Jerry Seinfeld is not an expert on chemistry, but he is an expert on comedy. That is why we must take him seriously when he says that boron is the funniest element:
That video is a recent interview of Jerry Seinfeld on The Howard Stern Show. For those of you who don’t want to watch it—and the whole interview is really great, by the way—I’ve transcribed the chemistry discussion here:
Seinfeld: What does it take to get a cab driver’s license? I think all you need is a face. This seems to be their big qualification. They put it on the license. No blank heads are allowed to drive cabs. And a name with, like, eight consonants in a row.
Seinfeld: Right? And some of the letters in these names, I don’t even know how I would report the guy. His name was Amal, and then the symbol for boron.
Stern: Right. When I hear “the symbol for boron”, that is the joke. I mean, I cannot help but think how brilliant that is.
Seinfeld: Thank you. Why? You like the choice of boron?
Stern: Boron, boron is the right element.
Seinfeld: That’s right.
Stern: It’s funny.
Seinfeld: Yes. A lot of other elements I could’ve picked.
Stern: Right. But you picked boron.
Seinfeld: It’s the funniest one.
Stern: Right. Now, first of all, when you were writing that bit, did you worry that outside of New York or big cities, that maybe people wouldn’t get that joke. Do you worry about who it’s going to universally appeal to?
Seinfeld: If it didn’t work on the road, I would’ve not done it on the road, but it did.
Stern: It did work.
Seinfeld: Because in the end, funny is funny.
Stern: Right, so, maybe a guy from Kansas understands that the symbol for boron is what we see on a cab?
Seinfeld: You know, Howard, when something is funny… You know, I watched Richard Pryor talk about how it feels to be hooked on…on…on…
Stern: On coke, or heroin.
Seinfeld: And I get it.
Seinfeld: I’ve never done it. I don’t even know what those drugs are.
Stern: But yet, that is compelling.
Seinfeld: If the…the guy takes you there. That’s the thing.
Stern: Alright. So, you were in a cab, and is that where you got the thought, where you saw the symbol…
Seinfeld: And I realized, why am I not scared? And even though this is a ridiculously dangerous…I would never drive like this, I have no seat belt on, and I’m not scared.
Stern: And you trust this guy from another fucking land.
Stern: We’re not even sure he knows how to drive.
Stern: And so that occurs to you. Do you immediately write it down in a book?
Seinfeld: Now this question, I get all the time.
Stern: Right. And I want to kn…
Stern: I’ll tell you why. Because I have thoughts all the time, if I don’t immediately write them down for my radio show, they’re gone. It’s gone.
Seinfeld: Yes. No, I do write things down. But people will ask. People ask me this, and they ask this hundreds of times: Do you have a pad? Do you write it on a…
Stern: Right! What’s the process?!
Seinfeld: Do you write it on a…? You write it! I had a little notebook, and you write it! People make notes all the time for things.
Stern: And did you write down the boron?
Stern: Where does that come from?
Seinfeld: Sitting with it.
Stern: I see.
Seinfeld: I sit with it.
Stern: Now, what do you mean sitting with it? You go home?
Seinfeld: I think this whole thing, the TV thing, I like the idea of the screen. It’s like TV. I go, that’s funny, I’ll play with that. And then the license, and then there was the “O” with the line through it.
Seinfeld: Right? And then I go…I don’t know, and then you think of the joke: you know, it’s a like a symbol from the chart of the elements. So then I thought, ok, which element?
Seinfeld: I’m going to use an element as a reference here, and that’ll be funny.
Stern: And boron was your first choice?
Seinfeld: No, it was not.
Stern: What was your first choice?
Seinfeld: My first choice was, ummm, I can’t remember. And then I looked up the chart of the elements, and I thought, “Oh, boron, that’s the funny one.”
So, there you go. I’m not sure what “the symbol for boron” is, since we abbreviate elements using letters without diacritical marks, but I’m guessing Seinfeld is referring to the archaic pictographic symbols for the elements. Here’s a couple of charts of symbols used by John Dalton, and the “‘O’ with a line through it” appears to be nitrogen. I can’t find an old symbol for boron, probably because it was too funny for stuffy chemists in the olden days to take seriously.
While I personally find boron to be amusing, I think that molybdenum is much funnier.