Famously, Seinfeld earned the description of being a show about nothing. Creators Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, however, set out to develop an entirely different show. Seinfeld himself wrote about this on Reddit in an AMA back in 2015.
"The pitch for the show," Seinfeld explains, "the real pitch, when Larry and I went to NBC in 1988, was we want to show how a comedian gets his material. The show about nothing was just a joke in an episode many years later, and Larry and I to this day are surprised that it caught on as a way that people describe the show, because to us it's the opposite of that."
Well, which side is right? Is Seinfeld a show about nothing? Or, is it "the opposite of that," as Jerry explains?
We used a dataset of 53,629 lines of dialogue spread over 177 episodes in nine seasons of Seinfeld in order to find out. We measured the sentiment of each line. What did we learn?
For a show about "nothing," Seinfeld is packed with measurable swings in emotion.
To start, we gathered the lines spoken by each of the core four characters, Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer, and plotted out who spoke how much per episode. You’ll notice that episodes 100 and 177 are missing. Those are clip shows, and the offer no new dialogue to analyze.
Jerry speaks the most. Every episode offers at least one bit of Jerry’s stand-up. That, and the fact that he’s the titular character, means he has the most dialogue.
George and Elaine come in second and third for lines spoken on average, though the two swap positions throughout the run of the show. George normally tops Elaine, but Elaine has a few spats where she dwarfs George, thanks partially to her odd relationship with Jerry as friends and former lovers.
Curiously, Kramer routinely offers the least lines in spite of his status as a fan-favorite. He’s the only character to induce gracious applause upon appearance, and yet his dialogue stays relatively low. It's possible that fans fell in love with Kramer's simple entrance gimmicks, something that he became famous for over the span of 177 episodes. Fans adored this move and its simplicity, and they applauded for it every time.
Creators Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld likely ignored the temptation to give Kramer more lines in order to maintain his obscurity for the sake of comedy and this specific bit. It worked.
The episodic ebb of emotions
The algorithm in this analysis moved through every spoken line in the show and scored the words used in a host of categories. Each line might include words that the algorithm deemed indicative of fear, joy, trust, surprise or sadness. The line would also have an overall positive or negative emotional score.
Those scores could then come together to produce an overall value for each emotion in each episode. With that comes a plot that pits emotion against emotion in every episode over Seinfeld’s run.
What happens when you combine fear and disgust? "The Bris," an episode where Jerry and Elaine learn they must hold a newborn during its circumsition, rises to the top.
Take, for instance, joy and trust. The algorithm indicated that “The Stock Tip” had dialogue packed with joy and trust, more so than most other episodes in the show. In this specific episode, George gets a stock tip from a friend of a friend. He convinces Jerry to join him and invest. Unfortunately, their tipper falls into a coma and can’t tell the duo when to sell the stock in order to make a profit. Jerry panics and sells early, but George trusts the tip and holds on.
George winds up making a small fortune, treating his friends to lunch at the diner with a cigar jutting from his lips and a grin plastered to his face. Joy and trust.
Taking the analysis one step further, the algorithm can sift through each line and attribute it to its speaker. The same concept of scoring the emotions of the line applies, only now the analysis will designate which character kept the lion’s share of which emotion.
Elaine, George, Jerry and Kramer are relatively even keel on most, though that might come from how many lines they each speak. The more lines they speak, the wider variety they’ll have in emotion. That gives them balance.
Side characters, however, enjoy a wealth of one or two specific traits. The most obvious? Anger.
Say hello to Jackie, Kramer’s lawyer. The algorithm clearly picked up on the character’s constant use of angry language during its analysis, and that gave Jackie a clear, measurable edge when it comes to his anger next to everyone else’s. Kramer’s lawyer is known for his hot head and constant forceful language. That pick-up is the opposite of outrageous, egregious and preposterous.
Looking beyond Seinfeld and into business
While it’s fun to consider a language processing algorithm’s capabilities when it comes to analyzing a show like Seinfeld, the natural leap in logic dictates that this tech can be used for other means.
Think of a data science team that moves through a dataset like, say, tweets about a given business or product with a similar algorithm in hand. Gleaning customer emotion from the huge dataset they create by using social media on a massive scale would offer intangible value to the decisions and movements of business.
Understanding customers on social media
Customer support email triage
Public Relations crisis alerts
Using the same process used here for Seinfeld, one could create a public relations warning system that alerts a company when posts on social media increase in anger.
Maybe the dataset consists of emails or reviews sent to a company from its customers and clients. This algorithm and analysis could score each email or comment and alert the company to those that should be responded to immediately and those that can wait or deserve a full deflection. This system good lead to large scale customer complaint triage.
If it worked for Seinfeld, a show about “nothing,” it can work for anything.
Come back at the end of February 2018 for part two.