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March 9, 2011 6:04 AM   Subscribe

Will future generations understand "The Simpsons"?

Salon author Matt Zoller Seitz says that today's shows will not withstand the test of time as well as past sitcoms - "...the more recent hit comedies are starting to exude that expired fish stench while they're still on the air."
posted by rodmandirect (121 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
The Simpsons is probably a bad example. Future generations will still be watching first run episodes.
posted by Silentgoldfish at 6:10 AM on March 9, 2011 [52 favorites]


Will future generations actually give a damn about a show that is (20, 50, whatever) years old? Or will they be creating their own media that is important and relevant to them? Personally, I'd be kind of bummed if the following generations place a huge amount of importance on understanding essentially ephemeral items from our time. As a former history grad student, I get that being able to put cultural items into context is important, but every single joke and reference? Leave that to the history nerds like me and let everyone else interact and enjoy the culture of their time.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 6:12 AM on March 9, 2011 [11 favorites]


The article missed the point entirely when talking about the Simpsons. Few shows can really be timeless, but early Simpsons episodes work even if you have no clue what their references are. Rainier Wolfcastle is an obvious send-up of Schwarzenegger, but fast-forward 15-20 years, and you've got Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson wearing a tutu in "The Tooth Fairy."

Referencing specific people or events dates a comedy. Referencing genres or archetypes, that's classic. Writers of the future: make up fake fads or trends, don't reference current ones.
posted by explosion at 6:13 AM on March 9, 2011 [15 favorites]




Good point. Maybe shows like Bewitched or I Love Lucy would actually be funny if I understood all the pop-culture references of the time.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:14 AM on March 9, 2011


Looney Tunes had some of this too. There'd be many celebs on them, and as a child, I had no idea who they were. It felt weird and forced, and didn't fit with the rest of the great comedy.

That said, the Simpsons doesn't rely as much on the celeb in-joke or the whole "exact re-enactment of famous scene from other show/movie = parody! = funny hah, hah!" as other shows like Family Guy or The Critic.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 6:14 AM on March 9, 2011


I'm not sure that this generation completely gets it.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:15 AM on March 9, 2011 [6 favorites]


Who cares if the jokes are lost on future generations? Topical comedy has to be as fresh as eggs. With the same shelf life.
posted by three blind mice at 6:15 AM on March 9, 2011


Referencing specific people or events dates a comedy.

One of the things that makes Pixar so great is that they do so little of that. And when they do reference something, it tends to be the enormously iconic (for example, the 2001/Also Sprach Zarathustra music cue when Buzz Lightyear jumps on the floating stepping stones in Toy Story 2), the kind of thing that will probably still translate 20 to 50 years down the road.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:19 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Simpsons will be eventually as played out as the Marx Brothers, which is to say smart people will still love it because it is deeply deeply silly.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:21 AM on March 9, 2011 [16 favorites]


Does the current generation understand "The Simpsons?"
posted by nanojath at 6:22 AM on March 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


I've been watching Season 3 with my kids and it's incredible how old they seem. Like, many references to blue collar unions, which barely even exist now.

But lines like "Mr Burns. I don't know what you think sideburns are but...I SAID SHAVE THEM OFF!!!" still slay.
posted by DU at 6:27 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Good point. Maybe shows like Bewitched or I Love Lucy would actually be funny if I understood all the pop-culture references of the time.

Actually, I'd say I Love Lucy is a *perfect* example of using humor characterized broadly instead of pointed narrowly to get laughs. It sounds to me that you haven't seen much of the show, honestly.
posted by flatluigi at 6:28 AM on March 9, 2011 [7 favorites]


Wolfcastle: "My son returns from a fancy East Coast college, and I'm horrified to find he's a nerd."

Kent Brockman: "Ha, ha, ha! I'm laughing already!"

Rainier Wolfcastle: "It's not a comedy."


Err, this is a bad example, because this is funny even without the alleged pop culture references.
posted by chavenet at 6:28 AM on March 9, 2011 [14 favorites]


They just will have to be re edited so there is some exposition on the references and archaic terms, like those editions of shakespeare you use in high school that tell you what "Od's bodkin" means. Millions of kids will dread studying it, but it will be a sign of being cultured to understand and appreciate it, so everyone will be forced to be familiar with at least a few seasons. It will also be produced live for those few hardcore aficionados, Homer will be one of those roles that an actor plays at the pinnacle of their career. They will forever be telling everyone "I played Homer at Simpsons in the park!"
posted by Ad hominem at 6:29 AM on March 9, 2011 [32 favorites]


I think people will be quoting Homer in at least a couple of thousand years' time, and possibly even studying him.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:30 AM on March 9, 2011 [16 favorites]


Once my grandparents were over to baby-sit for me and my little sister, who was watching her weekend round of cartoons: The Simpsons, and Ren and Stimpy. They had a lot of trouble understanding The Simpsons - even though it was early in the show's run, the show had so many cultural references and assumptions that were completely foreign to them.

After seeing their trouble adjusting to a relatively mild cartoon, when Ren and Stimpy came on, I feared the worst. But instead, my grandparents were laughing their sides off! They were also totally disgusted, of course, but apparently there's something about bathroom humor and snot jokes that is universal and timeless - more so than a sitcom poking fun at a culture of a particular time and place.
posted by purple_frogs at 6:33 AM on March 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


It will also be produced live for those few hardcore aficionados, Homer will be one of those roles that an actor plays at the pinnacle of their career. They will forever be telling everyone "I played Homer at Simpsons in the park!"

I've never wished for a time machine harder.
posted by DU at 6:34 AM on March 9, 2011 [23 favorites]


I dunno. I was a kid, and I didn't get half the arcane references they dropped. And I still loved that show. And now I do get them, and it's like discovering new layers to a show I already enjoy very deeply.

Worker and Parasite isn't funny just because of its cultural context, it's also funny because of Krusty's brief moment of silence, exaggerated facial expression, and genuinely confused "What the HELL was that?"

In conclusion - jokes that make pop culture references without simply saying "hey do you remember x show or x actress" (like Family Guy) won't age well. But good writing never gets old.

(That said, I re-watched some of the newer episodes recently and I gotta say - the episode with the extended Anton Chighurh cameo was old news when it aired.)
posted by HostBryan at 6:34 AM on March 9, 2011 [6 favorites]


...apparently there's something about bathroom humor and snot jokes that is universal and timeless - more so than a sitcom poking fun at a culture of a particular time and place.

Probably in the future Spongebob will be considered more timeless than Simpson's. It isn't as bitingly satirical (or at all, usually) but it is very funny and not really tied to pop-culture at all.
posted by DU at 6:35 AM on March 9, 2011


I think that this is a pretty ridiculous concern. There are topical jokes, inside jokes, pop culture jokes, and meta jokes throughout literature and culture, even very old stuff, and we still read and appreciate that.

First of all, there are different layers at which a show can be appreciated. As a kid, I didn't get a lot of the jokes in the Simpsons, and I grew up with the show. I remember watching the first episode. I still loved it, though. Now, I get more of the jokes, and still love it (well, the peak seasons at least). I imagine when I get a little older, there will be more jokes I start to understand. The fact of the show's popularity in countries that don't necessarily share the cultural capital in which the Simpsons does business suggests to me that there are many ways to "read" it and enjoy it.

Second of all, there will always be people who want to dig down and find the other levels of humour, possibly so they can feel smug and superior toward other people who are watching the show "wrong." People like me.

Allusion and satire of current events is nothing new. It's been around for a long, long time and will stick around for a long, long time. The only thing that bothers me about a child (or even a teenager or young adult now) not getting the Simpsons in the same way that I do is that it makes me feel a bit older.
posted by synecdoche at 6:36 AM on March 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


You can't ask this question in a vacuum; you have to ask what television is and what television does as well.

Television is largely a commercial medium and therefore wondering whether television will be funny to future generations has to take a back seat to wondering whether television is funny to a present generation. The present generation's viewership pays to support the show's efforts. So we have to understand who is watching television.

Television is so referential today because the people still watching television have been doing so since they were children. Shows like Arrested Development, the Simpsons, and Family Guy became popular precisely because they treated the time you previously spent watching television as an investment, allowing for extremely extended jokes to pay off long after you forgot to expect a punchline. Revisiting a bit from earlier in the show is a hallmark of comedy--and modern TV just extends that to much, much earlier than the beginning of the show. How many people understood that it was funny for Henry Winkler to jump over a shark randomly on Arrested Development without reminded of his earlier bit in Happy Days? Obviously not enough to keep the show on the air.

For better or for worse, we share a cultural lexicon. Any medium that grows increasingly sophisticated will, of necessity, be aware of its forebears and make a wink at them referentially. Even Beethoven was "sampling" "Turkish marches" in the 9th Symphony.

And shows have always been making references. The Vitameatavegamin bit on I Love Lucy is funny because it references advertising of the day. That bit is still funny today even if you don't understand the reference. Animaniacs was hilarious when I was a kid, even though I didn't understand a single reference to the heyday of Hollywood. I had also never seen Goodfellas, Laurel and Hardy, or even Lassie. So I go back now, rewatch, and get the jokes on a deeper level.

How many people pull a quote or two here and there from Paradise Lost? There is some enjoyment to be had. But making the investment to read the footnotes makes it even better. Television will be the same way moving forward. So will most other mature cultural expressions.
posted by jefficator at 6:38 AM on March 9, 2011 [18 favorites]


I think people will be quoting Homer in at least a couple of thousand years' time, and possibly even studying him.

Sure, no doubt. But what about Jethro?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:39 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Aren't all TV shows by definition a product of its time? With the huge backlog of TV available these days, and it's trivial to see that every other show from the 60s etc. references current affairs. Star Trek is an obvious and widely known commentary on Cold War type things, and nearly every 50s scifi movie is a direct result of then-current nuclear scares.

Basically, if anyone's going to make an effort watching old television, they might also have made the effort to roughly understand the environment it came from.

If I can make sense of 60s references, why shouldn't someone 50 years from now be able to do the same?
posted by Harry at 6:41 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


I believe I addressed this already, NYT.

Anyway, the allusions will get dated, of course. But that is the way of things. I recall as a kid in the seventies listening to my parents' Judy Henske albums and wondering why the audience was whooping at lines like "Can't you keep Billy's bicycle out of the driveway?" and "Mother, PLEASE, I'd rather do it myself!"
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:41 AM on March 9, 2011


Actually, I'd say I Love Lucy is a *perfect* example of using humor characterized broadly instead of pointed narrowly to get laughs. It sounds to me that you haven't seen much of the show, honestly.
posted by flatluigi


Simpson's did it:

Rick: [on TV] Lucy! [slapping noise]
Lucy: Waaah.
Fred: You hit her pretty hard there, Rick.
posted by 445supermag at 6:42 AM on March 9, 2011 [5 favorites]


One of the things I loved about the Disney fairy tales when I was a kid was that they were timeless, free of pop culture. I didn't understand it, but that was part of it. Then Disney started hiring Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy to do stand-up in the middle of them and I figured it all out. "Group hug!" was something that struck me immediately as "not gonna age well".

On the upside, future pop culture historians will have a lot to work with when they dig through the Simpsons. I don't think they're trying to make TV for the ages here. There's so much TV now that it's OK if particular shows are disposable. It's probably Gen X nostalgia for a genuinely popular culture that no longer exists that insists that it should be.
posted by immlass at 6:48 AM on March 9, 2011 [4 favorites]


When the genie in Aladdin briefly morphs into Arsenio Hall... that's timeless.
posted by The Deej at 6:51 AM on March 9, 2011 [8 favorites]


In the future, laughter will be outlawed.
posted by Joe Beese at 6:52 AM on March 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


One of the things I loved about the Disney fairy tales when I was a kid was that they were timeless, free of pop culture.

This is exactly why I get a lot of fairy/folk tale books out at the library to read to my kids. I know I've mentioned viral ads and commercials embedded in things here before, but I've never said anything like that to my kids that I remember. But the other day we were reading a more recent book and several brand names were mentioned (Kool-aid, IBM, etc) and my 9 year old said "Why are there so many brand names in this book? Is it a commercial or what?"
posted by DU at 6:53 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


In the future, laughter will be outlawed

One can only hope. With so many kids starving in the world sitting around laughing seems kind of selfish. People need to examine their privilege. Perhaps all the effort that went into the Simpsons would have been better directed towards fixing our crumbling infrastructure. And think of all the trees that died to make the paper the artists used.
posted by Ad hominem at 6:58 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Will future generations actually give a damn about a show that is (20, 50, whatever) years old?

Show an 10yr old boy Abbott and Costello's "Who's On First". That the A&C routine is close to 80 yrs old, and it is descended from an earlier comedy routine that was a staple on the burlesque circuit in the 19th century.

That said, old TV shows are not watchable as comedies but rather as artifacts of culture that reflect the aspirations, percetions, and attitudes of the audience. The Simpsons is no different. "I Love Lucy" does not say something about marriage in the 50's as much as it says something about what audiences in the 50's thought about marriage and the forces that influenced their lives.

The problem with many of today's comedies is that they operate in that postmodern mode where popular culture itself is acknowledged to be powerful force in people's lives. For most of television history, sitcoms never showed the families watching TV. This is not an accident. In the Dick Van Dyke Show, the main character writes a TV show. In Bewitched, her husband works in advertising. But the characters never sit down and watch TV. I think (but don't quote me on this) the last show to adhere to this rule was Family Ties, where the father worked for PBS.

Television is acknowledged to be an exciting and lucrative industry, but shows were historically silent on the cultural impact of the medium itself. This changed in the late 80's with the Simpsons and the Cosby Show, where the subject of characters sitting for hours in front of the TV was the source of much comedy fodder. After this, in the early to mid 90's, shows took on a more postmodern slant, and the impact of TV, movies, and culture was became staples of the show. It may surprise the twenty-somethings today to know that despite it's massive commercial success in the 70's and 80's, Star Wars was never mentioned on television as something the characters were interested in until the 90's.

But there is nothing inherently wrong with this, because sitcoms given their function of drawing an audience for the purpose of selling advertising, can never truly attack or criticize through humor the form or the institution that gives it life. So instead they play in the culture, but in a superficial way that dates quickly. The Simpsons is even worse in this regard, because it plays on not only the content of pop culture, but also the form by routinely breaking the fourth wall and the like. These shows are not funny so much as they are enjoyable, and they are more enjoyable when you "get" all the references. But getting the references means you are mired in the superficial detritus of the culture. Is it worth suffering through a bunch of crappy Schwarzenegger movies just to get a Rainer Wolfcastle joke on the Simpsons?

And consider also the use of the laugh track. Was the purpose of the canned laughter to punch up jokes that were otherwise lame? Was the purpose to educate a national population fractured into groups be age, culture, region on certain acceptable norms of humor, i.e. to standardize humor across a country that until the advent of television had dramatic differences in taste? Was the purpose to simply laugh on the viewers behalf, so the viewer could enjoy the show without having to laugh on their own.

You know what dates even faster? Youtube programming. Why did you send me a link to a video that turn out to be a Rick Astley video? Why is there a cat clumsily playing a keyboard? None of that is funny on it's own, it actually makes no sense. It is only funny if you know and operate within the context of internet memes. The humor or joy, to the extent there is any, is in the fact that when these were popular, you seeing it meant you were in the culture, in the "now", and part of the meme.

When was the last time anyone made a "Snakes on the Plane" reference?

These shows will not be funny in the future because as it turns out they were not actually funny on their own when they first ran. The Simpsons is the punchline to a joke whose setup are the movies and shows on all of the other channels for the months and years prior to the running of that episode. Admittedly, it is a funny punchline, but that's only because much of what constitutes my life and memories (and those of most Gen Xers) are what we say on TV and in movies.

Furthermore, GenX was probably the last, and maybe only generation where our desire and ability to consume media vastly exceeded the output of our contemporary media industry. So we, the children of the 70's and 80's, not only were steeped in the culture of our day, we had a healthy dose of TV and film culture from their inception. We saw all the old shows, the Dennis the Menaces, the Dick Van Dykes, The I Love Lucys, but we also saw The Cosby Show, Cheers and Friends. Children today are not doing that, because there is simply so much new stuff that there is no reason to go back. And because the old stuff is predigested within the new stuff there is no way to go back and watch it free of the influence of modern media.
posted by Pastabagel at 6:59 AM on March 9, 2011 [56 favorites]


Few shows can really be timeless, but early Simpsons episodes work even if you have no clue what their references are. Rainier Wolfcastle is an obvious send-up of Schwarzenegger, but fast-forward 15-20 years, and you've got Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson wearing a tutu in "The Tooth Fairy."
I think this is a good point, and ignored in the article.

The Simpsons is fine when it's Ranier Wolfecastle or Drederick Tatum or Duffman or Bumblebee Man -- all obvious parodies of real people or characters from other things -- but I really, really dislike episodes that include lines like "Hi Homer, I'm the lead singer of the Smashing Pumpkins".
posted by Flunkie at 7:14 AM on March 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


The Simpsons is the punchline to a joke whose setup are the movies and shows on all of the other channels for the months and years prior to the running of that episode.

I don't think you've watched much Classic Simpson's recently. There are individual jokes that are only funny as references and there are even whole episodes predicated on a similarity to real world events (e.g. Bart falls down a well). But the shows still work even if you don't know the setup. It isn't merely a punchline, although it contains punchlines.
posted by DU at 7:15 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Anyone under maybe 45 watched an episode of "Laugh-In" lately? It's almost incomprehensible. That is some material that didn't age well.
posted by rusty at 7:17 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


'Billy Corgan, Smashing Pumpkins.'

'Homer Simpson, smiling politely.'
posted by box at 7:17 AM on March 9, 2011 [17 favorites]


Show an 10yr old boy Abbott and Costello's "Who's On First". That the A&C routine is close to 80 yrs old, and it is descended from an earlier comedy routine that was a staple on the burlesque circuit in the 19th century.

Isn't it partly funny because of the references to baseball? You'd at least have to rework the joke if you knew nothing about baseball. The code book bit from Day at the Races is funnier once you know a little about handicapping.
posted by Jahaza at 7:24 AM on March 9, 2011


In the Dick Van Dyke Show, the main character writes a TV show. ... But the characters never sit down and watch TV.

I have one word for you: walnut.
posted by darksasami at 7:28 AM on March 9, 2011


There are now so many things I miss and so I can add this show to the growing list. When did it go off the air? oh, I didn't know that.
posted by Postroad at 7:33 AM on March 9, 2011


The child Jones is ten and loves the Simpsons, as do many in her class. Of course they don't get all the references. So what? The show is rich enough that you don't have to get all of it. Does one need to know who Darryl Strawberry is to appreciate Homer At The Bat? Not really.

Moreover, I think there is value in suddenly stumbling on some ancient obscure pop reference (Gabbo, for example) and only then getting the joke as it appears in the Simpsons. Unlike most television comedy, or most television, the Simpson are not immediately disposable. You go back to it. There's a reason people can quote reams of it that are decades old. Getting the references after the fact or multiple viewings just enhances its depth.

I expect at some point there will be annotated Simpsons, and I doubt it will kill the comedy.

(I'm talking the good stuff, of course. Plenty of lameness in the Simpsons as well.)

Afterthought - would anyone watch the Simpsons in 2090 who isn't already fascinated with the era?
posted by IndigoJones at 7:41 AM on March 9, 2011


this is a bad example

"Aw, they all are!"
Or chilling. Remember Bart and Lisa watching the "School House Rock" parody "I'm an Amendment to Be" in a 1996 episode "The Day the Violence Died"? "It's one of those campy '70s throwbacks that appeals to Generation X-ers," Lisa says. "We need another Vietnam to thin out their ranks," Bart says coldly -- a line that would be a lot funnier if the United States had not, in fact, gotten involved in another Vietnam seven years later.
Come. On.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 7:41 AM on March 9, 2011 [4 favorites]


After this, in the early to mid 90's, shows took on a more postmodern slant, and the impact of TV, movies, and culture was became staples of the show.

One word - WKRP

In fact, the modern releases of WKRP on DVD may not include the songs that were being referenced in the episodes and worse - because the script actually references those songs as part of the joke, the show suffers unless you already know what song they are supposed to be talking about.

That said, one of the funniest moments ever on TV is still pretty goddamned funny after all these years.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:42 AM on March 9, 2011 [4 favorites]


Isn't it partly funny because of the references to baseball?

Reference: Who's on First?

Opinion: If you didn't know anything about baseball, you might be confused the first time you watched it. But it would still be hilarious. It helps to know position names, but they aren't required to make the joke funny.
posted by DU at 7:43 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't know---people still enjoy Aristophanes, despite a number of the jokes being nearly incomprehensible to a non-5th century Athenian. Scholars can debate for ages throwaway lines like, "At least I'm not like Kleonomos!"
posted by Bromius at 7:50 AM on March 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


"At least I'm not like Kleonomos!"

Ha! That's a knee-slapper.
posted by kmz at 7:53 AM on March 9, 2011


In the late '60s/early '70s, future Simpsons cast member Harry Shearer was part of a radio comedy group called The Credibility Gap (the name is TOTALLY dated now). But for lessons on how topical humor ages and doesn't age well, click on the audio clips here, especially "Who's On First" in which Shearer and David L. Lander (future TV's Squiggy) 'updated' the Abbott & Costello baseball bit with Rock and Roll references (Yes, The Who's on first...)
posted by oneswellfoop at 7:54 AM on March 9, 2011


"At least I'm not like Kleonomos!"
>Ha! That's a knee-slapper.


MetaTalk
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 7:55 AM on March 9, 2011 [7 favorites]


Will future generations actually give a damn about a show that is (20, 50, whatever) years old? Or will they be creating their own media that is important and relevant to them?

As a Doctor Who fan, I can say with certainty that we do both. There are vast efforts to recover 108 episodes missing from the early sixties due to a mix of reasons that led to the destruction of thousands of hours of British programming from virtually all programs. Those early stories are treated with reverence, and the lengths to which fans have made the incomplete and lost stories presentable are astonishing.

And many of the children who watched Doctor Who in those lost years grew up and got into the business, including producers Russel T. Davies & Steven Moffat, and David Tennant.
posted by ZeusHumms at 7:56 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Does one need to know who Darryl Strawberry is to appreciate Homer At The Bat? Not really.

Learning Daryl Strawberry's reputation made seeing him suck up to Mr. Burns much much funnier.
posted by Space Coyote at 7:58 AM on March 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


bitter-grrl: Will future generations actually give a damn about a show that is (20, 50, whatever) years old?

Yes, if they care about the culture they live in, what shaped it, and what came before. I watch 50-year-old TV sitcoms as much as I can. I get a lot more out of "I Love Lucy" and "Honeymooners" episodes that I've seen 100 times than out of any current sitcom that's on the air.

Personally, I'd be kind of bummed if the following generations place a huge amount of importance on understanding essentially ephemeral items from our time.

I'd be totally psyched, actually. It'd show that future generations care more about their past and about cultural history than the current generation seems to.

ColdChef: Old shows will always be painful to watch.

"Our Gang" was not a TV show.

Threeway Handshake: That said, the Simpsons doesn't rely as much on the celeb in-joke or the whole "exact re-enactment of famous scene from other show/movie = parody! = funny hah, hah!" as other shows like Family Guy or The Critic.

It does now. The last 2 or 3 seasons have tossed in tons of guest appearances and pop-culture references to buttress the basically non-existent plots. It strikes me that a lot of the references on mefi to "The Simpsons" are to the "good ol' Simpsons," the show that existed in the 1990s, and not the current incarnation, which is a totally different show and exists in its own parallel bizarro universe that has nothing to do with the old show except when it's necessary to plunder the old show for plot fodder (as they did a few weeks back with a new show plundering and pillaging "I Am Furious (Yellow)," which was actually a classic episode.
posted by blucevalo at 8:12 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


sorry, bitter-girl.com, not bitter-grrl
posted by blucevalo at 8:13 AM on March 9, 2011


"Why is there a cat clumsily playing a keyboard? None of that is funny on it's own, it actually makes no sense. It is only funny if you know and operate within the context of internet memes. The humor or joy, to the extent there is any, is in the fact that when these were popular, you seeing it meant you were in the culture, in the "now", and part of the meme.

When was the last time anyone made a "Snakes on the Plane" reference?
"

I don't know about this one. I mean Snakes on a Plane jokes were stale before the movie even existed. But Keyboard Cat? Keyboard Cat is timeless.
posted by cirrostratus at 8:19 AM on March 9, 2011


I think a lot of the best jokes from Aristophanes are timeless. For example:

"Did you experience an edifying catharsis from the tragedies of Euripides?"
"Oh, very much so, thank you."
"Euripi-deeeez nuts!"
posted by "Elbows" O'Donoghue at 8:19 AM on March 9, 2011 [19 favorites]


Rainier Wolfcastle: "It's not a comedy."

Err, this is a bad example, because this is funny even without the alleged pop culture references.


What the hell? That STILL makes me laugh. :)
posted by Theta States at 8:20 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


I feel old and crotchety just typing this, but it seems lots of contemporary stuff, especially for kids, is just humor-approximation: punchlines standing in for real jokes. I took the kids to the movies over the weekend, and two back-to-back previews *and* the movie itself featured scenes involving jaunty music coming to a screeching halt and then a cartoon animal fourth-wall breaking and saying, "Awk-warrrrd!" The kids were amused, because they'd seen that before, in countless other cartoons and tv shows, and they understood that "Awk-warrrd!" was the cue for "insert funny here." Meanwhile, the most they laughed ever was when they watched "Airplane!" There's just a difference between humor that's self-aware and humor that's self-conscious.
posted by mothershock at 8:20 AM on March 9, 2011 [15 favorites]


This is one of those things that comes up among people who have late night discussions over "what is art?" Does art have to be timeless to be "art"? And then, after having this long discussion, they turn to the question of The Simpsons.

Nothing new here. The pressures of syndication create a lot of incentives for mediocre television that no one will watch in 25-30 years, anyway, but those same pressures will make something timeless, because a television episode has to be able to be broadcast in isolation many years after it was originally aired. Despite these pressures, The Simpsons manages to be great TV.

As Potomac Avenue points out, the market for decades-old television is limited to intellectuals who "get" the jokes of the time. That will likely be pretty consistent decades from now, as well. And we'll whine that our children and grandchildren just "don't get" great TV and instead enjoy whatever stuff we don't really connect with.
posted by deanc at 8:28 AM on March 9, 2011


So it became a pop culture reference factory, not unlike "The Family Guy" -- a consistently ruder, funnier show that was nonetheless never as rich as "The Simpsons," and that looted Matt Groening's cartoon like a department store during a blackout.

This dude has either not watched much "Family Guy" or listened to what his co-workers said about it or not watched it recently, because it's not really that much of a pop culture reference factory anymore, whereas "The Simpsons" has resorted to desperately trying to become much more like "Family Guy" used to be, except not nearly anywhere as funny.
posted by blucevalo at 8:30 AM on March 9, 2011


Those Shakespeare and Greek comedies were like fresh eggs, topical and fresh and not meant to last.
posted by stbalbach at 8:33 AM on March 9, 2011


This is one of those things that comes up among people who have late night discussions over "what is art?"

Uhhh, paintings and stuff?

Seriously, I think we will eventually get to the point where so many things have been "remixed" or re appropriated that the original reference will be totally lost on all but a select few. Then those few will form a priesthood for interpreting pop culture and mediate between the viewers and the creators. And all that time I've spent practically memorizing every episode of the The Simpsons between season 4 and season 12 will finally pay off.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 8:34 AM on March 9, 2011


Personally, I think The Brady Bunch will survive surprisingly well. Aside from the fashions, as long as there are families, it will seem a saccharine, happy-shiny image thereof.

Sure, people might not remember Davey Jones or Desi Arnaz, jr, but pop stars will exist and teen girls will squee over them. Kids will lie to their parents about who broke the vase, and their siblings will try to cover for them. Boys will play with toy guns and annoy the fuck out of everyone in the house. A couple of seasons in, a new cousin will enter the home and the clan will end up in a food fight. And family vacations will end in a culturally traditional, circle-based ceremony after solving a mystery.

Timeless.

And if Our Gang wasn't originally a TV show, I sure grew up watching them in syndication on Saturday Mornings in the late 70s/early 80s. Again, pretty timeless I think.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:37 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Spare a thought for the international audiences. The Simpsons isn't the worst offender by far, but there are often cultural references which mean absolutely nothing to me. Family Guy or American Dad is even worse- they're packed with references to minor US celebs which have absolutely no meaning over here.
posted by salmacis at 8:38 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Will future generations understand "The Simpsons"?

Let them make their own damn comedy!

Also, I must be from the future because I don't find any of 'the more recent hit comedies' funny.
posted by mazola at 8:41 AM on March 9, 2011


And if Our Gang wasn't originally a TV show, I sure grew up watching them in syndication on Saturday Mornings in the late 70s/early 80s. Again, pretty timeless I think.

"Our Gang" was originally Hal Roach Studio film shorts. Yes, they may have been broadcast on TV later. Not the same thing as "a TV show."
posted by blucevalo at 8:46 AM on March 9, 2011


More importantly, will future generations be able to watch 'The Simpsons' from inside a Martian prison camp?
posted by shakespeherian at 8:46 AM on March 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'd further make the argument that comedy itself isn't timeless-- what people consider humorous changes over time. A few isolated humor routines might stand the test of time, but it's pretty unreasonable to expect that despite cultural changes over several decades that affect the public's humor and their sophistication, what is found humorous in popular culture will remain constant. At best, we will be able to look back on certain artifacts that be able to study why people, at a certain time and place, found something very funny at the time.
posted by deanc at 8:49 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Anyone under maybe 45 watched an episode of "Laugh-In" lately? It's almost incomprehensible. That is some material that didn't age well.

I'm 45, and I haven't watched it, but I'm sure I'd get something out of it even if it weren't ha-ha funny to me.
posted by blucevalo at 8:52 AM on March 9, 2011


Pop culture references and comedy have gone hand-in-hand ever since the birth of Western civilization. Aristophanes' plays are full of pop-culture references that are lost on today's audience without footnotes. But that doesn't mean that they aren't worth studying or that they themes aren't timeless.
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 8:54 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


More importantly, will future generations be able to watch 'The Simpsons' from inside a Martian prison camp?

I bet they'll get a pop-up from Hulu.Com that says "streaming video is not yet available in your region. Please fill in your email and we will notify you when Mars gets Hulu."
posted by chavenet at 8:55 AM on March 9, 2011 [7 favorites]


More importantly, will future generations be able to watch 'The Simpsons' from inside a Martian prison camp?

Puny human slave laborer: Don't blame me, I voted for Kodos!

*laughs half-heartedly, then cries bitter tears and resumes his backbreaking work*
posted by kmz at 8:55 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Remind me sometime to tell you about the hilarious in-joke in The Sun Also Rises that to appreciate you have to know that Bernadette was declared "Blessed" by the Pope in 1925.
posted by marxchivist at 8:58 AM on March 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


For some reason this makes me think about the impact of period pieces like "Mad Men" that portray a historical era.

When people in the future watch "The Simpsons," they're going to have to know a lot about the culture in which it was made. But when people in the future watch shows like "Mad Men," they're going to have to know about the 1960s AND the 2000s/2010s. "Mad Men" is the 1960s as reflected through today's culture. It's kind of like how to truly understand what "Happy Days" is about, you have to know about not just the 1950s but the 1970s, and to understand "Birth of a Nation," you have to know about the Civil War as well as the era in which the movie was made.

What would be really cool would be a TV show made in the 2010s about people in the 1970s producing a TV show about the 1940s. Imagine the multiple layers of meaning that people in the future will have to possess in order to fully understand it.
posted by Tin Man at 8:58 AM on March 9, 2011 [11 favorites]


And if Our Gang wasn't originally a TV show, I sure grew up watching them in syndication on Saturday Mornings in the late 70s/early 80s. Again, pretty timeless I think.

"Our Gang" was originally Hal Roach Studio film shorts. Yes, they may have been broadcast on TV later. Not the same thing as "a TV show."


Short humorous pieces featuring a continuing cast of characters in absurd situations with feel-good resolutions. If Roach wasn't writing for TV, he might as well have been.
posted by tspae at 9:11 AM on March 9, 2011


I was 12 or 13 when "Krusty Get Kancelled" was first aired--if not too young to recognize Johnny Carson or Bette Midler, I had no idea who they were at the time in any case. Nevertheless, this was one of the episodes that made me fall in love with The Simpsons. Seitz points out a number of cultural references in that show which I was ignorant of, and that ignorance never hurt my ability to laugh at the absurdity or cleverness of it.

For instance, the Red Hot Chili Peppers lyric-censorship gag isn't funny because it was inspired by Ed Sullivan doing something similar decades before; it's funny because a band that plays music in their underwear prefers the sanitized "I want to hug and kiss you" version proposed over the raunchy original lyrics which the band had only just claimed to be devoted to as if they were their own children. The humor is present even if aren't personally familiar with the Chili Peppers outside of the context of the show.

You don't have to know the source of the original version of "Send in The Clowns" or have any idea who Bette Midler is to enjoy either Krusty's croaky version of the song or seeing Bette blow up a truck of litterbugs with a discarded soda can (which inexplicably works as a hand grenade).

Does Seitz wish to tell us that the Planet of The Apes musical in another episode wouldn't be hilarious if one didn't know who Charlton Heston was, or if one hadn't heard Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus"? I would challenge him on that.

The fact is, I get most or all of the references on Family Guy, but the mere recognition adds nothing; I'm not laughing because merely being referential and creating arbitrary juxtaposition isn't inherently humorous. Breakdancing, singing ape-men, on the other hand, are delightful in a way that cannot be anchored to a point on a cultural timeline.

In other words, the complaint that the humor is in danger of being too obscure doesn't strike me as valid. I'm inclined to think that the only people who would have an issue are those who take an inordinate satisfaction in art which falls neatly within the boundary of their own milieu and sphere of reference, and who like intellectualizing a process which most people enjoy by reflex.
posted by millions at 9:11 AM on March 9, 2011 [7 favorites]


But the other day we were reading a more recent book and several brand names were mentioned (Kool-aid, IBM, etc) and my 9 year old said "Why are there so many brand names in this book? Is it a commercial or what?"

That's some weird kid you've got. I think the obvious reason brand names might be mentioned is because people have lots of brand name good in their lives. I've always found it amusing, and sometimes distracting when notable non brand name products were used in works of fiction when they weren't intended to be so. When the Sorny and Pantaphonics TV sets aren't intended to be jokes, they become distractions.
posted by 2N2222 at 9:14 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Anyone under maybe 45 watched an episode of "Laugh-In" lately? It's almost incomprehensible. That is some material that didn't age well.

I'm 43 and an avid, long-time watcher of Laugh-In. Unless they were mentioning some individual performer or celeb of the time (most of whom I remember quite fondly), there isn't much that would be difficult for an average person to comprehend without having to think very hard. That was the whole point Rowan and Martin were trying to get across; you shouldn't have to work hard to be funny. Life does all the work for you if you let it.
posted by schade at 9:19 AM on March 9, 2011 [4 favorites]


If Roach wasn't writing for TV, he might as well have been.

Yes, you're right. And he did license them to be used on TV too, I'm reading now. Not to mention that he produced 1500 hours of TV shows per year in the early 1950s.

So I now voraciously eat humble pie and retract my earlier statements.
posted by blucevalo at 9:29 AM on March 9, 2011


People have been conditioned to laugh at things that are references regardless of whether they're funny, or if the person even gets the reference.

Fun exercise, next time you're out with a group of people, say any regular sentence in a slightly different voice or dialect, count how many people laugh before they ask where that's from (if they do at all). I have an odd way of speaking as is, so this happens to me roughly 5 times a week.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 9:36 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think The Simpsons writers were always aware that some of their references would not age well:
I think about weird stuff, like what would happen if Mr. T and E.T. had a baby. You'd get Mr. E. T., wouldn't you? And he'd sound something like this: 'I pity the fool who doesn't--pho-one ho-ome!'

posted by Theta States at 9:36 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Pastabagel: You know what dates even faster? Youtube programming. Why did you send me a link to a video that turn out to be a Rick Astley video? Why is there a cat clumsily playing a keyboard? None of that is funny on it's own, it actually makes no sense. It is only funny if you know and operate within the context of internet memes. The humor or joy, to the extent there is any, is in the fact that when these were popular, you seeing it meant you were in the culture, in the "now", and part of the meme.

I disagree. On YouTube, those videos were funny because 1) RickRolling was about misdirection that needed no context, and 2) Keyboard Cat on it's own was an amusing clip that needed no context. When paired with other clips, Keyboard Cat became the vaudeville piano man at the end of a skit.

Those practices spread as "viral" videos, elevating the original humor into widely known memes, so that Rick Astley performing on Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade was funny, and not just the return of a forgotten 80s pop star, and someone dressed in cat ears and a blue shirt could be considered in costume as a known character.

There is cultural humor, based on knowledge of current and past media, characters and famous people. The appearance of a pleasant Gerald Ford at the end of Two Bad Neighbors isn't nearly as amusing if you don't know who Ford was, but the escalating battle between George Bush Sr. and Homer goes beyond character-based humor.

Then there are physical and situational comedy, and wordplay of all sorts. Some requires a basic understanding of a social situation, but other needs little introduction. While I doubt many younger folks would know Yakov Smirnoff by looking at him, or really understand the complex history of Soviet Russia as compared to the United States, his Russian reversal jokes are basic wordplay that young folks still understand and mimic.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:42 AM on March 9, 2011


You know what dates even faster? Youtube programming. (...) Why is there a cat clumsily playing a keyboard?

I agree with you in general, but the Keyboard Cat example is actually kind of interesting.

Because that whole gag actually only makes sense if you know what "play him off" means, which is actually a vaudeville thing, no? So when it "went viral," it was actually not only a joke in its own right, but a joke that (a) shows you a cat playing the keyboard as somebody flounders or fails, and also (b) resurrects an expression from the vaudeville (and probably classic talk show) age, "play him off, _____," which may well have completely faded into total non-use otherwise.

So maybe shows like the Simpsons will actually do a lot of good work in the future, keeping nearly-extinct tropes alive by sending them up, and letting people know that these things existed. Is the board-with-a-nail-in-it gag funny all by itself? Sure. But you also get the distinct impression that it's built off something, and a good idea of what that something was like.

When I was a kid in the late '70s and early '80s, I had access to a whole lot of MAD magazines. I'm sure I'm not the only one.

I didn't get all the jokes, or understand the television and movie send-ups, but years later, when I finally saw the actual TV shows and movies that were being spoofed, I realized that MAD had actually given me a surprisingly accurate idea of what they were like.

I suspect the Simpsons' archival functions may be more profound than we think.
posted by Shepherd at 9:42 AM on March 9, 2011 [12 favorites]


Anecdote: my sister, who we adopted from Russia when she was 6 years old, loved Threes Company and The Cosby Show. She was born in 1990, and learned English by submersion. Yet somehow, she latched onto those two sitcoms, one that ran from 1977 to 1984, the second from '84 to '92. Those shows were completely before her time, yet she'd stay up late, watching hours of those shows.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:50 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is it really a big deal if its references don't age well? I don't think I'm going to get upset if my hypothetical future children aren't as enamored with the Simpsons at 10, 11, 12 as I was. I sure never cared much about whatever pop culture my parents loved, no matter how revolutionary it was at the time.
posted by missix at 9:56 AM on March 9, 2011


Good job, Salon, ripping on Community, an intelligent, hilarious show that's pretty much only watched by me and a few friends, which will most likely be canceled after a couple seasons just like Arrested Development.

Hope you're proud of yourself.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:12 AM on March 9, 2011 [5 favorites]


"At least I'm not like Kleonomos!"
>Ha! That's a knee-slapper.

MetaTalk


Man, I clicked that link with sleeves rolled up ready to Get Into It with whoever, and was surprisingly disappointed when it didn't exist.

I do think it's funny that people are talking about Aristophanes as a time-limited sort of humor when half the jokes are basically, "Dildoes!" or "Farting!" Admittedly, the other half are about politics from 2500 years ago.

As far as the Simpsons goes, I recently saw someone using the word "cromulent" with no idea where it had come from, so I think that the Simpsons will remain relevant to our popular culture because it's created things that now exist completely outside of the show (or television) itself.
posted by Copronymus at 10:14 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was a kid in the 80s, raised on MAD magazine and reruns of Python, SNL, and Looney Tunes. I managed to understand the humor and contextualize the references and didn't even have a Wikipedia, and can't be the only one.

something something Spiro Agnew something something he must work there
posted by jtron at 10:17 AM on March 9, 2011 [7 favorites]


I see your 30 Rock, and raise you a Monkees, sir.
posted by sararah at 10:33 AM on March 9, 2011


I don't even understand The Simpsons and I'm going on 25. It's not that I don't understand it, I just don't find it particularly funny. I'd take an episode of Robot Chicken or Flight of the Conchords over the Simpsons any day.
posted by tybeet at 10:48 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


.... but I really, really dislike episodes that include lines like "Hi Homer, I'm the lead singer of the Smashing Pumpkins".

On the other hand, Ron Howard as a sleazy drunk always makes me laugh. Pop culture historians 50 years since will take it seriously and he'll be laughing his ass off, wherever he is. (Probably lounging around some virtual living room drinking virtual martinis in a ratty virtual bathrobe.)
posted by lodurr at 10:54 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


My favourite Simpsons episode, "Cape Feare", is based on two films that I have never seen. At the end of the day, funny is funny and it doesn't matter if your references are to pop culture, current society, yourself or anything else; if your comedy is good enough then it will endure regardless.

Of course, whether durability is a valid metric for a TV comedy show is another thing entirely. Rarely do I catch myself laughing uproariously and think, "But... but will future generations be laughing with me? Or at me?"
posted by MUD at 11:05 AM on March 9, 2011


I find the early Simpsons even funnier now than when I first saw them and that was my favorite show as a kid.

Family Guy to me has always been a lot jokes that could be interchanged with any other episode. I liked it at first when I saw it in high school, but now I can't really watch it.

I was always partial to the softball episode and the monorail ones in the Simpsons.
posted by Dick Laurent is Dead at 11:08 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Simpsons themselves comment on this:
Lisa: Dad, what's a Muppet?

Homer: Well, it's not quite a mop and it's not quite a puppet... but man (laughs). So to answer your question, I don't know.

Bart: Why did they make that one Muppet out of leather?

Marge: That's not a leather Muppet, that's Troy McClure. Back in the '70s he was quite the teen heartthrob.
posted by codacorolla at 11:33 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Mr. Burns, you're the richest guy I know"
"Yes, but I'd trade it all for just a little more"
I wish for a time when this will illicit blank looks of confusion, but I aint holding my breath. I love watching the Simpsons with my kids, and they usually laugh first and ask me about the references later. And I provide those references as best I can. I like the feeling that the show was written for me, because of my background. My kids will have their own shows that are written for them with appropriate refferences. And I will sit in my recliner and grouse about how shows these days aren't as funny as the were in my day. As it always has been and ever shall be.
Amen.
posted by Redhush at 11:47 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


I feel old and crotchety just typing this, but it seems lots of contemporary stuff, especially for kids, is just humor-approximation: punchlines standing in for real jokes. I took the kids to the movies over the weekend, and two back-to-back previews *and* the movie itself featured scenes involving jaunty music coming to a screeching halt and then a cartoon animal fourth-wall breaking and saying, "Awk-warrrrd!" The kids were amused, because they'd seen that before, in countless other cartoons and tv shows, and they understood that "Awk-warrrd!" was the cue for "insert funny here."

That's the nature of kids, not anything specific to their generation. I mean, my hippie parents used to tell me and my sister No Soap Radio to make us giggle like the little fools that we were, despite the fact that the joke has no punchline.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:13 PM on March 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


"In a way, you're both winners, but in another, more accurate way, Barney's the winner" will be a shimmering diamond of comedy writing brilliance perfectly comprehensible (and hysterical) to anyone fluent in English long after Salon has become a forgotten archived "channel" on AOLHuffPoTMZ, so Matt Zoller Seitz can cram it with walnuts and serve it up as an appetizer to Flintstones guest star Ann Marg-rock. And then he can tell his seven-year-old to stop writing his anecdata ledes for him.
posted by gompa at 12:35 PM on March 9, 2011 [5 favorites]


Learning Daryl Strawberry's reputation made seeing him suck up to Mr. Burns much much funnier.

Oddly enough, I don't know his reputation (I thought it was Reggie Jackson who was the Pill of the Yankees) but even without that knowledge, I (and my ten year old) find the episode brilliant.

Which was my main point. Fully getting the references may help, but it is not always obligatory.
posted by IndigoJones at 12:42 PM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have this vague memory of a footnote in my copy of Lysistrata explaining that the person the characters were talking about was someone prominent then, but who they are has been lost to history.

The other footnotes I remember is about dildoes.
posted by NoraReed at 12:46 PM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, Lysistrata! At least its plot is still comprehensible. Try The Acharnians by Aristophanes. To enjoy the jokes, you have to know things like the Megarian decree, who Cephisophon was, and why Aristophanes was so pissed at Cleon.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:50 PM on March 9, 2011


Part of me is amused to think that there could be an annotated version of the Simpsons where all the jokes are explained like a tenth grade edition of Romeo and Juliet.
posted by Calzephyr at 1:00 PM on March 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


Future generations are already enjoying The Simpsons. The show is, what, 22 years old? Do young people today go back and watch Simpsons episodes from before they were born? Do they find them funny/enjoy them? Yes and yes.
posted by arcticwoman at 1:06 PM on March 9, 2011


Will future generations understand "The Simpsons"?

Yes because they're released with DVD commentaries on every episode.

On a slightly less glib note, on one commentary for a Halloween episode (specifically ToH V, 1994) the writer has to explain the title "Nightmare Cafeteria" is a reference to "Nightmare Cafe" which ran for all of 6 episodes a year or so earlier.

Arguably dated at the time; more so now.
posted by John Shaft at 1:20 PM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Homer At The Bat is brilliant, one of my favourite episodes of all time (and according to Wikipedia it has saved two lives!), but I'm a sports geek and got most if not all of the baseball in-jokes (and some of them were really obscure). But you don't have to know a thing about baseball to laugh hysterically at the sound the bag of peanuts makes when the vendor bounces it off some guy's head and onto a car in the stadium parking lot. Okay, maybe that's just me.

Anecdata: a friend of mine is going through the first few seasons with his 12 year-old daughter and apparently she loves it.
posted by The Card Cheat at 1:30 PM on March 9, 2011


That said, one of the funniest moments ever on TV is still pretty goddamned funny after all these years.

Indeed, still funny even though it contains at least three archaic pop-culture references (all of which, I might add, continue to have some currency regardless of knowledge of the source material).

The comparisons of The Simpsons to I Love Lucy are pretty spurious. That was a show from the heyday of a broadcast culture completely dominated by three networks competing for roughly even parity in ratings. Your target was at least 33% of the television viewers during your block. The broadest jokes, therefore, and a heavy reliance on stereotypes and physical comedy. The Simpsons, of course, was one of the first certifiable hits on FOX, a fourth television network, which was not even shooting for 25% of the audience, just a loyal niche. There was cable competition in those days, although mostly from HBO and Showtime, not from anything like serial television with appointment viewing. It was very much part of a sea change in television programming.

Television today -- acclaimed series like The Sopranos or The Wire -- would simply not have been economically possible in the three-network era. In many ways, the smart topical shows of today are too much for people to keep up with, when there was a time when people like me ached for even one more M*A*S*H or St. Elsewhere to get through the week. Nowadays, you need a pungent mix of deep content and -- to be completely honest -- some audience flattery to get people to skip their Netflix (or, you know, Facebook) and watch you. TV viewership has been falling by enormous percentages annually for some time, and the resulting mix of material has had much more necessity of effectiveness.

I just don't think it makes much sense to laud Lucy for her supposed timelessness when it wasn't trying to do the same thing at all nor did it have to.
posted by dhartung at 3:03 PM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


that's all interesting, dhartung, but I'm not sure I understand your point. Is it that Lucy wasn't as timeless as folks make it out to be, or just that it's an apples and walnuts comparison? (I would be with you on either, I just want to understand more where you're coming from.)
posted by lodurr at 4:39 PM on March 9, 2011


The Simpsons will be dated eventually, but it won't be because of forgotten pop references. It'll be because our sense of humor has changed. I think our aesthetic preferences are changing more rapidly now than they used to. I like the old Simpsons for nostalgic purposes and because they were at the top of the humor tech tree for their time, but I don't think they're as funny as more modern whip-smart comedies like Arrested Development and Futurama. Tastes change and tastes grow, and humorists change their products to keep pace. I'm pretty sure that in fifty years, the jokes in the Simpsons will be considered as slow and obvious and stereotyped and plodding as the the way we consider jokes in reruns of Hee Haw. No big loss. If it's funny to me now, then I'm happy.
posted by painquale at 4:41 PM on March 9, 2011


Arguably dated at the time; more so now.

Only if "Nightmare Cafe" only makes sense if you know the primary referent, which totally ignores the existence of another possible referent -- or, for that matter, the fact that "nightmare cafeteria" is quite humorously creepy without the need of any external referents.
posted by lodurr at 4:42 PM on March 9, 2011


When I was a kid in the late '70s and early '80s, I had access to a whole lot of MAD magazines. I'm sure I'm not the only one.

I didn't get all the jokes, or understand the television and movie send-ups, but years later, when I finally saw the actual TV shows and movies that were being spoofed, I realized that MAD had actually given me a surprisingly accurate idea of what they were like.


I was gonna say this exact thing. If I was going to try and explain "the 60's" to someone with no prior knowledge, I would give them a box of Mad Magazines from that era. If I was going to do the same for the end of the 20th century, I would give them those classic years of The Simpsons. I think both did a perfect job of not only satirizing the time, but providing a consistent and accurate context for that satire.
posted by billyfleetwood at 5:07 PM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Actually, I'd say I Love Lucy is a *perfect* example of using humor characterized broadly instead of pointed narrowly to get laughs. It sounds to me that you haven't seen much of the show, honestly.

No, I've seen way too much of it. I just don't think it's funny at all, so I'm making excuses, like "maybe it was full of highly contextual & topical gags that I'm missing....?"

Also, MASH. That sucked, too.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:18 PM on March 9, 2011


For what it's worth, Alice in Wonderland (and Through the Looking-Glass) is replete with now-forgotten topical references and 100+ years old cultural mores. It's still awesome.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:24 PM on March 9, 2011


and lets not forget we can still be entertained by Dante's Inferno, with references only the most arcane historians can fully feret out.....
posted by Redhush at 8:57 PM on March 9, 2011


Count me in among the kids who feel like they grew up in the 60s because of old MAD Magazines...or the 40s, from watching old Looney Tunes (anyone else remember being totally baffled by the one with all the movie star caricatures?). Yeah, there was a lot I didn't understand, and as a result, the older I get, the more my childhood reading means to me. It's a great way to live and I'd recommend it to anyone. Of course, it also means there's a lot of random crap floating around in my brain, and occasionally I'll make a joke about "The Shadow" to a group of people my age and everyone will look at me like...well, like I pulled off a mask and it turned out I was their mom, I guess.
posted by troublesome at 9:14 PM on March 9, 2011


It's interesting to see so many people reference the Homer at the Bat episode. I'm 35, so was right in the target demographic when it was first created (I assume), but I'm Australian, and no nothing about baseball or softball (outside a vague knowledge of the general rules). I had no idea the ringers were even based on real people (it's seriously weird for me to see people talking about Daryl Strawberry, the occasional Simpson's character, as if he was actually a real person). That ignorance didn't detract from my enjoyment of it.

Like MUD, I also haven't seen the movie Cape Fear (either version – although, again, I know vaguely what it's about). That doesn't stop Cape Feare being my all-time favourite Simpson's episode. The bit with Sideshow Bob and the rakes, one of my favourite pieces of (albeit animated) physical comedy of all time, needs no context.

There are subtleties to this sort of comedy, obviously, but when its done right, knowing them adds to it, but its still funny in their absence. I guess that's the art of it. The Simpson's didn't always get it right (past tense, because I haven't seen a new episode for a decade or so), but when it did, it got it right beautifully.
posted by damonism at 9:44 PM on March 9, 2011



Will future generations actually give a damn about a show that is (20, 50, whatever) years old? Or will they be creating their own media that is important and relevant to them?


Happy Days and The Munsters and The Wonder Years were important to me growing up. hell early episodes of The Simpsons aired when i was in diapers and i love them
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 10:30 PM on March 9, 2011


and Bugs Bunny was filled with parodies of forgotten stars. still funny
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 10:31 PM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


i have heard Aussie friends telling me they either don't get references in The Simpsons or didn't know the things were real (like yellow schoolbusses)
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 10:45 PM on March 9, 2011


I tried reading some Aristophanes when I was a kid. I didn't really get its mockery of sophistry and metaphysical quibbling. Nor did I grasp its relevance in the social context of 5th-century Athens. What I did get was the fart jokes.

Fart jokes: immortal.
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 12:18 AM on March 10, 2011


I had no idea Daryl Strawberry was a real person until this thread, and actually assumed he was a take-off of a real baseball player with a silly-sounding fruit-based name.

All this makes me think of (the other!) Homer's 'wine-dark sea' - will far-future historians come up with arcane theories to explain why The Simpsons have yellow skin and blue hair? Given the reams of writing on that one repeated phrase - explained by the lack of a word for blue, or congenital colour blindness, or marine algae dying the Agean red, or alkaline water turning diluted wine blue, or Homer's supposed blindness, or because wine is dark and so is the sea which means the colour difference tells us something about the ancient perception of light and shadow, or that it was a sort of jarring landmark phrase to aid memorisation - I'm betting the Classicists of the future will have plenty to think on before they get to the pop culture gags.
posted by a little headband I put around my throat at 3:08 AM on March 10, 2011 [3 favorites]


I thought Happy Days was made in the 50s. I had no idea until I was much older (not that I ever watched it) that it was meant to be nostalgic. I guess I had to get old enough to understand what nostalgia was in the first place.

(Yes, it's right there in the title. Shut up.)

My mom was always worried that my brother and I wouldn't get the references in all the Looney Tunes / Merrie Melodies we watched growing up (or was worried we WOULD get some of them!). But, you know, we would talk about them and she would give us backstory and it was actually quite educational.

And anyway, the Simpsons is so monolithic that it's not going away quickly. Even if people in the (near) future don't know the Simpsons, they will know the Simpsons because the things they've grown up with will be based on the Simpsons. So they'll sit down and be like, "Oh, hey, I know this from [show]." Well, little Sally or Billy, that's because THIS is the source material (along with the things the Simpsons borrowed from, but you get what I mean).

"After seeing their trouble adjusting to a relatively mild cartoon, when Ren and Stimpy came on, I feared the worst. But instead, my grandparents were laughing their sides off!"

Ren and Stimpy is largely based on/referential to 50s sitcoms and cartoons (but with the grossness turned way up), so I'm sure it was much more accessible to them for that reason.
posted by Eideteker at 5:41 AM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Will future generations understand Seinfeld? Even when it was on in prime time it was incomprehensible to some. Alternate side of street parking? No cell phones or Internet?
posted by fixedgear at 5:56 AM on March 10, 2011


Tastes change and tastes grow, and humorists change their products to keep pace. I'm pretty sure that in fifty years, the jokes in the Simpsons will be considered as slow and obvious and stereotyped and plodding as the the way we consider jokes in reruns of Hee Haw.

Change absolutely, grow, well- that sounds kind of condescending to earlier generations. There were some pretty sophisticated jokes back in the olde dayes. And Hee Haw was pretty lame even at the time. At least, to my taste.

will far-future historians come up with arcane theories to explain why The Simpsons have yellow skin and blue hair?

Far off future historians will know nothing about the Simpsons because eventually all the plastic based toys and magnetic based cartoons will be lost to general decay and solar flares.
posted by IndigoJones at 1:59 PM on March 10, 2011


Man, at the heat death of the universe, who's going to get topical jokes like these?
posted by Eideteker at 9:40 PM on March 10, 2011


Will future generations understand Seinfeld? Even when it was on in prime time it was incomprehensible to some.

Unfunniest program ever.

Until you've been to New York.

At which point: very, very, funny.
posted by MuffinMan at 8:36 AM on March 11, 2011


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