Seinfeld and Dante on art

The New York Times as a fun, interesting Q&A with Jerry Seinfeld to promote the latest season of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. It's short and worth reading for its own sake, but I wanted to draw attention to this passage.

New York Times: You turned down an offer from NBC of $5 million an episode to do one more season of “Seinfeld.” Nobody in TV has ever made even close to that money before or since. Did you ever second-guess that decision? 

The most important word in art is ‘proportion.’

Jerry Seinfeld: No. It was the perfect moment, and the proof that it was the right moment is the number of questions you’re still asking me about it. The most important word in art is “proportion.” How much? How long is this joke going to be? How many words? How many minutes? And getting that right is what makes it art or what makes it mediocre.

That's dynamite artistic advice right in the middle of his answer. Proportion. No matter what your field or medium, proportion is key. He's absolutely right and, as he points out, his show has the legacy to prove it. 

Consider my own favorite sitcom, The Office, which outlasted its best material by several years. What was funny in small doses early on dominated the show by the middle of its run and could only get wilder in its quest for more laughs, with diminishing returns. By season six, the characters were wildly out of proportion, Flanderized caricatures, and the plots spent disproportionate time on ludicrous side stories. And it lasted another three seasons. 

Seinfeld's insight jibes with something I read long, long ago and have returned to many times to guide and correct my own work. In explaining Dante's art in constructing the Comedy, translator John Ciardi wrote that "Poetry is, among other things, the art of knowing what to leave out." Throwing in the kitchen sink, stuffing your work, can be the equivalent of white noise unless you have a good sense of proportion. It's hard to think of a literary locale more crowded than Dante's hell, but thanks to his gift of proportion you never lose sight of his purpose as an artist. Like Dante—like Seinfeld—have to develop a good sensibility of what does and doesn't belong. See also "Omit needless words" and "Murder your darlings." 

And of course, art being art, there are always good reasons to violate these rules—again, in the interest of maintaining proportion. To give Orwell the last word on this topic: "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous." Don't let even grammar throw you out of proportion.