They Can’t Go Stale Because They Were Never Fresh: Derrida, Seinfeld and Pop Tarts
Seinfeld, Sony Pictures Television, 1989 to 1998
by Menachem Feuer
Deconstruction, apparently, isn’t a laughing matter. In a clip that has gone viral in some intellectual circles (that is, social networks), Jacques Derrida is asked about whether or not one can understand deconstruction through Seinfeld. The interviewer tells Derrida that Seinfeld – “America’s most popular sitcom” – is full of irony, parody, and a kind of thinking that one finds in theology and modern literature; in doing so, she suggests that these elements – which need not be in literature but can be in any media, including television – are a concern of deconstruction.
With a wince and a look of consternation, Derrida avers that “deconstruction, as I understand it, is not interested in sitcom.” And if people watch this show and think that this is deconstruction, Derrida suggests that they stop watching, read a book, “do your homework and read.” This begs the question of what counts and why.
Derrida’s aversion to the suggestion that Seinfeld be associated with deconstruction may have to do with his aversion to things American. In another interview, Derrida is asked why he found an American journalist’s question offensive. He said it was “very American of her to give her a topic and ask her to speak.” What’s fascinating about this kind of action is that it has a lot in common with what we find in Seinfeld; namely, an improvisational, off the cuff, kind of wit.
In response to the journalist’s query as to what he meant by American, Derrida responds by saying that he meant the term in two senses: one abusive and one not so abusive. The American attitude, says Derrida, is “utilitarian and manipulative….Here’s a term, go ahead. Action!” He goes on to say that anyone who does a film “does this…Cinema is American.” The second use has to do with what he found in Universities and “social situations.” When students would visit him outside of class – or even inside of class – they would ask him to, on the spot, “elaborate” on this or that term. In France, says Derrida, you “can’t just ask a professor to elaborate on this or that term.” It’s as if one could “press a button and there’s a ‘ready made answer.’”
While saying this, Derrida has a big mocking smile on his face. The reason he finds this so amusing is because this kind of abruptness, which he finds so American, is comedic. It is – in some sense – an expression of what, in Yiddish, is called Chutzpah. Forbes Magazine associated the term with what they called the “new charisma” – a “confidence or courage that allows someone to do or say things that are shocking to others.” In (slight) contrast, Michael Wex – a Yiddishist – argues that the term was Americanized and became a term for gutsiness (while in the classical sense that gutsiness was seen in an ironic sense.)
This abruptness or immediacy is “abusive” in the sense that it challenges a kind of metaphysics that – ironically – Derrida looks to deconstruct; but it does so in ways that are much more destructive and immediate. (Derrida’s term, deconstruction, is – in part – derived from Heidegger’s notion of “destruction.”) However, the destruction is not a form of “annihilation,” but, as Heidegger suggests in an essay entitled “What is Metaphysics?” a kind of “nihilation.” What Derrida doesn’t like about the kind of nihilation we find in American culture or a show like Seinfeld is that it produces a comic sensation rather than – as we find in Heidegger’s reading of nihilation – anxiety. The problem – it seems – is the immediacy and the fact that, after the joke is told, the cultural practice or object remains intact. And while a whole tradition of metaphysics is displaced in this gesture of abruptness, it is done in a manner that, for Derrida, is impolite. Nonetheless, it is pragmatic and suggests a movement to the next joke or punch line. It doesn’t – as Heidegger would say – linger. It moves on.
The fact of the matter is that Derrida was not averse to the appeal of humor. He has made frequent use of irony and hyperbole in several of his essays. Richard Rorty – who considered himself a deconstructionist – saw irony and humor as sites of deconstruction. But he was an American pragmatist. Rorty knew that humor can break ideas or language down while creating new idioms and ways of dealing with things. Comedy, for Rorty, has a progressive and revisionist element that is in tune with – and responds to – a changing world. But, like Derrida, Rorty kept himself in the field of literature and didn’t address film or sitcoms. But what need to be addressed is not so much language as the situation (the event).
Seinfield comically situates the viewer amidst the event and the life situation. The comic situation – which one is thrown into (in a modified Heideggerian sense) gives us the abruptness of the event. By way of a family-like situation (although none of the characters are related), Seinfeld offers us the abruptness of the event. Like any Jewish family (the Jewishness of Seinfeld is, of course, muted but it is the basis for the situations that Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld worked with) from New York, Seinfeld has characters who are abrupt, frustrated, demanding, disappointed, and constantly surprised. And although they may fight with each other constantly, the deconstructed (and dysfunctional – such a horrible term) family stays together. Kramer, George, and Jerry are always at odds with each other but it is their abruptness that is not so much abusive – as Derrida would argue – but charming and enervating.
The problem with Derrida’s version of deconstruction – and his view of American – is that it has no time for sitcoms. But its deeper than that. Deconstruction –as Derrida understands it – is more in the breach – vis-à-vis revision or inversion – than in the bond. Family members may betray each other and be abrupt and rude, but they still stick together – like a text that has holes in it, the text, as a whole, remains. And it is precisely through comic relief that the text or the visual scene comes alive and becomes more….flexible.
Deconstruction, as I see it (and not as Derrida sees it), is a family affair. It involves other people and can also have a human (and not only an inhuman, textual) element. It is contingent. And, at its best, deconstruction can be funny when it embraces the rude, abrupt, and comical “yes” of life (amidst others) rather than the “no” of elitism (which oftentimes tends to elevate itself above the masses to embrace the heights of language and feeling). On this note, we can say that each moment of Seinfeld is an opportunity for a pitch (and all pitches are to people an all pitchers create an event or situation) that may (depending on the situation, the language, and the timing) yield a strike or a ball. It can get a character on base or off the field.
The pitches are made to different members of the Seinfeld family, so to speak. The point of the pitch is the punch line: who gets it or who gets hit? The point in a sitcom like Seinfeld is not to make enemies. It is to enervate, so to speak, the family with a sudden pitch in this or that direction. The pitches may be abrupt, but they are ultimately friendly in their jest. Each punch looks to nihilate not annihilate; enervate not alienate; and spur laughter not anxiety. Most importantly, each line is shared, situational, and (as any event should be) surprising.
In a video for The New York Times, Jerry Seinfeld explains how he “writes a joke.” What we learn from him is that each joke is compact and includes words that, when played on, issue a pitch and a punch line that are rooted in the language Americans speak. In the joke, he looks for words that have immediate affect and take people by surprise.
Jerry’s example is a joke he’s been working on for two years. In a self-deprecating way, Seinfeld says it’s a joke that “means absolutely nothing.” It’s a waste of his time and people’s time. But these comments – as anyone who enjoys Seinfeld knows – are not to be taken literally. And then he lets us in on the secret. This is a joke that he hasn’t shared with anyone: “The Pop Tart Joke.”
He starts off by saying that in comedy you need to say fun things and the word “Pop Tart” is a funny word. And it works because it evokes a laugh “right away.” Here’s the lead:
When I was a kid and they invented the Pop Tart, the back of my head blew off.
That lead – since it is so abrupt, destructive, and funny – grabs the attention of the audience. The joke continues by pointing out how, when he was young and before the invention of the Pop Tart, he had to “hack away” at frozen toast and it felt like his was “committing a murder before he got on the school bus.” He also uses other violent metaphors to describe how he was scarred by his breakfast.
He goes with his friends to the supermarket in search of something better. In the midst of his “hopeless moment,” the Pop Tart appears in the Supermarket. He has an epiphany and feels like he and his friends are like “chimps in the dirt playing with sticks.” What makes these words so important, according to Seinfeld, is the fact that they are immediately evocative and funny (since we all find “little chimps” funny and they are in conjunction with “playing,” children and “sticks”).
The big question for the young Seinfeld of the joke – in the midst of all these funny words – is how did they know “that there would be a need for a frosted fruit-filled heat-able rectangle in the shape of the box is came in and with the same nutritional value as the box it came in.”
The punch line takes its aim at the Pop Tarts (not the monkeys playing with sticks): “They can’t go stale because…they were never fresh.” Strangely enough, this is a deconstruction/destruction of the Pop Tart (and, at the same time, language). It nihilates it.
Although language (the Pop Tart) can’t go stale- because it is always deconstructing itself and changing – the truth of the matter is that it “never” was “fresh.” Its ability to live on beyond the regular life of natural products has to do with the fact that language really isn’t alive. It’s like a zombie of sorts miming life. That aside, it’s the common, popular language of the sitcom that is the basis for deconstruction.
It’s the Pop Tart – an American idiom – which, on Seinfeld, is revised and shown to be – like language itself – contingent. Seinfeld’s Pop Tart – in other words – deconstructs itself. It is abrupt; it Pops up out of nowhere and makes one into a “monkey playing with sticks.” (A form of animal life which, as I have discussed elsewhere, is a figure for consciousness and Jewishness.) It blows off the “back of your head.” It is immediate, silly, and destructive; yet, at the same time, there is something reflective in the abruptness of the joke. For Derrida, however, the kind of immediacy we find in American sitcoms and in jokes of this sort is impolite and unreflective. He’d rather we read a book (and do our homework) than watch Seinfeld. The situation as such is too shocking for his version of deconstruction.
There you go Reb Derrisa.* Seinfeld passes the deconstruction test without being literature or….philosophy. The Pop Tart can’t go stale because it was never fresh. And without the Seinfeld family to pitch these kinds of jokes to, who would get the punch line? Without them, there would be no audience…or punch line. And in the end of the day, these kinds of jokes are the bread and butter of the abrupt and endlessly surprising scenes we find on Seinfeld. They are, as in this scene, a family affair. Like Seinfeld’s desire to find something better – as a child – for breakfast before he went off to school. In this joke we discover not only Pop Tarts… but, also, an abrupt kind of comedy; an American treat for some, but an “abusive” thing for others.
*Derrida’s ironic name for himself in his essay “Ellipsis.”
About the Author:
Menachem Feuer has a PhD in Comparative Literature and a Masters in Philosophy. He teaches Jewish Studies and Jewish Philosophy at York University in Toronto. Feuer has published several essays and book reviews on philosophy, literature, and Jewish studies in several book collections and peer-reviewed journals including Modern Fiction Studies, Shofar, MELUS, German Studies Review, International Studies in Philosophy, Comparative Literature and Culture, Ctheory, and Cinemaction.