Seinfeld AI: Funny at First, Then Not So Much
Since the hit sitcom Seinfeld went off the air in 1998 after nine seasons, the show’s devoted followers have long mused about an alternate reality: What if the original “show about nothing” had never ended?
Now they’ve gotten what they wished for—well, sort of. In mid-December, a never-ending AI-generated reboot, aptly named Nothing, Forever, launched on the streaming platform Twitch. The characters Jerry Seinfeld, Elaine Benes, George Costanza, and Cosmo Kramer don’t exist here, but you can watch their pixelated, copyright-abiding doppelgängers—Larry Feinberg, Yvonne Torres, Fred Kastopolous, and Zoltan Kakler—shoot the breeze live, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, forever. You could, anyway, until earlier this week, when forever abruptly ended—or was at least briefly interrupted, and in just about the most fitting way imaginable: by the AI scriptwriter devolving into bigotry.
Nothing, Forever is powered by Davinci, the newest publicly available version of OpenAI’s GPT-3 language model—a close relative of ChatGPT—and although that technology is impressive, the show, in most respects, is not. Larry Feinberg’s apartment looks very much like Jerry Seinfeld’s, though the layout and color scheme are wont to shift inexplicably from scene to scene. The characters, for reasons unknown, usually stand with their back to the viewer or to one another, or to both. The graphics are bad—like, ’90s-era PC-game bad—but that’s part of the charm: Not infrequently, characters will end up inside a couch or desk or chair. They walk as though their legs are made of cheese sticks. The laugh track plays seemingly at random, with no discernible correlation to the funniness of the preceding lines. Example: “Hey, Yvonne,” Larry says. “Did you hear about that new restaurant around the corner?” Hahahahaha. Hilarious. The overall effect is deeply unsettling, like a bizarro animated adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. The show lies in a sort of uncanny valley—recognizably Seinfeld and yet distinctly not.
Traditionally, Seinfeld opened with a bit from the fictional Jerry’s stand-up routine, and although Nothing, Forever can’t really be said to open with anything (seeing as it is, after all, an infinite loop and as such not really even divisible into episodes), it does intersperse material from Larry’s act in much the same way. The difference is that these stand-up sequences are, with few exceptions, deeply unfunny. Sometimes they’re so unfunny that their unfunniness becomes funny. Setups go without punch lines. Utter nonsense is met with riotous laughter. Larry always wears the same blank, vaguely demonic expression; his eyes appear stapled open. The show’s specifics change, but the gist does not.
Until Sunday night, that is, when Larry decided to workshop some fresh material: “I’m thinking about doing a bit about how being transgender is actually a mental illness,” he told the crowd. “Or how all liberals are secretly gay and want to impose their will on everyone. Or something about how transgender people are ruining the fabric of society.” The new stuff, Larry apparently gathered, was not going over well. “No one is laughing,” he said, “so I’m going to stop.” He tried to wrap things up, but the damage was done: “Thanks for coming out tonight. See you next time. Where’d everybody go?”
Not long after that, Twitch imposed a 14-day ban on Nothing, Forever. Its creators disavowed Larry’s comments and issued an apology, explaining that the sudden burst of bigotry had resulted from an outage of OpenAI’s Davinci chatbot, which generates the characters’ dialogue. To keep the show running during the outage—Nothing, Sometimes just doesn’t pack the same punch—the creators had reverted to Curie, an earlier, less complex GPT-3 model that, they said, could not accommodate OpenAI’s content-moderation tools.
Nothing, Forever’s creators have vowed that it will return. In the nearly two months since the show started, it has gained a sizable following. In the week immediately preceding the ban, there were usually more than 8,000 viewers watching concurrently, and often more than 10,000. The show is undeniably entertaining. Sometimes characters will go meta or break the fourth wall. But if you watch Nothing, Forever for a while, you start to notice patterns. Like how they always seem to be talking about some new restaurant (“So, Fred, did you hear about that new restaurant opening up?”). Or how they default to unbearable sincerity (“I think the world would be a better place if everyone just accepted each other for who they are!”).
You also eventually realize that what the characters are saying has almost no relation to what they are doing. Imagine watching four goldfish swim around in a bowl while four actors do voice-overs: the fish swimming, the actors talking, the one having no connection to the other. That’s what watching Nothing, Forever is like. In a broader sense, too, the characters can never really do anything (aside from using the microwave once in a while). Seinfeld was the classic “show about nothing,” but as the real-life Jerry Seinfeld (who apparently hates the AI spin-off) has repeatedly insisted, it was never really about nothing. The events depicted were mundane, everyday stuff, but they were something.
By taking the premise literally, Nothing, Forever positions itself as the ultimate sitcom, more Seinfeld than Seinfeld itself. Pauses, already awkwardly long on sitcoms, especially when you factor in laugh tracks, become interminable. Laugh tracks, already used to cover for lackluster jokes here and there, get appended to sentences that simply don’t qualify as “jokes” under even the most charitable of interpretations. The characters never leave the apartment. There is no sustained plot. They have conversations, but they may as well be brains in vats. And in this way, they illustrate fairly well the current state of ChatGPT-like large language models. They can speak pretty convincingly, but they don’t have any foothold in the world itself. They’re all talk, no action.
At one point, as I was watching the other day, Fred got serious for a moment. “I’m thinking of trying something new,” he told Larry. “For real this time—no more just talking about it.” Now cue the laugh track.
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