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Lessons in logic from ‘Seinfeld’

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Last week marked the thirtieth anniversary of the launch of the megahit TV show Seinfeld. During its reign the series was often described as “a show about nothing.” But in reality it was a show about a lot of things, including logic and truth. “There is more logic in humor than in anything else” said Danish comedian Victor Borge, “Because, you see, humor is truth.”

Comedians aren’t often known for their critical thinking skills and Mr. Spock—the Vulcan embodiment of cool logic—wasn’t known for his jokes. So at first glance it might appear that humor and logic belong to completely separate spheres. Humor is playful, lively, and unbounded by procedural standards. Logic, in contrast, is serious, strict, and completely circumscribed by rules and processes. Humor is tied to emotion while logic is above such non-rational ephemera. But in a 2005 article for Philosophy Now, Julia Nefsky argued that logic has a very real and very important role in humor:

The range of humour in which there is logic and logical fallacy is huge. By logic and fallacy being in humour I mean that there is some logic or fallacy there that is necessary to what makes it funny. In other words, if you hypothetically removed that logic or fallacy, the joke would not work. You’ll find logic and logical fallacies in all kinds of humorous works, including those of Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, Monty Python, the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Steve Martin, Stephen Leacock, Douglas Adams, and even television shows like Beavis and Butthead.

Also, logic and fallacies are used in many different comics, including Garfield, Calvin and Hobbes, and Peanuts. And there are lots of great examples in the work of stand-up comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Cosby, George Carlin, and Henny Youngman. In fact, basically everywhere you look in humour there will be some bits in which logic or fallacy is used in a significant way – sometimes just a couple can be found, and other times they are all over the place!

Every time logic or a fallacy is used in humour it serves a specific role. I have found that a convenient way of classifying examples is in terms of three roles that seem to cover all the significant ways logic and fallacy are used in humour: essence, enhancer, and mechanism

In the article, Nefsky explains each of these terms and provides examples of how they are used. Although she provides adequate illustrations, I’ve taken the liberty of using her roles but replacing the examples with ones from episodes of Seinfeld. Needless to say, these examples are funnier if—like me—you’ve seen every episode at least six times. I also provide an example of these fallacies from the realms of economics and politics—and those aren’t so funny.

Roles of Essence — The logic or fallacy used serves as the essence of what makes it funny. In these cases other aspects might enhance the humor, but the logic or fallacy is precisely what makes it funny, such that without it there is no humor left.

Type #1 — Equivocation: the name of the most common informal fallacy used in humor. Equivocation occurs when two different meanings or senses of the same word(s) are used as if equivalent. In humor equivocation is often played out with two people—where one person says something implying one meaning and the other person takes it as if another meaning was intended.

“I wanted to talk to you about Dr. Whatley. I have a suspicion that he’s converted to Judaism purely for the jokes.”
“And this offends you as a Jewish person?”
“No, it offends me as a comedian.”
– Jerry and Father Curtis, in “The Yada Yada”

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“You are still afraid? You are not a man.”
“Well, then what are all those ties and sports jackets doing in my closet?”
– Gina and Jerry, in “The Suicide”

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“I still can’t believe you’re going out on a blind date.”
“I’m not worried. It sounds like he’s really good looking.”
“You’re going by sound? What are we, whales?”
– Jerry and Elaine, in “The Wink”

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“Wait. Those are the clothes from the bag!”
“The guy never came back.”
“He asked you to watch them, not wear them.”
“I’m still watching them.”
– Jerry and George, in “The Muffin Tops”

A prime example of equivocation in politics is the term “Medicare for all.” A recent poll found that when asked to characterize what “Medicare for All” means to them, respondents are divided: 40 percent think “Medicare for All” would eliminate the private insurance market and require everyone to switch to Medicare, while 60 percent think it would let anyone buy Medicare who wants to, while allowing others to stay on their private insurance. Democrats are most likely to think “Medicare for All” is a “buy-in” program, while Republicans are much more likely to understand what Democrat politicians mean by the term—a program that would eliminate most, if not all, private insurance.

Type #2 — Contradiction — One thing in logic that is often used in humor and that usually serves the role of essence is known as contradiction or absurdity. This occurs when contradictory statements are given or implied, producing a nonsensical, absurd situation. In terms of formal logic, this is like having both “A” and “not A” (where A could be substituted with anything). In formal logic having both “A” and “not A” simultaneously is considered always false, or as some logicians say: absurd.

“What if something happens?”
“What could happen?”
“What if it felt good?”
“It’s supposed to feel good.”
“I don’t want it to feel good.”
“Then why get the massage?”
“Exactly!”
– George, discussing a massage given by a male masseuse, with Elaine, in “The Note”

A common contradiction in the Age of Trump is Republicans who support tariffs and oppose tax increases. (The Trump tariffs are expected to cost Americans $915 each—or $2,400 per household—in the form of higher prices, lower wages and lower investment. They could also wipe out more jobs than were created in 2017 (2.1 million)).

Type #3 — False Cause — There is an informal fallacy called False Cause that is used in humor and that often has the role of essence. False Cause happens when it is assumed that simply because A has preceded B, that A has caused B.

“No doctors for me. A bunch of lackeys and yes-men all towing the company line. Plus, they botched my vasectomy.”
“They botched it?”
“I’m even more potent now!”
– Kramer and Jerry, in “The Andrea Doria”

The most common false cause is the belief that electing a president causes the economy to boom. President Trump and his supporters, for example, often give him credit for an “economic recovery” that began eight years before he took office. But supporters of President Obama did the same thing, crediting him with saving us all from an even worse economic disaster.

Noah Smith calls this false cause claim that the President of the United States controls economic outcomes the “Fundamental Fallacy of Pop Economics.” “The Fundamental Fallacy is in operation every time you hear a phrase like “the Bush boom” or ‘the Obama recovery,’” says Smith. “It’s in effect every time someone asks ‘how many jobs Obama has created’. It’s present every time you see charts of economic activity divided up by presidential administration.” The reality is that neither princes nor presidents are in charge of the economy.

The Role of Enhancer — the logic or fallacy adds to the essence of what is funny to make it even funnier.

Type #1 — Hasty Generalizations — occurs when a generalization is made from too few cases or, as often seen in humor, when the generalization is obviously not true as a literal statement (a clear exaggeration).

“So, what you are saying is that ninety to ninety-five percent of the population is undateable?”
“Undateable!”
“Then how are all these people getting together?”
“Alcohol.”
– Elaine and Jerry, in “The Wink”

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“What is it about sex that just disrupts everything? Is it the touching? Is it the nudity?”
“It can’t be the nudity. I never got into these terrible fights and misunderstandings when I was changing before gym class.”
– George and Jerry, in “The Deal”

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“All bald people look good in hats.”
“You should have lived in the twenties and thirties, you know men wore hats all the time then.”
“What a bald paradise that must have been. Nobody knew.”
– George and Elaine, in “The Parking Spot”

A common form of hasty generalization is when, for rhetorical effect, we make claims about our political opponents that are based on a vocal minority. If you listen to Democrat and Republican politicians you’d get the impression that the vast majority of Americans support socialism and protectionism. In reality, a majority of U.S. adults say socialism would be a bad thing for the country (51 percent) and that free trade agreements have been a “good thing” for the country as a whole (56 percent).

Politicians tend to make hasty generalizations based on the views of their hardcore supporters—groups that tend to be out of sync with mainstream America.

The Role of Mechanism — the logic or fallacy is what gets you from one thought to another. When formal logic takes on the role of mechanism, valid logic is used to get the reader or audience to make a certain inference from one idea to another.

“Well, behind every joke there’s some truth.”
“What about that Bavarian cream pie joke I told you? There’s no truth to that. Nobody with a terminal illness goes from the United States to Europe for a piece of Bavarian cream pie and then when they get there and they don’t have it he says, ‘Ah, I’ll just have some coffee.’ There’s no truth to that.”
– Sheila and Jerry, in “The Soup Nazi”

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“God would never let me be successful. He’d kill me first. He’ll never let me be happy.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in God?”
“I do for the bad things.”
– George and his therapist, in “The Pilot”

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“I’ve been lying about my income for a few years. I figured I could afford a fake house in the Hamptons.”
– George, in “The Wizard”

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“What are you saying?”
“I’m not saying anything.”
“You’re saying something.”
“What could I be saying?”
“Well, you’re not saying nothing. You must be saying something.”
“If I was saying something, I would’ve said it.”
“Why don’t you say it?”
“I said it.”
“What’d you say?”
“Nothing.”
– Jerry and Elaine, in “The Red Dot”

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“It’s a write-off for them.”
“How is it a write-off?”
“They just write it off.”
“Write it off what?”
“Jerry, all these big companies, they write off everything.”
“You don’t even know what a write-off is.”
“Do you?”
“No, I don’t.”
“But they do. And they’re the ones writing it off.”
“I wish I had the last twenty seconds of my life back.”
– Kramer and Jerry, in “The Package”

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To use the example of tariffs again (tariffs are a magnet for bad thinking), Trump has claimed on numerous occasions that the U.S. is collecting billions of dollars in tariffs from China. The president seems to have the same understanding of tariffs that Kramer has about write-offs.

When goods come in from foreign countries, such as China, importers — which are usually Americans—pay tariffs to U.S. Customs in order to receive their products. In other words, American businesses such as Walmart and Target are paying the tax and then passing it along to American consumers.

Image source: Wikimedia

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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