‘Cancel culture’ comes for the AI ‘Seinfeld’
For the last few weeks, thousands of viewers on the streaming platform Twitch tuned in to watch a 24-7 AI-generated version of the sitcom Seinfeld. Only instead of the usual hijinks, audiences bore witness to something far stranger: primitive CG characters enacting a Chekhovian drama of stasis shot through with elements of theater of the absurd.
The scripts were written by artificial intelligence technology, a variation of the now-popular ChatGPT, which produces dialogue by scanning the internet. True to form, this was very much a show about nothing, complete with familiar sets and character models. But this week, it entered a very 2023 plot point: cancel culture.
The never-ending Seinfeld stream, Nothing, Forever, was suspended Monday for two weeks over violating Twitch’s terms of service. According to tech writer Al Sikkan, who has been chronicling the pseudo-show on Twitter, the reason was that Larry Feinberg — Jerry Seinfeld’s AI counterpart — made transphobic statements during one of his stand-up sets.
“We are embarrassed, and this doesn’t reflect our values or opinions at all. This was the result of a mistake on our side that resulted in a technical issue,” Skyler Hartle, co-creator of Nothing, Forever, wrote in a statement to The Verge.
I was shocked to hear anything controversial emerged from this benign, if off-putting, novelty. In the little I’ve seen of the show, which used OpenAI’s GPT technology, there was nothing at all controversial. Just profoundly weird. A lot like that version of the show from “The Bizarro Jerry,” where we see an alternate version of the core crew, led by Jerry’s doppelgänger, Kevin, being polite and nice to one another.
Larry, Fred (George), Yvonne (Elaine) and Kakler (Kramer) mostly hung around recreations of Jerry’s apartment having inane conversations that absolutely sounded as if a computer wrote them, but nonetheless were received with uproarious canned laughter. After a minute or two, a distorted version of the interstitial theme would play and we’d get an establishing shot, and maybe a few seconds of Larry doing stand-up.
On one occasion, Larry’s set alluded to his having children (a departure from the eternally single, forever dating Jerry character). I don’t remember much else, but others have documented an existential bent to these CG characters. Sikkan caught them apparently becoming self-aware, a la Pirandello, with Yvonne asking “did you ever stop and think that this might all be one, big cosmic joke?”
The reason they are there is to tell jokes, Fred says. Why are they together? Fate, perhaps, Larry ventures. “To make the world a funnier place.”
the Seinfeld AI is becoming self-aware this is not a drill pic.twitter.com/H1zPO9Cnqa
the Seinfeld AI is becoming self-aware this is not a drill pic.twitter.com/H1zPO9Cnqa— Al Sikkan (@AlsikkanTV) February 2, 2023
An anti-trans rant doesn’t strike me as very funny, and, per Sikkan, the Nothing, Forever developers said it happened after the show shifted to another AI program without the same filters to catch offensive content. (Because this tech draws from the cesspool of the internet, this was, of course, inevitable.)
Weirdly, the filters recall the exact kind of topical guardrails that the real-life Seinfeld has been grousing about in interviews, and, while not in this exact way, would inevitably be a feature of any modern reboot of Seinfeld.
Obviously, the real Jerry Seinfeld is not attacking the trans community — that’s more Dave Chappelle’s thing. But, the comedian has often complained about the blowback he got from “PC police” over a joke that mentioned swiping through your iPhone in the effete manner of a “gay French king.” He’s not too crazy about playing colleges these days, noting how a woke crowd might call out a joke they don’t like.
In the current “cancel culture wars,” some have taken actual episodes of Seinfeld to task for jokes that haven’t aged all that well. The perennial question of “could they make this today” hovers over it. (And, frankly, it’s a pretty tired question — It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is way more offensive and is now the longest-running live-action sitcom of all time.)
But when I think about the conspicuous lack of humor in Nothing, Forever, aside from the odd kindergarten-caliber joke you might read off the side of a popsicle stick, and learn that the initial chat software used extensive filters to restrict objectionable material, I actually wonder if we’ve gone too far. Of course hate speech shouldn’t be allowed, but what else isn’t the program letting in?
Is the strangeness of this AI tech the growing pains of a novel technology, or the result of overzealous censorship that is at odds with humor — and human interaction — as we recognize it? Maybe Seinfeld has a point that too much policing of speech is bad for comedy.
Or maybe the lesson is that we shouldn’t let computers write sitcoms, lest everything turn out like Bizarro Seinfeld.