I have become mildly obsessed with “Nothing, Forever.”
The short explanation of “Nothing, Forever” is that it’s an endless, procedurally-generated episode of the sitcom “Seinfeld” that is available to stream on the internet. This description does not do it justice.
Available on the streaming service Twitch, “Nothing, Forever” is almost entirely driven by artificial intelligence. The main exception is the graphics; the computer-generated polygonal characters and sets were designed by actual people, and they look a bit like a cross between an old Nintendo 64 game and the Dire Straits “Money for Nothing” music video.
Everything else, however, is dictated by artificial intelligence. The dialogue is generated by AI, and the voices that deliver it are halting, slightly robotic AI voices. The movements of the characters, the timing of the laugh track, and even the camera angles are generated by AI.
The show switches between two different “sets.” Most of the scenes take place in a digital facsimile of the apartment from “Seinfeld.” The other “set” is the comedy club that opened every episode of “Seinfeld,” and we routinely cut to the Jerry character delivering a computer’s interpretation of a stand-up set.
The character names are all different, likely to avoid a copyright strike; Jerry is “Larry,” Elaine is “Yvonne,” and so forth. Despite that, anyone who’s watched “Seinfeld” will instantly recognize what the creators were attempting to mimic.
“Nothing, Forever” has been streaming on Twitch nonstop, 24/7, since Dec. 14, 2022.
(A LATE NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: On Feb. 6, the day after I wrote this column, “Nothing, Forever” received a 14-day suspension from Twitch because the AI dialogue decided to descend into hate speech and violated Twitch’s terms of service. The show will presumably return after the suspension ends, hopefully with better content moderation.)
Does this endless, procedurally-generated sitcom actually work?
Not really, which is part of the reason I’m fascinated by it.
For the most part, the AI-generated conversations that these blocky Seinfeld-imitators engage in are mundane and meandering. Sometimes they’re largely incoherent. Characters hitch and shuffle their way across the set, sometimes clipping through one another, often having long conversations while facing away from each other. Unlike an actual “Seinfeld” episode, no plot lines ever emerge or resurface and the characters aren’t terribly distinct from one another (although I did catch a scene in which the Kramer character suggested that he was going to open a store that only sells toasters, which seems fairly on-brand).
The best scenes are the ones where polygon Jerry delivers AI-written stand-up in front of the brick wall of the comedy club. Sometimes, the algorithm manages to tell actual (albeit lame) jokes that have presumably been pulled from the internet; for example, “What did the fish say when it swam into a wall? Dam!”
More often, CG Jerry delivers long, rambling anecdotes that FEEL like stand-up despite going nowhere. My favorites include a story about throwing a cabbage at an old woman in the grocery store because his grandpa told him to never trust someone without a hat, or the time he was abducted by aliens and brought to the planet Slug World to watch the annual Slug Migration. Sometimes, Jerry asks the audience to tell their own jokes, which is not how stand-up generally works.
The bizarre charm of “Nothing, Forever” is that if you watch it long enough, SOMETHING interesting will happen. It’s the ultimate expression of the old saw about a million monkeys at a million typewriters; every so often amidst all the nonsense, the show coalesces into something approaching competence.
“Nothing, Forever,” is, at its best, a curiosity. But speaking as a writer, it is also fairly disturbing.
Over the last year, AI has broken new ground. People are using AI to generate legitimately impressive art. It’s mainly impressive because unscrupulous programmers are feeding the AI algorithm art that has been stolen from actual talented artists, but nonetheless, a lack of artistic talent is no longer a barrier to creating art.
Procedurally-generated books are even beginning to pop up on Amazon. I recently read an article about an “author” who’s taken a lot of heat because he used AI to create not only the art, but the story for a children’s book.
And while one glimpse of “Nothing, Forever” makes it clear that the technology isn’t there yet, it’s not hard to imagine a time five or ten years from now when you could tune into a procedurally-generated sitcom that never ends. No offense to fans of the show, but I can’t imagine it would be that difficult to teach a computer to crank out the script for the average episode of “Two and a Half Men.”
In fact, that very concept is the hideous dream that inspired “Nothing, Forever,” according to one of the creators.
“As generative media gets better, we have this notion that at any point, you’re going to be able to turn on the future equivalent of Netflix and watch a show perpetually, nonstop as much as you want,” said “Nothing, Forever” co-creator Skyler Hartle in an interview with Motherboard. “You don’t just have seven seasons of a show, you have seven hundred, or infinite seasons of a show that has fresh content whenever you want it. … Our goal with the next iterations or next shows that we release is to actually (create) a show that is like Netflix-level quality.”
Speaking as someone who enjoys creating stuff, why are we using artificial intelligence for this purpose?
For most of my life, the selling point of AI was that it would do the jobs that humans hate. AI could fill out spreadsheets or run through checklists or diagnose complex problems, leaving mankind free to pursue loftier interests.
Now we’re rapidly heading toward a world where humans are still doing grunt work while AI creates our art and literature and music. Not to chastise the tech experts who are making this happen, but guys, the art is the FUN part.
I can’t help but think that this endless, janky, Seinfeld episode is more than just a novelty; one day, we may look back on the title “Nothing, Forever” as a dark promise of what’s to come.