Thursday, March 10th, 2011

What About The Children?!?!, Or Who Cares If Our Kids Understand The Simpsons?

On Tuesday, Salon writier Matt Zoller Seitz wondered whether pop culture references are ruining TV shows like The Simpsons and Community for future generations. He discusses trying to explain a Simpsons Arnold Schwarzenegger reference to his confused young son, a frequent problem in a program that includes so many hyper-specifics. When reviewing episodes of Spaced, The A.V. Club's Todd VanDefWerff responds to Seitz's piece, and the fleeting nature of rip-from-the-headlines jokes. "I laughed because I got the reference to the show, but will my kids laugh?," he muses. Both writers argue that the temporariness of pop-culture references will eventually, say fifteen years or twenty from now, render certain dated and difficult to follow for the next generation. To which I say: who cares?

The fact of the matter is, worrying about whether future generations will find a joke funny seems like the perfect way to stifle anyone's ability to produce something hilarious. Beyond that, the value of comedy specifically has often been its immediacy; why wouldn't we want writers to make jokes that are relevant to their current audience? The reality is that comedy, or any kind of art, doesn't have to be enduring to be worthy. Additionally, we're selling kids short by assuming that not understanding a comedic reference will ruin their enjoyment of an entire episode, or movie, or cultural moment in time. "Can a show still call itself a comedy if you have to explain why it's funny?," Seitz asks. Well yeah, if you're explaining to a seven-year-old, which is how old his son is in the article. If their joke flew over the head of a seven-year-old, then I'd say the show's writers are doing their job.

Both writers acknowledge that many, if not most, of the humor inherent in the shows mentioned will translate regardless of a riff on Lindsay Lohan, or god help us, a Charlie Sheen reference. However, if shows like Glee or even Seinfeld end up feeling like ancient artifacts that Grandma laughs about in her hover-wheelchair, then that's fine too. Having a fresh juicy show, or movie or album, eventually grow stagnant on the shelf doesn't strip it of it's value. It was written for a specific place, people and moment in time, and now that time is gone. If they don't like it, let our children find their new shows and writers, and add their two cents to the ever-changing flow of comedy and culture. Now bring Grandma her Community ocular uploads and get that damn dog away from the holoport.

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  • http://fart.poop/ William Lisagor

    Alright, I've been seeing this argument all over the place for the past week. Essentially, since season 10, the Simpsons have been using more and more current pop-culture references. This, along with weird pacing and an increasing number of purely silly extended visual sequences, has brought the quality of the show down.

    However, before, the Golden Ages of the Simpsons did have pop-culture references, but it also had references to really old stuff (old presidents, the civil war, prohibition, classic movies, etc…) that were already firmly cemented as parts of the American culture.

    When I watched the Simpsons as a kid, when these Golden Ages episodes were airing, I didn't get half the jokes, but I still enjoyed it. Watching them again, there are new jokes that emerge. Those episodes are so packed with jokes. As stated in the article, there are things that simply went over my head which means the writers are doing their jobs. I watch the Marx Bros. movies and I am sure I am missing some of the jokes, but the basic humor is not simply derived from making references. Having comedy simply be a reference farm makes the rest of the writing hollow (devoid of character-based humor)

    Bottom line: If your child doesn't get the Simpsons, simply exchange him/her for a new one.

    • http://recursivebee.blogspot.com Patrick Mortensen

      I think you're hitting on something, actually: the show has been on for so long that they've referenced literally every historical event, and the current writers basically only have the previous week's worth of Trending Topics.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jon-Bershad/8829871 Jon Bershad

    I think the ultimate rebuttal to this kind of argument is Looney Tunes. Did I get Bugs Bunny's Humphrey Bogart impressions when I watched them as a kid? Not really. But I was able to appreciate the idea that they were impressions and I laughed. A lot.

    Those cartoons were filled with topical references. But, like the Simpsons or the best SNL, the humor wasn't just the reference. There was a separate joke going on that anyone from any time period can latch on to.

    Our children will have no problem recognizing the archetype that, say, The Simpsons' Ranier Wolfcastle represents or the action movie tropes in Community's paintball episode. Will they know the exact source? Maybe not, but the enjoyment of those shows won't go away.

    Now, Family Guy? That's the type of show that might need to worry. None of these others though.

    • http://twitter.com/barbituratecat Avy

      Jon – I agree. My daughter watches Bugs Bunny cartoons, and even though they're referential to a very specific period of time or technology, she loves them. Sure, she's not going to understand the exact issue being referenced, but it'll be close enough to something she does understand that it will still be funny.

      I think people are confusing a situation where a child doesn't get a specific name/situation reference with some sort of overall "Kids won't understand our topical comedy!" scenario. Maybe they forget how much adult humour went over their heads as kids, or how it's still possible to laugh at something even if you don't quite get what's being referenced?

  • http://recursivebee.blogspot.com Patrick Mortensen

    If it's hovering, why does it need wheels? Or does the hover-wheelchair actually not have wheels, and it's just that the name is a holdover from an earlier time and this is just one more thing I'll have to explain to my legless hovergrandchildren?

    • Halle Kiefer

      Great question Patrick! Yes, the wheels are merely decorative, and as you attempt to explain them to your grandchildren, they will look at you with a mixture of pity and disgust normally reserved for something long past dead!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Thompson/589819387 John Thompson
  • iamconnor

    Watching SNL, simpsons, animaniacs and so on as a child allowed me to learn about what was going on in the world (usually with a syndicated delay when it came to snl). I may not have known what the joke was initially referring to, but luckily they still taught us how to understand context clues when I was in school.

    Basically, I didn't watch the news to learn what Bill Clinton did with Monica, I didn't know that was happening in the world, but when I saw it on snl, I got it, and understood what they were talking about and that they were making fun of a real event.

  • http://twitter.com/petegaines petejayhawk

    The first episode of South Park revolved in large part around a (then) 61-year-old pop-culture reference that I guarantee went over the head of most of the viewers…and yet that show has somehow, some way managed to survive.

  • hypnosifl

    To me there's a difference between humor that depends entirely on recognizing a reference and humor that involves a reference but also has some kind of broader joke that makes if funny even if you don't catch the reference (a good example of the second is the old Simpsons joke mentioned at the bottom of this Splitsider article–the idea of Homer having an old "ayatollah assaholla" shirt is funny just as a parody of ridiculous jingoism and how quickly it becomes dated, even if you don't really know anything about Ayatollah Khomeini or the Iranian revolution). The problem with purely reference-based humor for me is not that hypothetical people in 20 years won't get it, but just that it feels lazy and uninspired, the sort of jokes that make me think "I see what you did there" but don't actually make me laugh, like most of the political sketches on SNL or 99% of the pop culture references on Family Guy (South Park involves just as many pop culture references but is much funnier because the writing is better and the reference is not usually the sole point of the joke).

  • hulabaloo

    I think the whole thing is moot.
    Case in point: When watching Up and Carl (Ed Asner) makes the crack to Russell that he refers to his mother as Phyllis, I couldn't stop laughing. I'm 27 and have only seen one episode of Mary Tyler Moore but I still knew that's where the reference was from. The references keep the previous stuff alive I say!

  • Some Guy

    Let's face it: if you let your child watch the dismal displays of television known as The Simpsons post season 10 or any episode of Community you are an awful parent.