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Professor Puts Humor to the Test

Twenty college kids walk into a classroom.

A reader might expect a joke to follow, yet there was serious business going on in “Sociology of Seinfeld,” a class taught by Mark Joshua Gordon, visiting assistant professor of sociology at Loyola Marymount University. Certainly, there were laughs in Gordon’s “class about nothing,” but the students also grappled with the controversial topics the show touched on and delved into the characters’ behavior as revealed in the hugely popular TV sitcom starring comedian Jerry Seinfeld.

“The students watched the episode in the Chinese restaurant,” said Gordon, referring to a fan-favorite 1991 installment in which the entire episode takes place while the Seinfeld group waits for a table in a busy eatery. “George is waiting to use a pay phone to call someone, and the class was puzzled,” Gordon said. In the pre-cell phone 1990s, pay phones were everywhere, and sometimes people had to wait in line to use them.

Gordon traced the show’s comedy to the history of Jewish humor in America, pointing out common themes, such as self-deprecating jokes, faux naiveté, and social struggle. One of his examples was the vaudeville stand-up joke: “Short summary of every Jewish holiday: They tried to kill us, we won, let's eat.” The Seinfeld cast was sometimes at the mercy of circumstances – for instance, losing a car in a mall parking structure – and sometimes stuck in predicaments of their own making. The class, in analyzing situations from “Seinfeld,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and related media, uncovered social rules common to late-20th century America and gained an understanding of Jewish ethos through humor. Gordon designed the class for sociology and Jewish Studies students, and hopes to teach the class again in the spring.

“I used to always ignore Seinfeld when it was on TV because I thought it was boring,” said sophomore Jhia Jackson, a double major in dance and sociology. “I got all three of my roommates hooked on it this semester. Everything we laughed at or thought was funny [during the class], we were able to tie back to one or two of the themes, such as struggle or making light of – or using sarcasm for – a disastrous historical situation.”

Gordon’s academic take on “Seinfeld” balanced the silly with the serious, the mundane with the meaningful. “At first blush, students sometimes fail to see the relevance of ‘Seinfeld’ and its humor to our society. Through the rigor of the course they begin to see what they were missing; instead of just a funny show about nothing, ‘Seinfeld’ is a show about everything that affects our daily lives but that is seemingly too trivial for us to talk about,”  said Gordon.

Posted on June, 14, 2010