How an AI-generated Seinfeld stream confounds completist fandom
It was a few weeks into my freshman year of college and some friends and I were rewatching Pokémon in our dorm.1 As we approached the hole in the first season where an episode was banned from television after its flashing-lights animations gave viewers seizures, someone mentioned that a bootleg copy of the forbidden episode existed in the bowels of YouTube. It sounds equal parts silly and reckless when you’re not an 18-year-old who thinks you’re invincible, but in that moment, not watching it once we knew it was available made no more sense to us than skipping “Here Comes the Squirtle Squad.” Were we watching Pokémon or not? And so, in perhaps the most objectively stupid decision I’ve ever been party to, we forged ahead with “Electric Soldier Porygon.”
Speaking both for myself and the broader culture, the pursuit of completism in media consumption has grown far more prevalent over my lifetime. From my armchair sociologist’s perspective, there are three broad reasons for why. The first is the pivot away from TV episodes and movies functioning as self-contained adventures. From the serialized storytelling of The Sopranos to how all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies built on each other (at least until things started spiraling out of control in Phase Four), studios are steering creatives away from standalones and towards sequels, from monsters of the week towards streamlined seasons. The second development is that our interconnected world has made it easier for people to interact with like-minded fans. In forums and curated social media circles, obscure references function as inside jokes that build credibility. No one wants to hear fan theories from people who haven’t seen all the source material.
The third and most important driver of this phenomenon is that the internet has made media so much more available. Not many years ago, if you cared about watching a TV episode that you weren’t able to watch live, you had to plan ahead to record it. Now, you can usually just look up which streaming service it’s on. In 2006, when I was 13, I decided to watch 24 starting with the last few minutes of Season 5.2 I simply shrugged off that I would have to look up what had happened to Jack and CTU over the preceding 120 hours of television. The idea of not starting from the beginning and watching the whole thing — of not being able to watch the whole thing — feels like a foreign concept today.
Content warning: transphobia
If you’ve spent time on the internet lately, you may have heard about Nothing, Forever. The simplest description of Nothing, Forever is that it is an endless Twitch stream of artificial-intelligence-generated Seinfeld clips — named for the sitcom’s unofficial (and canonically incorrect) slogan that it was a “show about nothing.” Or perhaps it would be more accurate to call it Seinfeld-flavored, the way Kraft Singles can’t legally be called cheese. Protagonist Larry Feinberg is clearly recognizable as a pixelated Jerry Seinfeld, and you can see George, Elaine, and Kramer’s likenesses in Larry’s friends Fred, Yvonne, and Kakler. We find Larry on stage at a familiar-looking comedy club or hanging out with his pals in an impressive animated facsimile of Jerry’s apartment. Yet the resemblance is only pixel-deep. They have impressively lifelike conversations (at least when “make sense mode” is on), but the characters’ personalities and mannerisms are neither informed by their Seinfeld counterparts nor consistent over time. It is a series of banal minute-long slices of (artificial) life wrapped in the aesthetics of a beloved sitcom and glitchy animation.
Seinfeld and Larry David famously decreed that Seinfeld would eschew the typical sitcom format. Episodes would not end with the characters hugging and learning a lesson. Super-fans seeking to memorize the show’s catchphrases and references had no sentimental schlock to distract from the jokes. In this sense, Nothing, Forever goes a step further than its forebear: By broadcasting at all hours without any narrative structure for viewers to follow, it rejects the very notion that episodes must end at all.
…with one major exception. The elephant in the room is that the Nothing, Forever stream is currently offline. Earlier this week, Twitch suspended the channel for 14 days after the AI’s content-moderation filter broke and Larry’s in-show standup routine turned into a transphobic rant. The clip reads to me as making fun of how reactionary comedians substitute offensiveness for actual humor — a few lines in, Larry comments that no one is laughing, and it’s implied that the audience eventually leaves in disgust — and the creators immediately disavowed their character’s views and promised to fix the scriptwriting filter. Nevertheless, the words are hateful no matter the intent, and Twitch has every right to prohibit such language on its platform. It’s also fair to argue that AI developers bear responsibility for what their systems create, and to note that (as far as I have seen) the programmers’ explanations of how the wires got crossed did not include an actual apology. Ironically, if you feel uncertain about where the show stops laughing at its problematic characters and starts laughing with them, that may be the most Seinfeld-like thing about it.
Since launching in December, and especially after it went viral over the last couple weeks, Nothing, Forever has gained a cult following. One developer for the show told me that the total audience has been in the millions, while another pointed me to a tracker listing a peak of nearly 19,000 viewers at a given time. As of this writing, the show's Discord membership — people who not only tuned into the stream but care about it enough to join a virtual community devoted to an inane facsimile of a TV show on a second platform — just passed 18,000.3 The accompanying live-chat has developed its own Rocky Horror-esque traditions of audience participation. Viewers chime in with cued-up riffs whenever someone mentions a new restaurant or tells an oft-repeated joke about a fish swimming into a wall. (It says “dam!”) The breakout star is the microwave in Larry’s apartment, which makes a distinctive hum when the characters turn it on, as they do constantly despite never putting any food into it. So beloved is the pixelated appliance that the stream’s merch shop sells pillows in its image.
What makes Nothing, Forever so captivating? To me, Seinfeld is the perfect show to have on in the background: Entertaining enough to keep your mind occupied while you’re washing dishes or folding laundry, but not engrossing in a way that hinders whatever else you’re doing, or paced such that you’ll miss anything significant if you leave the room for a minute or two. Nothing, Forever hits these same beats, a literally fascinating reconstruction of the American sitcom that’s also definitionally inconsequential. For a certain generation of internet-users, the combination of poor-quality animation and inane banter with the veneer of media parody also recalls a specific genre of viral videos like Jimmy Neutron Happy Family Happy Hour.4
The most-accessible source for Nothing, Forever knowledge, the fandom wiki, is only a week old and already contains 67 articles. Entries range from a nearly 3,000-word biography of Larry to armchair-anthropologist inferences about the physical laws of the show’s magical-realist world and the political machine that runs the city formerly known as New York (renamed Schnitzelville by one of its many temperamental mayors). This is the type of arcane knowledge that a hardcore fan could glean from watching every episode — like reading all of the A Song of Ice and Fire books, or seeing each of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and spinoff shows, or even cycling through the full series of the original Seinfeld. In most such fan communities, thought leaders would have what Bill Watterson called “a command of thoroughly useless information” based solely on firsthand consumption.5
But Nothing, Forever confounds this process. Because it generates new content around the clock, it is physically impossible to see the whole thing. Technically an extremely dedicated fan who started watching right when it launched in December might be able to spend the current two-week hiatus catching up on what they had missed while sleeping and showering, but they would quickly fall behind again once the Twitch stream comes back online. For all the memes and inside jokes, the faithfully documented lore, and the demonstrated devotion of the community, no one can truly know everything about Nothing, Forever.
One night last week, shortly after I first came upon Nothing, Forever, I put it on in place of normal Seinfeld while I cycled through my nighttime chores. I soon caught myself slowing down my kitchen cleanup, procrastinating turning off the stream and going to bed for fear that I would miss some key revelation about Fred’s backstory or a visit from the aliens Yvonne keeps mentioning. A few scenes later I realized that, by the very nature of the show’s never-ending format, the fight against FOMO was one I was fated to lose. (I know that I am particularly prone to such completist compulsions — to use a metaphor that you may remember, I tend to keep ordering the macaroni and cheese — but given that around 10,000 other people were watching late into the night too, I clearly wasn’t alone.)
Maybe I should be embarrassed to admit that I find anything artistically challenging about a crudely rendered computer-generated knockoff of a sitcom that wasn’t particularly profound in the first place. Yet I think there is something noteworthy about the tension between the format of the endless broadcast and the detail-hungry nature of its fan community. It’s not surprising that a stream’s groupchat knows to refer to a secondary character by a one-off nickname, but it is unusual for hardcore fans to shrug off that most of them presumably do not know why they call Kakler “The Laughter King.” Nothing, Forever transcends the very nature of modern fandom’s you-had-to-be-there reference culture.
This, perhaps more than the technological marvel of generating a nonstop stream of mostly coherent AI entertainment, is Nothing, Forever’s most-remarkable achievement: Building a fan community full of inside jokes and intricate lore with no expectation that participants must experience the whole thing for themselves to feel like a part of it. (Hopefully this ethos of inclusiveness will extend to ensuring that the stream will never give voice to hate speech towards any marginalized groups again.)
As an avowed media-consumption completist, the artificially produced Nothing, Forever gave me a reality check. Maybe there is a more-sustainable way to engage with pop-culture touchstones than prioritizing thoroughness — by definition, the mindset that can lead someone to risk a seizure watching “Electric Soldier Porygon” is not a healthy one. There’s something liberating, maybe even democratizing, about shedding the expectation of completism. Experiencing media as a set of objectives to be fulfilled can rob it of its joy. As the real fake Jerry Seinfeld would say: “That’s a shame.”
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Judge us for this hobby if you must, but a 22-minute episode made for the perfect study break, and you’re never too old for your heart to race when Ash’s Charizard steps up to battle Blaine’s Magmar.
Little did I know at the time that, by jumping in at Season 6, I had started at the exact moment when the show’s quality plummeted.
While Discord communities are infamously vulnerable to echo-chamber bigotry, it’s been heartening to see thousands of people react to updates about the ban-inducing incident with variations of the trans pride and rainbow flags.
Fair warning that this video will be completely incomprehensible to anyone without a very specific sensibility for internet humor.
For example, the ability to instantly recall a specific comic strip published before I was born.