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.

The Philosophy of Rick and Morty: What Everyone’s New Favorite Cartoon Has in Common with Albert Camus

"Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody's gonna die." So, in one episode of Rick and Morty, says the fourteen-year-old Morty Smith, one of the show's titular co-protagonists. With the other, a mad scientist by the name of Rick Sanchez, who also happens to be Morty's grandfather, he constitutes the animated team that has entertained thousands and thousands of viewers — and made insatiable fans of seemingly all of them — over the past four years. To those few who haven't yet seen the show, it may just look like a silly cartoon, but the true fans understand that underneath all of the memorable gags and quotable lines lies an unusual philosophical depth.

"The human desire to fulfill some special existential purpose has existed throughout history," says video essayist Will Schoder in his analysis of the philosophy of Rick and Morty. But the titular duo's adventures through all possible realities of the "multiverse" ensure that they experience firsthand the utter meaninglessness of each individual reality.




When Morty breaks that bleak-sounding news to his sister Summer with the now oft-quoted line above, he actually delivers a "comforting message": once you confront the randomness of the universe, as Rick and Morty constantly do, "the only option is to find importance in the stuff right in front of you," and their adventures show that "friends, family, and doing what we enjoy are far more important than any unsolvable questions about existence."

Schoder, also the author of a video essay on Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon's mythological storytelling technique as well as one we've previously featured about David Foster Wallace's critique of postmodernism, makes the clear philosophical connection to Albert Camus. The philosopher and author of The Stranger wrote and thought a great deal about the "contradiction between humans' desire to find meaning in life and the meaninglessness of the universe," and the absurdity that results, a notion the cartoon has dramatized over and over again, with an ever-heightening absurdity. We must, like Sisyphus eternally pushing his rock uphill, recognize the true nature of our situation yet defiantly continue "to explore and search for meaning." Morty, as any fan well knows, offers Summer another solution to her despair: "Come watch TV."

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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.

The Colors of Mister Rogers’ Hand-Knit Sweaters from 1979 to 2001: A Visual Graph Created with Data Science

Writer Owen Phillips may be a solid data analyst, but I suspect he’s not much of a knitter.

The software he used to run a scientific analysis of 22 years worth of Fred Rogers’ sweaters ultimately reduces the beloved children’s television host’s homey zip-front cardigans to a slick graphic of colorful bars.

A knitter would no doubt prioritize other types of patterns - stitch numbers, wool weight, cable variations…the sort of information Mister Rogers’ mother, Nancy, would have had at her fingertips.

As Mister Rogers reveals in the story of his sweaters, his mom was the knitter behind many of the on-air sweaters Phillips crunched with R code. Whether their subtly shifting palette reflects an adventurous spirit on the part of the maker or the recipient’s evolving taste is not for us to know.




After Mrs. Rogers’ death, producers had to resort to buying similar models. Many of her originals had worn through or been donated to charity events.

“Not an easy challenge in the 80’s and 90s,” Margy Whitmer, a producer of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood told Rewire. “It certainly wasn’t in style! But we found a company who made cotton ones that were similar, so we bought a bunch and dyed them.”

(A moment of silent gratitude that no one tried to shoehorn Fred Rogers into a Cosby Show sweater…)

It would be interesting to see what Phillips’ code could do with faulty viewer memories.

His input for the Mister Rogers’ Cardigans of Many Colors project was a chart on super fan Tim Lybarger’s Neighborhood Archive detailing the hue of every sweater Mister Rogers changed into on-camera from 1979 to 2001.

Without samples of the actual sweaters, Lybarger’s color chart could only be approximate, but unlike viewers’ fading memories, it’s rooted in his own visual observations of distinct episodes. Aging fans tend to jettison Rogers’ spectral reality in favor of a single shade, the bright red in which he greeted Wicked Witch of the West Margaret Hamilton in 1975, say, or the pleasant mouse-colored number he sported for a 1985 breakdancing session with a visiting 12-year-old.

For those who’d rather code than purl, Phillips shares MrRogers.R, the program he used to scrape the Neighborhood Archive for Mister Rogers daily sweater colors.

Then have a look at Rogers’ sweaters as rendered by Phillips’ fellow data geek, Alan Joyce, who tinkered with Phillips’ code to produce a gradient image.

via Kottke

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her current project is Theater of the Apes Sub-Adult Division’s fast approaching production of Animal Farm at the Tank in New York City.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How Saxophones Are Made: Two Short Films (Including One by Sesame Street) Take You Inside Saxophone Factories

Many of us, handed a saxophone, wouldn't have the first clue about how to play it properly, and almost none of us would have any idea at all about how to make one. Then again, those of us of a certain generation might feel an old memory coming back to the surface: hadn't we once witnessed the inner workings of a saxophone factory? We did if we ever happened to catch the classic 1980 Sesame Street short above which shows the saxophone-making process in its entirety, beginning with flat sheets of metal and ending up, two minutes later, with jazzily playable instruments — just like the one we've heard improvising to the action onscreen the whole time.

Golden-age Sesame Street always did well with revealing how things were made in a characteristically mesmerizing way, as also seen around the same time in an even more widely remembered two minutes in a crayon factory. Both it and the saxophone workshop, though they use plenty of technology, look like quaintly, even charmingly labor-intensive operations today: in almost every step shown, we see not just a machine or tool but the human (or at least a part of the human) operating it.




And it turns out, on the evidence of the 2012 video from the Musical Instrument Museum just below, that the art of saxophone-making hasn't changed as much in the subsequent decades as we might imagine.

With its more than ten minutes of runtime, the MIM's video shows in a bit more detail what actually happens inside a modern saxophone factory, namely that of woodwind and brass instrument maker Henri Selmer Paris, whose saxophones have been played by Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Paul Desmond, Sonny Rollins and Coleman HawkinsAnd while some of the equipment clearly grew more advanced in the 32 years since the Sesame Street short, the overall process remains clearly recognizable, as does the concentration evident in the actions and on the faces of all the skilled workers involved, albeit on a much larger scale. The day when we can 3D-print our own saxophones at home — the culmination of the industrial evolutionary process glimpsed in two different stages in these videos — will come, but it certainly hasn't come yet.

via Laughingsquid

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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.

Ingmar Bergman’s 1950s Soap Commercials Wash Away the Existential Despair

Ingmar Bergman is usually remembered for the intensely serious nature of his films. Death, anguish, the absence of God--his themes can be pretty gloomy. So it might come as a surprise to learn that Bergman once directed a series of rather silly soap commercials.

The year was 1951. Bergman was 33 years old. The Swedish film industry, his main source of income, had just gone on strike to protest high government taxes on entertainment. With two ex-wives, five children, a new wife and a sixth child on the way, Bergman needed to find another way to make money.




A solution presented itself when he was asked to create a series of commercials for a new anti-bacterial soap called Bris ("Breeze," in English). Bergman threw himself into the project. He later recalled:

Originally, I accepted the Bris commercials in order to save the lives of my self and my families. But that was really secondary. The primary reason I wanted to make the commercials was that I was given free rein with money and I could do exactly what I wanted with the product's message. Anyhow, I have always found it difficult to feel resentment when industry comes rushing toward culture, check in hand.

Bergman enlisted his favorite cinematographer at that time, Gunnar Fischer, and together they made nine miniature films, each a little more than one minute long, to be screened in movie theaters over the next three years. Bergman used the opportunity to experiment with visual and narrative form.

Many of the stylistic devices and motifs that would eventually figure into his masterpieces can be spotted in the commercials: mirrors, doubles, the telescoping in or out of a story-within-a-story. You don't need to understand Swedish to recognize the mark of the master.

In the window above we feature Episode 1, "Bris Soap," which is perhaps the most basic of the commercials. They become progressively more imaginative as the series moves along:

  • Episode 2, Tennis Girl: An innocent game of tennis sets the stage for an epic battle between good (Bris soap) and evil (bacteria). Can you guess which side wins?
  • Episode 3, Gustavian: Bad hygiene in the 17th century court of King Gustav III. Plenty of foppishness, but no Bris.
  • Episode 4, Operation: "Perhaps the most intriguing of the commercials," writes Swedish film scholar Fredrik Gustafsson. "In this one Bergman is deconstructing the whole business of filmmaking, using all the tricks of his disposal to trick and treat us."
  • Episode 5, The Magic Show: Another battle between good and evil, this time in miniature.
  • Episode 6, The Inventor: A man heroically invents anti-bacterial soap, only to awaken and realize it was all a dream. (And anyway, the makers of Bris had already done it.)
  • Episode 7, The Rebus: Bergman uses montage to create a game of "rebus," a heraldic riddle (non verbis, sed rebus: "not by words but by things"), to piece together the slogan, "Bris kills the bacteria--no bacteria, no smell."
  • Episode 8, Three-Dimensional: Bergman thought 3-D films were "ridiculously stupid," and in this episode he takes a few playful jabs.
  • Episode 9, The Princess and the Swineherd: In this reinvention of Hans Christian Anderson's "The Swineherd," a 15-year-old Bibi Andersson, who went on to star in many of Bergman's greatest films, makes her screen debut as a beautiful princess who promises a swineherd 100 kisses in exchange for a bar of soap. Not a bad deal for the swineherd.

To learn more about Bergman's soap commercials you can watch a 2009 report by Slate film critic Dana Stevens here. (Note the video requires a flash player.)

Note: This post first appeared on our site in 2011. It's one of our favorites. So we're bringing it back.

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The Existential Philosophy of Cowboy Bebop, the Cult Japanese Anime Series, Explored in a Thoughtful Video Essay

Super Dimension Fortress MacrossMobile Suit Gundam WingNeon Genesis Evangelion — these are the kind of titles that might ring a bell even if you have no particular interest in futuristic Japanese animated television shows. But how about Cowboy Bebop? That evocatively Western name itself, not an awkward English translation of a Japanese title but English in the original, hints that the series stands apart from all the dimension fortresses, mobile suits, and neon geneses out there. And indeed, when it first aired in 1997, viewers the world over took quick note of the distinctive sensibility of its stories of a shipful of bounty hunters drifting through outer space in the year 2071.

"On paper, Cowboy Bebop, the legendary cult anime series from Shinichirō Watanabe" — recently director of one of Blade Runner 2049's short prequels — "reads like something John Wayne, Elmore Leonard, and Philip K. Dick came up with during a wild, all-night whiskey bender." So writes the Atlantic's Alex Suskind in a piece on the show's lasting legacy. "Everyone speaks like they’re background extras in Chinatown. The show ultimately features so many cross-ranging influences and nods to other famous works it’s almost impossible to keep track. It’s Sergio Leone in a spacesuit. It’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with automatic weapons."




And yet Cowboy Bebop remains, thoroughly, a work of Japanese imagination, and like many of the most respected of the form, it has serious philosophical inclinations. Channel Criswell creator Lewis Bond examines those in "The Meaning of Nothing," his video essay on the series. "Can we as humans find something in nothing, find purpose beyond survival?" Bond asks. "These ontological thoughts that plague us make up the same existential drift our characters repeatedly find themselves in, and it's what is most significant to the journey of Cowboy Bebop." He looks past the cooler-than-cool style, snappy dialogue, witty gags, and rich, unexpected mixture of aesthetic influences to which fans have thrilled to find "a metaphysical expression of how people overcome their lives, particularly the lingering grief that comes with them."

Taken as a whole, the show resolves into a presentation of life as "less of a linear path towards a goal, more of a haze that we must venture through without any guidance, because the sad reality of Bebop's story is that our cast of characters are lost in the cosmos without any justification for why they live, other than to exist." The series came to a famously ambiguous end after 26 episodes, but this past summer we heard that it may return, rebooted as a live-action series. Whatever its medium, the world of Cowboy Bebop — with its spacecraft, its interplanetary cops and robbers, and its superintelligent corgi — amounts to nothing less than the human condition, a place we have no choice but to revisit. Might as well do it in style.

The complete Cowboy Bebop series can be bought on blu-ray, or if you're a subscriber, you can watch the episodes on Hulu.

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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.

Watch the New Trailer for Electric Dreams, the Philip K. Dick TV Series, Starring Bryan Cranston, Steve Buscemi & More

If you had told critics and film executives thirty-five years ago that Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner would be one of the most beloved sci-fi films of all time—that it would transcend cult status to become a near-religious object in science fiction and anime filmmaking—you would likely have been laughed out of the room. If you had predicted that, thirty-five years later, it would spawn one of the most spectacular sequels imaginable, you might have been met with concern for your sanity. The world was just not ready for Blade Runner in 1982, just as it was not ready for Philip K. Dick in the 50s when he began his writing career and “couldn’t even pay the late fees on a library book.”

In the following decade, however, Dick’s work came into its own. Many years before it provided a near-infallible source for technological prescience and existential futurism in cinema, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the novella from which Blade Runner adapted its story, got a Nebula award nomination, one of three Dick received in the 60s. Five years earlier, he won a Hugo award for The Man in the High Castle.

Now, after the success of that speculative historical novel’s grim Amazon adaptation, the company has partnered with Channel 4 and Sony for another small-screen Dick project—Electric Dreams, co-produced by Bryan Cranston, a longtime fan of the author.




An anthology series based on Dick’s stories, Electric Dreams first airs on Channel 4 in the U.K., and will soon move to Amazon, where Prime users will be able to stream the whole 10-episode season for free. (If you aren’t a Prime user, you can get a 30-day free trial to watch the series, then keep or cancel the membership.) Electric Dreams reminds us that a couple of phenomena from Dick’s heyday have made a significant comeback in recent years. First, imaginative, high-concept anthology shows like Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror and the Duplass brothers’ Room 104 hearken back to the success of The Twilight Zone and lesser-known shows like Roald Dahl’s Way Out.

Secondly, we’ve made a return to the paranoia, social unrest, authoritarianism, and threats of nuclear war that formed the backdrops of Dick’s visionary fables. These are indeed “anxious times,” as Cranston says, but he and the show’s other producers instructed the writers to “use the original material as a springboard to your own re-imagining of the story—keep the core… or idea behind it and enhance that and see how that affects not a Cold War period when it was written, but now. How does it affect the modern-day audience?”

Given the all-star cast and high-dollar production values evident in the trailer above, we can likely expect the same kind of quality from Electric Dreams as we have seen in nearly every Dick adaptation thus far. And if it doesn’t catch on right away, well, that may be everyone’s loss but those viewers who recognize, as Dick himself recognized when he saw Blade Runner in 1982, that they have experienced something truly unique.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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