Evidence of Geekery: Exhibit H

April 14, 2005

The other day, I rediscovered my copy of M.H. Abrams’ A Glossary of Literary Terms on a shelf in my home. I love that about the shelves in my house. I have all sorts of rad books left over from classes and brief flings with odd subjects over the years. Anyway, Abrahms’ Glossary is the book I’ve been carrying around with me lately, and I’m absolutely loving it.

Naom Chomsky in Syntactic Structures (1951) initiated what is known as “generative-transformational grammar.” Chomsky’s persistent emphasis is on the central feature he calls “creativity” in language–the fact that a competent native speaker can produce a meaningful sentence which has no exact precedent in the speaker’s earlier linguistic experience, as well as the fact that competent auditors can understand the sentence immediately, though it is equally new to them. …

That’s excellent. (“It was on the tip of everyone’s tongue; Tyler and I just gave it a name.”) I’ll have to track down a copy of that book. Now, go back and look at that quote again. Was this idea really not explored or given a name until 1951? Ah, Chomsky.

Moving on:

Fabliau. The medieval fabliau was a short comic or satiric tale in verse dealing realistically with middle-class or lower-class characters and delighting in the ribald; its favorite theme is the cuckholding of a stupid husband. (Professor Douglas Bush neatly characterized the type as “a short story that is broader than it is long.”) Chaucer … wrote one of the best fabliaux, the hilarious “Miller’s Tale.”

See also: the sitcom. More implications that the claim of the sitcom’s death is silly. We may have to change our definitions of “alive,” but it’s certainly not dead. The trouble with the state of the modern sitcom is tied to the expectation of newness. Networks like NBC place a great deal of emphasis on an episode’s freshness; remember the “Hey, it’s new to you!” slogan? Notce how often you hear the phrase “all new” while watching network TV? Traditionally, audiences tune in to new episodes of a show but pass over re-runs that they’ve seen already. That’s a guiding principle of network programming, isn’t it?

The networks are continuing to operate on the assumption that what audiences want are new sitcoms, but we’re seeing evidence now that freshness isn’t that important, but quality is. Syndicated repeats of favorite shows are making good money for the likes of TNT and TBS. Genuinely good and fondly remembered TV shows are both making money on DVD.* It seems to me that new concepts for sitcoms are less important than great casting, chemistry, timing, jokes and timing and jokes. Let’s everyone make peace with the fact that the sitcom, as an entertainment form, isn’t going to redefine itself for every television-watching generation, because we don’t really want it to, anyway. We want it to be funny, romantic (or romanticized) and comfortable. Tweak the form all you want with title cards between acts (Frasier), no laugh tracks (Scrubs) or deadpan narration (Arrested Development) if you want, but the play’s the thing, Peacock. Remember that.

*(That sentence uses hypozeugma — the shared clause of two equally valued dependent phrases is placed at the end of the sentence — as a kind of parallelism to create an unequal contrast. In this case, the quality of the subject is separated from the manner of its regard to imply that shows which are fondly remembered may not be any good. The West Wing is genuinely good, Alf is fondly remembered and both are available on DVD. I really like language and I really like television.)



  1. A Glossary of Literary Terms! I hated and loved that book! And I’m pretty sure it’s still hanging around on my bookshelves at home, one of the few I didn’t sell back at the end of the semester.

    Quality vs. novelty naturally also applies to feature DVD rentals and purchases. Go to the video store; everyone gravitates to the new releases for no quality-founded reason. If you asked them, they’d probably tell you without being prompted that there’s no correlation between “new release” and “quality release.” But the idea that new = better is such pervasive marketing that — even if most people don’t believe it upon reflection — it’s lodged in their mind anyway.

    I say fuck the entire institution of marketing.

  2. As far as Chomsky being original goes, it all depends on how postmodern you really want to be. Do you really want to be one of those obnoxious people who claim that there’s no original thought anymore anywhere?

    Fabliaux rule. The Miller’s Tale is a good one, the main character (Alisoun!) makes idiots out of most of the men in the story. Boccaccio has some good ones, and “Gargantua and Pantagruel” by Rabelais is another good one, even though that’s more novel length.

  3. Naom Chomsky in Syntactic Structures (1951) initiated what is known as “generative-transformatizzles grammar.” Chomsky’s persistent emphasis is on tha central feature he calls “creatizzles in language–the fizzact tizzy a competent native speaka can produce a meaningful sentence which has no exact precedent in tha speaka’s drug deala linguistic experience, as well as tha fact that competent auditors can understand tha sentence immedizzles though it is equally new ta tizzle fo’ sho’. …

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