by Nikki Mantyla
On a Thursday night in January 2016, Jerry Seinfeld performed solo to a sold-out audience at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City. Over 2,700 people filled the long sloping rectangle of the main floor and the three rounded tiers of gold-leafed balconies lining its sides. Eighteen-thousand Bohemian crystals glimmered from enormous square chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. From the far back wall, two spotlights followed the legendary comedian back and forth across the stage as he paced inside their circle, telling his jokes. One of the spotlights smoothly drifted right or left as needed. The other wasn’t working so well.
Seinfeld stepped out of the faulty beam numerous times. He ignored it, continuing his set like a pro and doing what he does best: making people laugh. But an underlying tension increased the longer the problem went on. Adults fidgeted in their cushioned seats and muttered to their neighbors. If the jerky spotlight had been staged, Seinfeld would have referred to it by now. Whether the cause was malfunctioning equipment or the ineptitude of an operator, the issue should’ve been solved thirty minutes ago. It was detracting from the act.
Finally, Seinfeld made a choice to say something. He stopped and gestured at the back wall, asking, “What’s the deal with the spotlight? I’m sixty-one years old! How hard can it be? Look, I’ll tell you what I’ll do: I’ll face the direction I’m going to walk.”
The tangent bounced with Seinfeld’s characteristic high- and low-pitched cadence, sending the already amused audience into louder peals. After an exaggerated turn, he slowly lifted his foot and stepped forward, waiting for the spotlight to join him. When the beam lurched again despite his overt cue, Seinfeld threw up his arms like, “Really?” Everyone roared. Tension released into belly-deep laughter. Tears formed, stomachs cramped, lungs gasped. What had been distracting was now hilarious. He’d transformed the malfunction into a successful gag and a memorable part of the show.
As writers, we need to learn such alchemy in order to do things, be things, and make things in the world. Comedians like Jerry Seinfeld are masters of language, and that mastery allows them to make whole careers out of words and gestures that do something special: generate laughs. We can likewise harness the power of language to transform our writing situations into audience gold, whether we are creating impromptu wisecracks or funeral elegies, factual reports or fantastical stories. Any type of writing can be more effective if it catches and holds the attention of its audience—in other words, if it succeeds at being memorable.
How? Authors Chip and Dan Heath (one brother a Stanford professor, the other a teacher and textbook publisher) give a useful acronym in their book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. They say memorable ideas are
Examining these keys for “SUCCESs” via Seinfeld’s spotlight fiasco provides a lens for considering the ways language/writing can be a resource for doing more and being heard and making a contribution that’s remembered.
Consider the simplicity of Seinfeld’s response. He stopped. He focused his gaze at the origin of the spotlight. He took a direct approach. And he kept it concise. He could have gone into a drawn-out rant, venting anger instead of appealing to the audience. Instead, he kept his grievance simple and funny.
We can’t always be brief, but we can stay focused. Notice how the first four paragraphs of this article give only details relevant to the spotlight story. The anecdote avoids digressions about the weather or other parts of the show or the charity the ticket money supported. It sticks to only what’s needed to make the story stick with the audience. We can do the same in any genre. Selecting and maintaining a simple focus ties everything into one tidy, memorable package.
It’s also important to know that comedy thrives on irony—or in other words, the unexpected. The more unpredictable the punchline, the bigger the laughs.
“I’m sixty-one years old!” was unexpected on two levels. First, what did that have to do with a defective spotlight? Juxtaposition, in which you compare things that seem unrelated, can be a great tool for creating irony. Second, in American culture, we don’t expect an older person to blurt out his age, which doubled the element of surprise.
But how much does unexpectedness matter outside of comedy? We might be surprised. The human brain is programmed to dismiss what it already understands but perk up when startled by something new. Awareness of that unfamiliar thing might improve chances of survival, so our minds snap to attention. Writers who incorporate the unexpected in strategic ways—with a shocking statistic in a report or a fresh take on a classic recipe or an unheard-of position on a controversial subject—are more likely to hook their audience. Without such surprise, our chances of being memorable are low.
Masters of language also recognize that all external input comes in five tangible forms: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. The mind connects concrete input, such as a citrusy scent, to previous knowledge, like Grandma’s grapefruit trees, while abstract ideas often vaporize.
By gesturing at the spotlight and emphasizing his turn and step, Seinfeld gave the audience features to see. Written descriptions do that too: gold balconies, crystal chandeliers, adults fidgeting in cushioned seats. The marvel of language is that it can conjure images in our minds even without pictures and let us hear things even when the words are read silently, like how the direct quotes make Seinfeld’s voice come alive. The same is true with the other senses. For example, mentioning stomachs cramping and lungs gasping invites us to feel the audience’s physical response.
When instructors say, “Show, don’t tell,” this is what they mean. Telling is weaker because it gives a secondhand report: how it was a classy concert hall where nobody would expect crappy equipment, how Seinfeld griped about the spotlight, how everyone thought it was really funny. On the other hand, showing with concrete details means readers experience firsthand input and draw their own stronger conclusions.
What about when writers aren’t telling a story? Regardless of genre, concrete ideas are easier for people to grasp. We might not comprehend a blue whale’s thirty-meter length, but tell us that’s more than two school buses and we can picture it. It’s better to make details tangible.
What about the biggest aspect in Seinfeld’s favor—his reputation? The audience came because they love him, and they were prepared to laugh at anything he said. But even people who aren’t famous can still use credibility to their advantage.
One way is to borrow fame, as this article does by showcasing a celebrity. Take advantage of any impressive sources. Was the study done by Harvard? Is the quote from a renowned authority? Mention those bragging rights the way this article drops “legendary comedian” into the first paragraph and credits a Stanford professor and a textbook publisher for the SUCCESs acronym. Don’t just bury that validity in the citations at the end.
Writers can also buy cred by touting their own expertise: experiences with the topic, relevant places they’ve worked or volunteered, observations that sharpened their perspective, surveys or interviews they’ve done, classes they’ve taken, even their age. Being a sixty-one-year-old über-successful comedian is impressive, and maybe being an eighteen-year-old college newbie or a thirty-five-year-old returning student will affect the audience’s opinion too. Weigh possible credentials against the writing situation and include ones that will give it the best boost.
Seinfeld used emotion when he asked the spotlight person, “How hard can it be?” He gave voice to everyone’s frustrations, as if speaking collectively.
Projecting emotion is important but tricky. Good writers don’t want to overdo it, and they don’t want to use fallacious or unethical approaches, such as fear mongering. Done well, emotional appeals can have a powerful lingering effect. We recall how entertaining a comedian was even after we forget the jokes. We relive the wave of pity from a photo we saw of a shelter dog. We revisit the excitement of a thrilling solution we read in a recent proposal. Emotions last.
Aim for the kind of vibe that best fits the audience and purpose, and find effective ways to solicit those emotions. Choose details that summon the right mood, just as gold leaf and Bohemian crystals convey the classy feel of Abravanel Hall. Pick words that match the seriousness or humor, like how the spotlight “lurched” and everyone “roared.” Add colors, photos, or other visuals that correspond, such as Seinfeld’s memorably amusing snapshot above—perfect for an article about memorability via comedy.
Most crucially of all, tell a story. It’s one of the best ways to appeal to emotion—and appeal to humans. Think how quickly a sad story can make the audience teary or a silly one can make them laugh. Think how closely people listen when a story is told.
Some people assume storytelling is only for memoirs or fiction writing or movies, but in reality, stories are everywhere. This instructional article employed the story about Seinfeld to make several points, and even Seinfeld’s short bit follows a story shape:
The best story type for each piece of writing will depend on its situation and purpose and audience, but using miniature stories like the spotlight tale can be a great method for highlighting a writer’s subject in a memorable way. Writers also use the story-arc sequence—hook the audience, spell out the conflict, outline complications, reveal an epiphany, stage a climax, and grant resolution—in all kinds of genres to engage readers with the tension of waiting for resolution. Audiences love it, just as Seinfeld’s audience melted into laughter.
[For more on integrating story techniques, check out “Adding the Storyteller’s Tools to Your Writer’s Toolbox,” “Movies Explain the World of Writing,” or “The Narrative Effect.”]
The twitchy spotlight never improved during that January show. Its glow continued to bumble across the stage like an intoxicated firefly. But as far as Seinfeld and his audience were concerned, the situation had been resolved by converting it into humor.
That’s the power of language to do things, be things, and make things in the world. That’s the power our writing can have when we master language/writing as a resource.
[For even more insight, check out the Heath brothers’ book Made to Stick.]
Heath, Chip and Dan Heath. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. New York: Random House, 2007.