A Linguistic Analysis of Humor in Seinfeld

Topics: Linguistics, Seinfeld, Theories of humor Pages: 11 (3454 words) Published: March 29, 2013
A linguistic analysis of humor: 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.



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 3.1. 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-


generational 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,...

References: Goffman, Erving. (1981). Forms of Talk. The University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia. Gumperz, John. (1982). Discourse Strategies. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge UK. Hurd, Robert. (2006). Taking Seinfeld Seriously: Modernism in Popular Culture New Literary History, 37,(4). 761-776 The Johns Hopkins University Press. doi: 10.1353/nlh.2007.0005 Jefferson, Gail. (2004). Glossary of transcript symbols with an introduction. John Benjamins Publishing Co. Karman, B. (1998). Postmodern power play: a linguistic analysis of postmodern comedy. MA thesis, department of English, Youngstown State University. Morreall, J. (1987). The philosophy of laughter and humor. Albany, NY. State University of New York Press. Paulos, J. A. (1980). Mathematics and Humor. The University of Chicago Press. Schwarz, Jeannine. (2010). Linguistic aspects of verbal humor in Stand-up Comedy. Dissertation. Dokto University of Chicago Press. Vrij, A. (2000). Detecting lies and deceit: the psychology of lying and the implications for professional practice. England: John Wiley & Sons. Appendix Jefferson’s (2004) transcription glossary with incorporated symbols for the discourse alterations: genre change, footing change, exaggeration, and metaphor. Glossary of Transcript Symbols (.) pause (0.0) seconds of a pause [laughing] laughing CAPS loudness ↑ upward intonation ↓ downward intonation = no pause between utterances
The Working Papers of the Linguistics Circle of the University of Victoria 21, 126–135 © 2011 Elizabeth Magnotta & Alexandra Strohl
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elongation shortened transcribers notes really long faster utterance slower utterance stress/emphasis
The Working Papers of the Linguistics Circle of the University of Victoria 21, 126–135 © 2011 Elizabeth Magnotta & Alexandra Strohl
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