Peterman's Antique Cake Appraisal: A Comedy Breakdown
Explaining a joke does not, usually, make it funnier, but I still believe that there is something to be gained by deconstructing a comic scene, something that may not add to the humor necessarily (it may even take away from it) but which may expand our appreciation of the art that went into it. In so doing, we learn more about the comedians and comic writers who we spend so much time with, and we gain a deeper understanding of what funny is and, maybe, how we can be it.
Tonight I'd like to take a look at a scene from Seinfeld episode S9E18, "The Frogger", originally aired April 23, 1998. The sixth-from-final episode in the series, it exists in a simultaneously popular and weak season, jokes relying on broader and more physical humor than in the early golden years, due in large part to the departure of Larry David and the turnover of almost the entire writing staff.
In this episode, Peterman has, for some reason, purchased a slice of cake from the 1937 Edward VIII-Wallis Simpson wedding, for $29,000. Elaine eats this slice of cake (for vaguely plot-related reasons) before she learns what it is, and she attempts to replace it with a slice of supermarket Entemann's. The scene I want to dissect is the discovery of Elaine's deception (though her culpability remains undetected until the final scene).
When one looks for the kernel of a scene's comedic substance, the key factors to be identified are tension (and its subsequent release) and surprise. When we start this scene, we are primed with the preconditions for both of these. We have the tension between Elaine's knowledge of her crime and Peterman's ignorance of it. We have the absurdity (which is simply attenuated surprise) of Elaine's and Kramer's childishly naive attempt at solving the problem. And as Elaine is putting her cake-fake plan into action, we have the absurd-tension of our rational knowledge that there is no possible way she'll get away with this.
And then the door opens...
00:02 - "Brace yourself, Lubek..."
Peterman's typical, and beautiful, hyperbolic prose, hilarious in the context of a New York sitcom. He is in high spirits, but we know him to be completely insane, so we are not put at ease. This tension adds to our pre-knowledge of Elaine's deceit.
00:07 - "...one of the most dashing Nazi sympathizers of the entire British family."
A surgical strike of the emotionally loaded word "Nazi" is surprising in this context, couched in a clause where we would expect more adoration, and so it's very funny.
Remember, up to this point, we don't know who Lubek is. We think that Peterman is simply showing off to another rich friend.
00:15 - "Lubek here is the word's foremost appraiser of vintage pastry."
This, for me, is this scene's primary comedic payload. The surprise that it delivers is so much weightier than the simple linguistic flourish of the "Nazi" joke, extending beyond words into worlds.
The premise that this sentence creates is that in Peterman's rarified underworld of the peculiar super-rich, there is not only the concept of antique baked goods as as collectible commodity, and there are not only experts in antique baked goods, but experts who have specialized within the antique baked goods "space" to focus exclusively on pastry.
This premise, and its attendant world-building dynamism, is so explosively funny, with its multi-stage absurdity rocket, that it completely outshines the plot-concerned comedy of the scene's subsequent beats. We see Peterman deliver this line to Elaine with his characteristically deadpan, insane pedantic braggery, and our minds struggle (gleefully) to envision a reality (perhaps only in Peterman's head) where not only would these facts be possible but would not require any particular deviation in behavior or mannerism.
I needn't bother with the thorny questions of whether cake counts as a pastry, or whether expert cake appraisers actually exist, or with the fact that such a pieces of cake are actually collector's items. The rhythm and the impact of the line, and the associated plot points, are so expertly architected that the resulting comedy squashes the rational part of the brain.
00:27 - "Two hundred and nineteen thousand dollars..."
This is a tricky line to deliver, but John O'Hurley nails it. The challenge is the awkwardness of needing, for plot's sake, to pronounce the full, formal amount for which he has mistaken Lubek's appraisal.
The crux of the scene's primary joke (though not, as I've said, necessarily the funniest part) is that sometimes we will omit saying a price's magnitude if we think it is clear to everyone what that is. Having the fool mistake an "assumed magnitude" declaration for a literal one, or vice-versa, is a very old joke format, but the premise requires an quick, economical, and yet organic, establishment of this central miscommunication. Most importantly, the mix-up must be clear to the audience before it is clear to the fool.
On the page, Peterman's response to Lubek's appraisal is, for the most part, bulky and inorganic, requiring the actor to find some source of energy other than the text to drive and enliven the moment. O'Hurley manages this by taking Lubek's apparent good news as a source of hilarious joy. He barks laughter, he tips in his chair, he makes commanding hand gestures. He thrums with excitement at the thought of his new thousands, and this increases the tension we're already feeling between his understanding and our knowledge of the reality.
We have one comedic stepping stone in Peterman's otherwise information-dense response. In the throes of his hilarity, Peterman calls Lubek a "glorious titwillow", one of many of the series's delightful Petermanisms, a nonsense phrase that almost makes sense, and that seems to originate in the 1940s of some other dimension. The surprise of this unique combination of words is very funny, and carries us along to the end of the line that the plot requires that he say.
00:38 - "It's an Entemann's."
Here much of the tension that has built up is released, as all of the cards fall onto the table, tipped out of "structural comedy" into actual "joke comedy" by the appraiser unexpectedly saying the actual brand name. This is very funny.
Peterman's response about the castle, however, is not that funny (perhaps something in the timing), and serves only as setup to the finale.
00:45 - "...display case at the end of the aisle...Get well, get well soon..."
The dual buttons on this scene are low-yield callbacks to jokes made earlier in the episode. Either one on its own would be too weaksauce to end the scene with, but taken together in kind of a one-two combination, delivered and timed the way they are, it's a very effective little coda to send us out the door.
I like callbacks. I think modern comedy, especially stand-up comedy, relies too heavily on them, and they are more like conceptual jujitsu flourishes than actual jokes (though we may happen to laugh at them from surprise and recognition). But on the whole, I think they provide a wonderfully satisfying way to stitch parts of the work together, demonstrating that later bits are "aware" of earlier bits, and we're not just riffing one thing after another.
As the writing in Seinfeld started to water-down towards the end of its run, callbacks were used more and more, and they also served as the basis of many of Seinfeld's most beloved cultural memes. Like I said, I like them. Their pleasing, satisfying feeling usually outweighs the transparent structural trick being played on us.
And there we have it: a clinic on comedy in sixty-seven seconds. So many different stylistic and linguistic considerations are digested in this little bit of 90s ephemera, and it's so much fun to tease them apart.
Never let anyone tell you that it's "just" comedy and it's not meant to be analyzed. Sometimes the most fun you can have is to dive inside of a joke.