfucker covered in blood, head to toe!

(The second rule of Horsing Around Club is: You DO NOT TALK ABOUT HORSING AROUND CLUB!)

Find more printable Chuck Palahniuk coloring pages here.

via Mashable

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch Steve Martin Make His First TV Appearance: The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1968)

“What if there were no punch lines?" asks Steve Martin in his autobiography Born Standing Up. "What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it? What if I headed for a climax, but all I delivered was an anticlimax?" These questions motivated him to develop the distinctive style of stand-up comedy — in a sense, an anti-stand-up comedy — that rocketed him to superstardom in the 1970s. But before the world knew him as a banjo-playing funnyman, Martin worked for a couple of his especially notable comedian-musician elders: Tom and Dick Smothers, better known as the Smothers Brothers.

"We happened to be walking through the writer area of the show, and there he was, sitting at one of our writers' desks," Tom says of Martin on the 1968 broadcast of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour above. "Later we found out that he actually was one of our writers. Since he hasn't been paid for his work, we thought we'd let him come out tonight and make a few dollars."




So introduced, the 22-year-old Martin begins his television debut by re-introducing himself: "As Tom just said, I'm Steve Martin, and I'll be out here in a minute. While I'm waiting for me, I'd like to jump into kind of a socko-boffo comedy routine." With his prop table ready, he then launches into "the fabulous glove-into-dove trick."

Though the studio audience may look pretty square by today's standards (or even those of the late 1960s), The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour had already built a reputation for pushing the envelope of mainstream television comedy. Still, it's safe to say that its audience had never seen any performer – and certainly not any prop comic — quite like Martin before. In this short set, he performs a number of deliberately botched or otherwise askew magic tricks, using his tone to generate the humor. "If I kept denying them the formality of a punch line," as he writes more than 40 years later in Born Standing Up, "the audience would eventually pick their own place to laugh, essentially out of desperation. This type of laugh seemed stronger to me, as they would be laughing at something they chose, rather than being told exactly when to laugh.”

Watching today, Martin's fans will recognize his trademark sensibility more quickly than his appearance, since the clip predates both the white suit and the white hair. Even then, he wanted to perform in a way that, in the words of The Guardian's Rafael Behr, "would unnerve and alienate the audience, but also, through self-deprecation, engage them in conspiracy against himself." Martin seems to take a dim view of his own early television work, having described himself in a 1971 Virginia Graham Show appearance as "mannered, slow and self-aware. I had absolutely no authority," a quality that he has since developed in abundance, and of which "the art of having an act so bad it was good," as Behr puts it, demands a surprising amount.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The 100 Funniest Films of All Time, According to 253 Film Critics from 52 Countries

Does comedy come with an expiration date? Scholars of the field both amateur and professional have long debated the question, but only one aspect of the answer has become clear: the best comedy films certainly don't. That notion manifests in the variety of cinematic eras represented in BBC Culture's recent poll of 177 film critics to determine the 100 greatest comedy films of all time. Most of us have seen Harold Ramis' Groundhog Day at some point (and probably at more than one point) over the past 24 years; fewer of us have seen the Marx Brothers' picture Duck Soup, but even those of us who consider ourselves far too cool and modern to watch the Marx Brothers have to acknowledge its genius.

That top ten runs as follows:

  1. Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)
  2. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
  3. Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977)
  4. Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993)
  5. Duck Soup (Leo McCarey, 1933)
  6. Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979)
  7. Airplane! (Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, 1980)
  8. Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967)
  9. This Is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984)
  10. The General (Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton, 1926)

The BBC have published the top 100 results (the last spot being a tie between the late Jerry Lewis' The Ladies Man and Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy) on their site, accompanied by a full list of participating critics and their votescritics' comments on the top 25, an essay on whether men and women find different films funny (mostly not, but with certain notable splits on movies like Clueless and Animal House), another on whether comedy differs from region to region, and another on why Some Like It Hot is number one.

Though no enthusiast of classic Hollywood would ever deny Billy Wilder's gender-bending 1959 farce any honor, it wouldn't have come out on top in a poll of American and Canadian critics alone: Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove wins that scenario handily. "Intriguingly, Eastern European critics were much more likely to vote for Dr Strangelove than Western European critics," adds Christian Blauvelt. "Perhaps the US and countries that used to be behind the Iron Curtain appreciate Dr. Strangelove so much because it ruthlessly satirises the delusions of grandeur held by both sides. And perhaps Some Like It Hot is embraced more by Europeans than US critics because, although it’s a Hollywood film, it has a continental flair and distinctly European attitude toward sex."

Other entries, such as Jacques Tati's elaborate modernity-critiquing 70-millimeter spectacle Playtime, have also been received differently, to put it mildly, at different times and in different places. But if all comedy ultimately comes down to making us laugh, the only way to know your own position on the cultural comedic spectrum is to simply sit down and see what has that singularly enjoyable effect on you. Why not start with Keaton's The General, which happens to be free to view online — and on some level the predecessor of (and, in the eyes of may critics, the superior of) even the physical comedies that come out today?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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