Vail Daily column: Shun saying something about nothing
Before Larry David began spoofing presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders in “Saturday Night Live” skits, he wrote scripts for the “Seinfeld” show. Asked what Jerry Seinfeld and friends were about, David deadpanned, “This comedy strung together something about nothing.”
Viewers got hooked on Seinfeld and company poking fun at quirky habits and goofy antics which added up to nothing of consequence. “Seinfeld” TV fans adored plots that led nowhere in particular. The show charmed audiences who weren’t bothered by nothing ever leading to something.
Something on TV that leads to nothing acts like quicksand. Viewers are sucked into hapless tomfoolery because “something about nothing” skits are funny. TV viewers push hard thinking to a backburner. Mindless patter about silly situations involving Jerry Seinfeld brought laughs, which made viewers forget troubles.
Viewing something about nothing is like eating popcorn at movies. You can’t stop.
As if Larry David mentored them (my seminary classmate), future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, and Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump know how to hook an audience on nothing that sounds as if it’s really something.
Princeton Theological Seminary students hone preaching skills by giving sermons before peers and a preaching professor in historic Miller Chapel on campus. My friend and I still laugh about the response he received to his rookie sermon. Our preaching professor critiqued it, first lavishing faint praise. He loved the quaint illustrations and homey anecdotes. The script rolled along at a conversational clip. It sounded “nice,” remarked the prof, because most worshipers come to hear sermons that repeat what they already believe.
Then he paused. His zinger: “And this sermon sounds good because it fits all occasions! It’s wide in scope but not deep. This sermon says something about nothing. It appeals to people ‘who will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings … ’” (II Timothy 4:3). Such a sermon for all occasions seldom rubs worshipers the wrong way.
Retired Denver Bronco quarterback Peyton Manning benefited from crafting a speech for all occasions. During his sophomore season at the University of Tennessee, Manning found himself in a time crunch when offers rolled in for him to speak. His dad Archie, also a gridiron legend, coached Peyton how to score verbal touchdowns. Archie used what he called an “evergreen speech.” It worked in every situation if you tweaked it a bit here and added a comment there.
Peyton perfected a stock speech ready to go for a campus rally, a church breakfast or an award ceremony in which he received a trophy. People loved his talk. It spoke to them.
Few remembered what Manning actually said, but they didn’t forget the feeling it produced. They came away convinced that his droll wit and unassuming candor sold what he had to sell. It was a speech for all occasions because it smoothly said something about nothing.
Peyton Manning became the sports world’s Seinfeld.
As an effective communicator, Donald Trump knows exactly how to charm disgruntled voters who feel neglected by Washington’s bureaucrats. Former Ronald Reagan speech-writer Peggy Noonan tells why the master of nothing gives something to those who want easy answers to complex questions. Similar to a Seinfeld show that asks little concentration from viewers. Or, like listening to a sermon that raises spiritual goosebumps because it’s simple and pleasing.
“He knows what will play with the crowd but has no idea what he believes, because he believes in nothing and calculates everything,” writes Noonan of Trump in her commentary “Will the GOP Break Apart or Evolve?” “He knows ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing.’”
There’s a sharp difference in motivation between how Trump says “something about nothing” and how my seminary friend and Peyton Manning expressed it. They stumbled into such speech without calculating its winning effect.
Trump, however, knows exactly why spinning “something about nothing” works. In his 1987 best-seller “The Art of the Deal,” Trump wrote, “People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole.”
To magnify his tough-guy image, he stretches words and exaggerates ideas. Trump promises to magically erect a huge border wall. He’ll ban threatening Muslims from coming ashore. He’ll get a leg up on international trade by slapping foreign competitors with huge tariffs, thus preserving Rust Belt manufacturing jobs. He’s a huge fan of Vladimir Putin and Chinese strongmen at Tiananmen Square who clamped down on protesting students. Trump likes muscular leadership.
Does it matter if Trump’s bravado is for real or the reality TV voice of a dramatic character he chooses to play? In either case, he sounds like a circus barker who lures fans to a sideshow by promising them “something about nothing.”
The presidential calling to high office demands character and dedication to a substantive vision that benefits our nation.
We don’t need a Seinfeld in the Oval Office.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit Creative Growth Ministries.
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