I’ve been thinking about Matt Zoller Seitz’s piece on cultural references from The Simpsons, and whether pop-culture jokes doom a show to be seen as era artifacts.
I think, first of all, that almost everything is an era artifact to some degree or another. Animation is, or was, a possible exception. Many cartoons either make humans very generic in appearance and clothing (plus they wear the same clothes most of the time) or use funny animals instead of humans, which makes it harder for people — especially children — to see them as “old.” Dated jokes in The Simpsons stick out more because the early seasons don’t have a specifically early ’90s feel, whereas any live-action show from that period is stuck with the clothes and the hair.
Otherwise, nothing the creators can do can keep the show from becoming a little dated. Many sitcoms try to avoid topical references, knowing that it will hurt them in syndication. (This is why, say, Big Bang Theory mostly deals in pop-culture jokes about topics that are already time-tested. Once they made the mistake of referring to Caprica after the show was already canceled, so you can see the danger of getting too topical.) But they become period pieces anyway. Carl Reiner likes to boast about how he kept topical jokes to a minimum on The Dick Van Dyke Show, but that show is the ultimate Kennedy/Johnson era time capsule for the hair, the look, and the attitudes encoded into it (like the unquestioned assumption that a talented performer like Laura will give up performing once she gets married).
Community today is openly presenting itself as a time capsule, dealing with the interests of the creator’s own generation as well as some of the cultural trends that are going on these days — mock-documentary sitcoms, or the zombie obsession. But will it wind up as more of a ’00s/’10s time capsule than Two and a Half Men, which features few era-specific references but embodies very era-specific ideas about masculinity, sex, and the bounds of acceptable taste in comedy? I doubt it. Parks & Recreation has a lot of topical references (to political scandals, or fads like Twilight) and Modern Family has fewer, but they’re both mock-documentary comedies that are all about the way things are in the ’00s/’10s, and the characters will someday seem redolent of that time — not the types themselves, exactly, just the way they’re used by the writers.
(Even the mock-documentary form will mark them as artifacts of the era if — as already seems to be happening — producers and directors start giving it up. I think they’d be wrong not to use it for more shows, since it works better than straight-ahead movie style, but there’s already a clear backlash.)
As for the references themselves, they can date a work, but the fact is that they rarely take up much of any show. Even episodes that are full-length parodies wind up incorporating huge numbers of jokes that have nothing to do with the parody source. Look at The Simpsons‘ “Cape Feare,” a beat-for-beat parody of the Scorsese version of Cape Fear, written because that movie had recently been released at the time it was pitched. Yet even that episode has tons of jokes that aren’t directly related to Cape Fear, and those are probably the most memorable (the rakes, the Gilbert and Sullivan performance, “Die, Bart, Die”).
And when it comes to individual dated references in a show, they are more like words you don’t know; you ignore them and move on. As Charlie Brown said when he was reading a book meant for older readers: “When I come to a word I can’t understand, I just ‘bleep’ right over it!” That’s how kids processed this Bugs Bunny cartoon, which is one of those wall-to-wall Hollywood reference cartoons. The filmmakers were lucky that the most prominent celebrity in the cartoon, Humphrey Bogart, turned out to be the one later audiences were most likely to know. (Or maybe it’s not luck: sometimes people who are huge stars turn out to be huge for a reason, and people remember them for a long time.) But many of the other references are pretty obscure now if you’re not an old movie buff. But kids like the cartoon because ultimately the story is just another one about Elmer Fudd vs. Bugs Bunny, and the main comedy set pieces are: a) Bugs doing a crazy dance; b) Bugs hitting Elmer with pies; c) Bugs flipping out about a beautiful woman. Those things don’t date.
I think, because of this, that the topical references are perhaps unfairly blamed for Murphy Brown‘s failure to be remembered. Maybe that’s part of why it didn’t do well in syndication (but lots of hit shows didn’t), but most of the episodes are not wall-to-wall topical jokes. It’s just that the topical jokes are the ones we notice, because the non-topical ones no longer resonate. That it failed to “hold up” doesn’t have that much to do, necessarily, with how many topical jokes it has. Everybody used to think All in the Family would date horribly because of all the topical jokes, and instead it held up better than most of the same creator’s less-topical shows — because it was a better show.
Finally, of course, pop-culture references can be good because they require us to do a little digging and find out what the reference is, which, with Google and YouTube, is pretty easy. One thing I find a bit disappointing about today’s pop-culture jokes in TV is that they often stick to a rather narrow frame of reference; worried that the whole audience won’t “get” references that go too far back, they occupy a world where movies began with Star Wars and Caddyshack, and the rest of popular culture mostly starts around 1984. (Abed on Community is a guy who makes lots of pop-culture references, but rarely to anything “old” that the show’s core audience wouldn’t get; the comics references on Big Bang are usually kept as mainstream as posslble.) Whereas The Simpsons had a very broad range of cultural references, taking advantage of the home-video boom of the late ’80s and early ’90s to parody movies like Psycho and Citizen Kane shot-by-shot, and raid some obscure or old-timey stuff for its reference pool. Other early ’90s shows like Animaniacs would refer to things that weren’t even on home video — Hellzapoppin’, for instance; or Seinfeld would throw in Dragnet routines because the writers loved Dragnet.
One of the few shows that does that kind of thing regularly now is, I have to admit it, Family Guy, where Seth MacFarlane indulges his love of old musicals and basically drives the viewers to seek out some of the same stuff he’s interested in.
It would be nice to see more of that, since the thing that can really date a pop-culture reference is the sense that it’s just there because it was popular right there at the time of filming. The Twilight bit from Parks is probably going to be incomprehensible someday, though the underlying story will still work, not just because Twilight will be (one hopes) less popular someday, but because it’s clear that the reference is done not out of love but for the sake of topicality. Which is fine, since it’s needed to drive the story, but I think a sense of enthusiasm for what’s being referred to can keep a reference fresh. Otherwise it’s like that Happy Days episode that ends by parodying a Life Savers commercial that everybody knew at the time, and nobody knows now — back then the studio audience loved it, and today people just wonder what the hell that ending was all about.