Television has long been the most ephemeral of genres. Movies, books, even albums are often described as "timeless," and many of them find large audiences decades after their initial creation. Not so with television, which is usually consumed and disposed of carelessly. In fact, until the advent of DVD box sets in the past decade, it was pretty much impossible to systematically watch a television show no longer in production. You could catch a few episodes of the most famous shows in syndication or on Nick at Nite, but the vast number of programs slipped through the cracks.
One might wonder if there's not a reason for this. Television episodes generally have a shorter script-to-screen time, and can afford to be a little more current, often making passing references to current pop culture that movies (with longer production schedules and international distribution) cannot. Television is primarily concerned with drawing in viewers now, not selling books or videos down the road, and thus shows tend to be more situated in a specific time period.
But now that pretty much any piece of crap ever aired is available on DVD at your local Target for twenty-five bucks, it's worth asking if these shows are going to be holding up in ten or twenty years. Matt Zoller-Seitz, the television writer for Salon, argues that some of the best shows are already going stale. In an article entitled, "Will Future Generations Understand The Simpsons?" (well worth reading), he argues that the overabundance of hyper-specific pop culture gags made by our current crop of television shows is going to date them into irrelevance far more quickly than their earlier counterparts.
On one hand, Zoller-Seitz certainly has a point. The worst sin of the pop culture nerd is to automatically assume that something is funny by mere fact that there's an obscure cultural reference. The most excessive (and terrible) of this type of humor comes from films like Date Movie, that drop references to pop culture events without bothering to write a joke about it. Mentioning Britney Spears in and of herself is not funny; making a joke about Britney Spears might be a little funnier, though it's shelf life would still be pretty short.
On television, Family Guy is probably most well-known for this transgression, often eschewing characters and plot to drop in random and meaningless pop cultural references that have nothing to do with the main storyline. The idea is supposed to be that you'll laugh because you catch the reference, but this functions more as a way to feed the ego of nerds than to write an actually funny joke. South Park is a vocal critic of Family Guy, but the show's quick production schedule (episodes are churned out in one week) means that the show too often jumps on the cultural zeitgeist without regard for something that will last. Entire episodes are built upon things like Trapped in the Closet - funny, but nothing more than a cultural footnote, really.
But thankfully, most television shows don't go this far in reaching for the cultural reference. The best programs manage to wink at the nerds in the audience, integrating subtle references and throwaway gags without compromising the main plot. This is why I thought it was strange that Zoller-Seitz chose The Simpsons as his target. The show is no stranger to the pop culture gag, but especially in its "Golden Age," the show managed to make funny, character-based humor that didn't rely on obscure references as a crutch.
I recently rewatched "Krusty Gets Kancelled" from Season 4 of "The Simpsons" with my 13-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son. Krusty the Klown was on "Springfield Squares," a game show hosted by moonlighting Springfield newsman Kent Brockman and featuring special guest Rainer Wolfcastle, the action film icon. Brockman introduced Wolfcastle as the star of the new movie, "Help, My Son is a Nerd!"
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."
I laughed at this. My son laughed, too -- but after a moment he asked, "Dad, why is that funny?"
I told him it was too complicated to explain, because it was.
Am I the only one that thinks this is funny on its own? I laughed out loud just reading the exchange. The humor comes from the interaction between the characters: Wolfcastle as a hulking Germanic action star, and Brockman as a smarmy anchorman.
Zoller-Seitz goes on to write that:
Wolfcastle was "The Simpsons"' stand-in for Arnold Schwarzenegger, a wildly popular movie star circa 1992-93, when that episode first aired. Schwarzenegger built his fortune on bloody action thrillers, but had recently begun playing against type in such dumb but harmless comedies as "Twins" and "Kindergarten Cop." The movie Wolfcastle was promoting was obviously in that vein, but the plot evoked the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield comedy "Back to School." Wolfcastle's line, "It's not a comedy" was also a joke at the expense of phony '80s macho; the very idea of nerdiness would horrify a gym-muscled dolt like Wolfcastle.
This is all true, but I think the joke stands on its own without an extensive knowledge of late-80s pop culture. Hell, it's a throwaway joke that takes up about two seconds from two minor characters on the episode. I don't buy Zoller-Seitz' argument that this encyclopediac brain is necessary to understand these jokes on the show - for one thing, these jokes come so quickly that, even if you miss one, there's going to be three more in the next ten seconds. Background knowledge of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kindergarten Cop would certainly extend the appreciation of the gag, but it's certainly not necessary.
And that's where I think that the line should be drawn, and why the classics of the nineties are still going to be funny to future generations. The pop culture references are an afterthought, added to enhance the jokes. But the shows don't rely on them. One of the best episodes of The Simpsons, "Marge Versus The Monorail," is funny if you understand that it's a parody of The Music Man. But it's also funny without that knowledge - the idea of Phil Hartman as a skeezy salesman selling a flawed monorail to the town of Springfield and Homer as the monorail conductor is funny because of what we know about the characters and what we know about Springfield. The references to The Music Man are icing on the cake for extra-devoted fans.
The same goes for the other shows mentioned by Zoller-Seitz. I've been rewatching old Seinfeld episodes, and while there's references to Murphy Brown and C. Everett Koop, Kramer's physical comedy remains funny regardless of what era he's in.
I'm not saying that Zoller-Seitz is completely wrong; there's certainly far too many shows and movies that try and get by merely by throwing out cultural references, hoping that audiences will laugh out of recognition. But The Simpsons and the other shows that will hopefully survive to see a new era of fans, rely on a firm foundation of funny characters and interesting setting, and only then apply these external references.
It's impossible for any work of art to be completely timeless - I need footnotes to understand Shakespeare's puns, even though I can still catch the basic plot points without any trouble. As time goes on, old shows will probably seem a little dated (I've noticed that the presence of cell phones would render about 90% of Seinfeld plots irrelevant). But I certainly don't think their jokes are a time bomb that Zoller-Seitz suggests.