On Monotony: I Watched the Same Episode of Seinfeld for Twelve Hours
The idea was simple enough: For twelve straight hours, I would repeatedly watch the same episode of Seinfeld. Why would I do this? What was I thinking? I’m not sure. Maybe it was just a social media joke that went too far. Or maybe I actually wanted to learn how to endure utter monotony. I like ancient philosophy, so there might be some masturbatory joy in trying to label this a Stoic or Epicurean challenge. Whatever my reasoning may have been, the result was the same. I ended up sitting in my living room with my roommate for twelve hours, watching “The Contest.”
For those who are unfamiliar with the episode, the plot is relatively straightforward. The gang enters into a contest to see who can go the longest without masturbating. As is to be expected, each is pushed to their respective limits by forces of temptation. Jerry and Kramer are tempted by a naked woman who is visible from Jerry’s apartment, Elaine by John F. Kennedy Jr. in her aerobics class, and George by the silhouette of a woman getting a sponge-bath. It’s a funny episode (the first few times through, at least), and I would use it to experience a Sisyphean quest for happiness in monotony.
I. The Beginning
The first few times through the episode were fine. I hadn’t seen it in a while, so I had an enjoyable watch. And the second time was even funnier, because I felt that I had a greater appreciation for the jokes when I could set aside the plot. Despite this, I began having strange thoughts sooner than I had anticipated. For example, during the second episode, I began to think a lot about God. For example, if there’s a God, and time repeats itself, is this what it feels like to be him? Is time just a loop that we’re condemned to repeat over and over again, while God sits on his metaphorical “couch,” watching our stories unfold?
Thoughts like these were a bad sign, and I tried to shift my focus to achieving tranquility (or, ataraxia, as the ancient Greeks or the pretentious philosophy student might call it).
Unfortunately, by the fifth episode, I was beginning to get numb and light-headed. I also got the eerie feeling that I was no different than the men chained in Plato’s cave, doomed to watch mere shadows dance upon the walls of the cave. I knew no truth; no beauty. The characters on the television were simply imitations of reality, and they were all I truly knew. Things were beginning to take a dark turn.
In an attempt to make things more enjoyable, my roommate and I tried to laugh along with the laugh-track for a bit. It helped, and it actually led to real laughter at some points. But it quickly got tiring, and we reverted back to silence.
By the eighth watch, I came to realize that Seinfeld was my entire existence. For those twelve hours, there was no Donald Trump, no global warming, no neo-Nazis. There was only Jerry Seinfeld doing his best not to laugh as he delivered his lines. And in many ways, that was comforting.
During episode nine I was asking myself “why the fuck are you doing this?” But I realized that the experience was only as bad as I let it be. The sooner I became content with this prison of my own creation, the sooner I could relax and endure. Of course, I could turn the television off and go outside at any moment. But like the characters on the screen, I was using my willpower to abstain from temptation.
II. Time Passes
We had lunch delivered after the tenth episode. The food was helpful, but I could feel myself descending into madness again. Episode eleven marked the end of the first third, and I was beginning to have trouble focusing. All I wanted was to be free, and my mind was occupied by thoughts of the sun beyond the window. My girlfriend was somewhere out there, as her Instagram would indicate. And a poignant caption indiciated that she would rather be outside than watching Seinfeld all day. Next time I want to embark on a search for happiness, I should probably go to her for advice.
In my desire for freedom, I began to wonder if my previous epiphany had been false. Perhaps monotony and repetition should be resisted, not accepted. Instead of just accepting that which makes us miserable, maybe we should fight to change the status quo. My fingers began to twitch, longing for the power button on the remote.
For the sake of our mental health, my roommate and I took to the roof to watch episode thirteen. But don’t worry, we loaded the episode on our phones so that we were never away from Jerry’s insistence that he is the “master of his domain.” I believe I heard that phrase approximately ninety times during this ordeal.
I started to think about God again during episode fifteen. There’s a moment where Jerry tells Marla about their masturbation contest, and by this point, I had seen the moment play out fourteen times before. I knew how it would end, and what Jerry ought not do. If there is a God, does he feel frustration when he watches us make decisions that he knows are mistakes? If only I could cry out to Jerry. If only I could stop him somehow. But unlike God, I lack that power.
The numbness faded at episode sixteen. Here, I felt a sense of relief, for we were halfway through the challenge. Although I hate hiking, I’ve been on a few hikes. The feeling here was a lot like the moment in a hike when you have reached the top of the mountain. The trip home should be all downhill from there.
My relief faded quickly, much like the hiker who reached the top of the mountain only to realize that the hike home is actually pretty painful on your legs as well. By the episode seventeen, I was desperate to do anything other than what I was currently doing. I would have preferred to sit in the DMV than watch Seinfeld. In some sense, this revealed a benefit of what I was doing. In comparison, every other mundane task felt like a treat. And maybe that was the payoff here. When I have to do some boring task in the future, I can feel confident that it won’t be nearly as boring as watching the same episode of Seinfeld repeatedly. But then again, this might just be the post hoc rationalization of a man who wasted an entire day of his life.
III. The Final Hours
Episodes eighteen through twenty-five were somewhat of a blur. I kept telling myself that I could do it, that it was only a few more episodes, that I would be happy I did it, yada yada. At one point in this sequence, my roommate and I read the script along with the episode. That was a nice way to pass the time. However, I realized that if I spent the entire process searching for ways to avoid dealing with the monotony, then I was not what I had sought out. If my initial goal was to find happiness in the mundane, then distracting myself was no way to do this. So, for episode twenty-six and twenty-seven, I tried to limit my distractions and just enjoy the episodes.
Around episode twenty-eight, I started to fear the world outside Seinfeld. In that world, I had order and structure. Sure, it might be boring and repetitive, but it was predictable. There was no chaos; I knew what to expect. But out in the real world, this is not the case. Seinfeld is the benevolent dictator upon which I can rely. The radical freedom outside that room began to feel like too much to handle.
But my fear of freedom had faded by episode thirty-one, because I was relieved to be reaching the end. This was the penultimate episode, and I began to doubt whether I had really learned anything of meaning. In fact, my feeling of relief when nearing the end may just indicate that I am unable to find happiness in tedium. Maybe it’s naive to think that Sisyphus could actually be happy as a prisoner to monotony.
The final episode was nostalgic, in a way. My roommate and I were able to appreciate the jokes as we had twelve hours earlier. There was no more dread at the thought of hearing the jokes again, for the contest was coming to a close. We watched the plot unfold once more, as it had thirty-one times before.
I was happiest during the final episode. I could try to draw another pseudo philosophical conclusion from this fact, but at this point, I’m really not sure that I have any conclusions from this experience. Maybe it was just a complete waste of time. But I’m reluctant to say this, because I’m not sure what activity isn’t a waste of time when scrutinized thoroughly enough. Whether or not time is “wasted” is really a value judgement best made by the person who experiences that time. So, I can at least say this: I personally don’t think that what I did was a waste of time. And maybe this is because I’m not selective enough when it comes to the activities that occupy my time. But maybe that’s also the trick to finding happiness in the mundane.