Seinfeld went off the air in 1998, but it’s never really gone away – it’s been the subject of modern recreations, dedicated social media accounts and hip-hop/TV fusions. Its latest incarnation, however, is the oddest yet.
Nothing, Forever is an endless, AI-generated version of the show that has been streaming on Twitch since mid-December. It tells the “story” – if you can call it that – of four characters, Larry, Fred, Yvonne and Kakler, who look like what would happen if Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer were sucked into a 1990s computer game. They spend their days discussing their lives and other trivial matters. And it never, ever stops: log on at any hour and there they are, talking about coffee quality or a difficult Monopoly game.
The dialogue comes from OpenAI’s GPT-3, a text generator closely related to the ChatGPT service that has recently made waves; another company is responsible for the tech behind the speech itself. On top of that, “we have a lot of proprietary generative algorithms that cause the show to be ‘formed’, so to be speak,” Skyler Hartle of Mismatch Media told Polygon. “We collectively call this logic the ‘director’, as it is largely responsible for making sure all the individual pieces come together into a whole.”
I watched 22 minutes of Nothing, Forever, to parallel the experience of a single episode of Seinfeld, and I don’t think comedy writers need to fear for their jobs just yet. I didn’t laugh once, despite the encouragement of an aggressively enthusiastic laugh track.
But then, that’s not really the point. Begun as a “nonsensical, surreal art project”, as Hartle told Vice, it’s a casually dystopian experience that serves mainly to demonstrate the potential of artificial intelligence – as stunning as it is alarming.
When I opened the stream, Larry and Fred were doing what they’re always doing: drifting aimlessly around an apartment, their bodies undulating eerily. When they’re not spending an unhealthy amount of time fiddling with the microwave, they’re plunging face-first into the sofa before suddenly re-materializing in an upright position.
In this particular scene, Fred, George’s analogue, is telling his best friend about a new partner. “She’s different than any other girl I’ve ever dated,” he says.
“Different how?” Larry, AKA Jerry, asks, to a huge laugh from the canned audience.
And that hilarious joke was far from the show’s only zinger. Other moments that had the audience in stitches included Larry asking Fred what he was up to and Yvonne/Elaine wondering what the deal was with the new shoes Fred got. Then there was the following exchange:
Yvonne: “Why do you think the new bagel store is so popular?”
Larry: “That’s easy, they have the best bagels in town.”
Yvonne: “Really? I’m surprised.” (Audience roars)
There were also a few actual jokes, which did not receive consistent appreciation from the laugh track, as when Larry asked “What’s up? The sky, of course.” Sometimes, the characters would go so far as to announce they were telling a joke:
Larry: “What did the dog say when he walked into a bar?”
Fred: “I have no idea.”
Yvonne: “Quack, quack.”
Dead silence followed this incredible punchline, which was probably the best in the 22 minutes. In fact, long silences pepper every scene; the “acting” is reminiscent of a fourth-grade play in which the kids, having dutifully memorized their lines, enunciate them with great care and a total lack of humanity. Watch for more than 10 minutes and the whole thing becomes a sort of soulless droning.
In fact, outside of the setup – the four friends, the apartments, and occasional scenes in a comedy club – there is little that is Seinfeldian about the show.
Perhaps the biggest difference is in the characters: yes, they look like Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer, but these new avatars are shockingly earnest. Seinfeld’s protagonists wouldn’t be caught dead saying the things these people say. In one comedy club scene, for instance, Larry asks the audience: “Have you ever had one of those days where no matter how hard you try, nothing goes your way? Yeah, we’ve all been there.”
Later, Fred says he’s planning to write a book about “how I managed to make it through the toughest times”. Larry offers a classic Seinfeld riposte: “You’ve certainly gone through a lot. It sounds like a great story. I’d certainly be interested in reading it when you’re finished.” Who’d have thought autogenerated characters would have too much empathy?
The whole thing feels like how a 1980s sci-fi writer might imagine a robot-created TV show from the future. Which, of course, is exactly what it is. It feels disturbingly like the kind of content our corporate overlords might be feeding us in 20 years to melt our brains and ensure quiet compliance.
“Technology is really convenient in a lot of ways, but it can also be dangerous,” says Fred in one of the show’s disturbingly self-aware lines. “I guess it’s up to us to decide when it’s worth taking the risk.” Credit to its creators for a remarkable achievement – a delightfully bizarre experiment that sheds a little more light on the question.