Nothing lasts forever. Take me: I used to be a medium-funny guy. You could count on me to bring a reliable number of chuckles to social occasions. I wasn’t hilarious, but I made sure to get a few solid laughs at parties, galas, potlucks, and ad hoc social gatherings.
These days, I don’t know what’s going on. Every once in a while, when I crack wise or make a seemingly-sly reference, the oddest thing happens. A few people laugh, but others just look at me, their faces like ash. In those panicky moments when I wait for the bombed joke to pass, a fear grips my bowels. Perhaps the fear:
I’m getting old.
The worst part is, I recognize the look I’m getting. It’s the same look I give my dad whenever he makes a joke that, despite having the contours of humor, doesn’t quite hit me in the gut. Even if it seems well made, it just doesn’t make me laugh. It’s too… foreign.
What’s weird about my current predicament is that I know fully well the lineage of my sense of humor. Everything that I think of as “funny” was filtered through years of loving, referencing, and digesting the comedy aesthetic of golden era Simpsons.
As a formal foundation for jokes, you could do worse. In true modernist tradition, early Simpsons episodes emphasized structure, lasting cultural references, and finely-honed layers of complexity. What’s more, everybody else was watching the same show.
“Funny” only becomes possible when people share the same points of reference. Without sympathetic context, there’s no way to subvert expectations. But nowadays, I don’t know, man. Against the modernist tendencies employed by early Simpsons, today’s internet-heavy conditions seem rabidly post-modern, with an emphasis on the eradication of structure, a flurry of rapid re-mixes, and the invention of new grammars and patois that dissolve as soon as they are understood.
Culture has moved on from The Simpsons, despite the show’s unwillingness to pass into comedy Valhalla. In other words, Simpsons is becoming dad humor: structures so well trod that they can never again surprise, no matter how perfectly crafted. The aesthetic earmarks of this mid-90s humor juggernaut are becoming as antiquated as puns and pies-in-the-face.
If this trend continues, it seems likely that it will occur in stages, as more and more young and influential people are unaware of the debt we owe to the likes of Groening, Meyer, Swartzwelder, et al. Compared to the emerging humor aesthetic, the old-school modernist approach will look like it’s for effete try-hards, instead of the cool culture-jammers of the future.
What does that mean? Where does that take us?
I don’t know about you, but my cartography’s all fucked up. I want to map out this structure, and try to see what happens when this style of joking becomes isolated and misunderstood, like dads the world over.
For sure the first thing to go will be the references. It’s a crying shame that a day will soon come when a Simpson’s reference will be as incomprehensible as barking in Latin. The keen cultural omnivorism the show extolled was inspiring. It rewarded knowledge, and helped spark the love of gathering it.
At the same time, it wasn’t an elitist thing, since the jokes didn’t hinge upon getting the references. It wasn’t like T.S. Eliot, where scholarly understanding was essential to comprehension, so much as a spice added to the already-solid meal of situational comedy. The references wove intricate layers of meaning, so that you were rewarded upon coming back to an episode after reading Ayn Rand or watching The Great Escape.
How many people knew about that sled before seeing Citizen Kane? Exactly.
Simpsons was like a survey course in contemporary American culture. An alternative canon, yet one built upon taking the piss out of those idols. It was an irreverent slideshow slam-dunking one-liners a mile a minute.
In our newly media-rich world of cascading visual arrays, 90s style references are starting to show their rhetorical age. The Simpsons had, for better or worse, literary pretensions. It sought to embed its references into a greater tapestry of narrative unity. We don’t really bother with that, any more. In the raw media hellscape of the internet, references are direct, visceral, and they come with a link. There’s no need to play the coy game of weaving a reference into a story so that it slips by, friction free as baby oil. These days, we just crush the whole thing together, let the stuffing show, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead — and it works, because that’s the modality we’re all used to. Whether it’s an image on the net, a blog of some guy who believes in the time cube, or a homemade youtube video, we disavow technical perfection for the raw realness of things.
These references are more immediate, less polished, because they’re competing on the bleeding edge of relevance that dissipates so fast these days. It’s a different idea entirely. Instead of making something that lasts, the vast majority of our cultural production now is tuned towards hitting this moment perfectly, then disappearing forever, like an Olympic diver slipping beneath the water without making a ripple.
Would you rather remember or forget? Which is funnier? On the one hand, there’s nothing staler than a bad joke you’ve heard before, repeated ad nauseum by someone who loves it. On the other, when a joke hits the perfect grooves in your brain, nothing’s better than punching that switch again. It feels, honestly, like a difference of temperament at different stages in life.
When you’re old, you want to remember the good times. When you’re young, you want to make new ones. Perhaps it was the odd combination of ages in the writing team in golden era Simpsons, or the spirit of the end of a millennium, but they blended the two motivations brilliantly. They made something new, but they were making it to be remembered.
3. That’s the beauty of it, when winter rolls around, all the gorillas freeze to death.
As gifted as Simpsons was at referencing great cultural works from all walks of life, part of the reason why the show was so memorable was because it was so damn quotable. Yet quoting The Simpsons wasn’t merely a sterile act of mimicry, since one quote would lead to another, forming a chain of appreciative juxtaposition.
The show taught riffing as a creative act.
Think about any time an idea is taken, like a football, carried beyond, over, and through hurdle after hurdle, before exploding out into the clear and rocking into the goal.
—Aurora borealis? At this time of year? At this time of day? In this part of the country? Localized entirely within your kitchen?
—May I see it?
The riff builds into something greater than the sum of its parts, by pushing against the very limits of believability, running ragged against the edge of reality, then pulling the ripcord at the last possible moment before the audience’s suspension of disbelief pops like a weary bubble of smoke.
Take that same basic model, and apply it to any energetic group of friends. Give them any point of departure, toss in a spark of the surreal, and watch them go off like a clutch of fireworks. It’s easy to imagine how this model served to inform the joke styles of a generation.
Yet, at the same time, it is just as easy to imagine it becoming hackney. In the wrong context, riffing is too earnest, too lively, too much—dare I say it—of a jock thing. It incorporates competitive elements of one-upmanship, not to mention it demands the audience pay attention. Without a reason to do so, you can just write riffers off as a bunch of hyperactive obsessives.
It’s your basic, “Stop embarrassing me, dad,” moment. “You get so weird around your friends,” my kids will say, as a single tear blemishes my windward cheek.
4. We’ve tried nothing and we’re all out of ideas.
What’s great is that we don’t have to puzzle over where this cultural irrelevance takes us; we just have to look at our dads.
Since time immemorial, dads have been saying weird shit that makes them laugh but makes literally zero sense to the rest of us. We roll our eyes and go “Oh, da-ad,” every time they pun out so hard that they blow their own gaskets. In the meantime, if you ever drag your pupils out from the back of your skull, you’ll notice that they are looking just as oddly at us, asking themselves the age-old question, “How come my kids didn’t get that awesome joke?”
Painful though it may be, this arrangement is okay. It’s how things are supposed to work. We have been promised immortality and ever lasting cultural youth, so long as we follow the rules. But then they changed the rules, like they always do.
If you look at the cultural humor engines of the 60s and 70s, you find a totally different linguistic landscape than the one that spawned The Simpsons. Shows like Carson depended on the explicit manipulation of language and derived the humorous twist out of a more structurally simple joke-pattern than our convoluted post-modern condition, “Hi-yo!” Thus their jokes seem rudimentary to our sensibility, in much the same way that a few good one-liners might seem like mothballs compared to a video of infinite pugs. It isn’t actually the case, whipping out a good pun is just as difficult as a dope riff, but we are acclimatized to different conditions. It isn’t anyone’s fault, we’re all born in decades.
So Simpsons aficionados will only make each other laugh. There’s a kind of nobility in that. But what does it mean for the show itself? Again, if we look back on the history of comedy there are a few hints.
5. Tummy, I mean Stomach — Gut — Crap-Factory!
Once humor ceases to be viscerally funny, it often becomes something that we can appreciate aesthetically and intellectually. For example, I don’t find the Marx Brothers particularly “funny” — I don’t actually laugh out loud while watching their films. Yet I do find them “marvellous” — I marvel in awe throughout the entire experience. I’m not laughing, but I do have a grin plastered on my face the whole time. I am amazed by the quality of their wit-and-humor-productions. You can still tell that they are great, despite the fact that their comedy doesn’t always punch you in gut.
When the architecture of a joke is that old, it seems like it can’t surprise us in some particular way essential for enlivened comedy. It can’t jerk us around, it doesn’t pull our leg, even if it still tickles our fancy. So you don’t laugh, but you still smile.
This milder form of appreciation may seem like a diss, but it isn’t. Now that I’m not caught up in ripping yuks, I can read Oscar Wilde without being quite so dazzled, and begin to analyze and understand the pure wit of these elder creations.
As far as The Simpsons are concerned, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they entered into a similar form of appreciation once another generation or two has passed us by. Of course, they need to be pronounced dead before we can be comfortable starting the dissection. Maybe, once they stop making the fucking thing, and we’ve had a chance to chill out for a while and let it age like wine or cheese, then we can smile with The Simpsons again.
Cian Cruise is a writer in Toronto.