A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
"In that case I'll get in touch with Chic Sale." -- Groucho Marx, "Animal Crackers" (1930)
"Adam 1-3's incipient negritude will come as a pleasant surprise to his honorary Aquarium parents, Ralph Bunche and Ida Lupino." -- Firesign Theatre, "Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers" (1970)
The awesomely prolific Matt Zoller Seitz (no, he's still got just the two kids, but he's been writing a lot of good stuff lately -- mostly in his capacity as the new TV columnist for Salon.com) recently asked the musical question: "When a comedy builds a lot of its identity around pop culture references, is it hastening its own irrelevance?" -- or, "Will future generations understand 'The Simpsons'?" (I think the term "ask the musical question" is a pop culture reference, but I'll be darned if I can find out where it originated.)
Matt writes of watching one of the great "Simpsons" episodes ("Krusty Gets Kancelled") with his kids and laughing at references that pre-dated their pop-cultural awareness (like, back before Arnold Schwarzenegger was a governor):
Comedies saturated with pop culture references can be a lot of fun, and on a few recent occasions I've even used them as a way to connect with my kids. These shows are virtual museums of pop culture history, honoring certain entertainers and works and perhaps introducing them to future generations. After the Madonna and "Rocky Horror" episodes of "Glee," my daughter and I watched bits of the source material being referred to, and had a fun conversation about appropriation and theft and whether there was any real difference between them. The Madonna episode was especially interesting because it referenced Madonna's "Material Girl" video, which in turn was a parody of Marilyn Monroe's "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" -- which made the "Glee" number a spoof of a spoof. [...]
To varying degrees, all these shows have given me joy, and no, I don't think self-aware comedy is an inherently less worthy form than any other. But there's a downside: a lack of durability. Some of the most buzz-worthy TV comedies of the last 25 years have proved as sturdy as tissue paper. Even the great ones from the '90s ("The Simpsons" and "Seinfeld") are starting to seem as era-specific as high-top fades and Koosh balls. "I Love Lucy," "The Andy Griffith Show," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Cheers" and other pre-'90s sitcoms didn't start to seem dated or irrelevant for decades, probably because they kept the pop culture references to a bare minimum; the more recent hit comedies are starting to exude that expired fish stench while they're still on the air. Can a show still call itself a comedy if you have to explain why it's funny?
Matt concedes that the answer to that question depends entirely on the show, and the particular joke. As for me, I've tried to watch "Family Guy," a show some people I admire find funny but I don't. And the problem I have with the show is that they do quick "Simpsons"-style references that are nothing but references. Sometimes the joke is supposed to be that the reference is a non-sequitur, but when a show is trying this hard to be clever I find it even harder to laugh. (On the other hand, the Internet really should solve the riddle of obscure jokes once and for all. You may not understand the reference the moment you're exposed to it, but it takes only a few seconds to look it up. Pardon me while I have a strange interlude...)
On the other hand, I delight in the antiquated references in Marx Bros. movies, which seems to evoke the spirit of the age in which they existed -- the only age in which they could have existed. So, for example, it took me years to find out what that Chic Sale reference meant (all you have to do is click on the link up there). And although I might not fully appreciate the niceties (or the ironies) of a line like, "If we can find the left-handed person who painted this, we'll have 'The Trial of Mary Dugan' with sound," or find it particularly funny, I can still grasp the gist of it.
Which leads me to the single greatest repository of ingenious pop culture allusions in all of today's now a-go-go pop culture: the collected works of the Firesign Theatre. Apprehending the referential density of their mind-breaking soundscapes has become, for me, a lifetime project. I have experienced so many "Aha!" moments since I was introduced to their records at an impressionable age in the early 1970s. Again and again, upon encountering a piece of (not necessarily obscure) musical, literary, cinematic, vaudevillian, pharmaceutical or, um, historical history, I would realize: "That's a Firesign Theatre reference!" It's been like peeling a glass onion, layer upon layer of meaning (and comedy) revealed over the years. How was I to know, for example, as a public school student of
Morse Science High Shorecrest High that Ralph Spoilsport (of Ralph Spoilsport Motors, here in the City of Emphysema -- those references I did get) was morphing into Molly Bloom's soliloquy from "Ulysses" at the end of "How Can You Be In Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All"? Well, I didn't -- until I got to college.
I loved the combination of the cop show "Police Street" and the soap opera "Over the Edge" ("Is it true that Skipper can't be governor now, not ever?") and the Sacheen Littlefeather Oscar bit ("Eat flaming death fascist mediapigs") at the climax of "In the Next World, You're On Your Own." The absurdity of the P.J. Proby Wine display delights me (if only for the sound of the words, as is so often the case in Firesign language), but there may be more to it than I know. That was certainly the case with Billy Jack Dog Food ("You know, the dog food that Billy Jack likes!"). Not until the next millennium, after I adopted my beloved German Shepherd-Rottweiller Frances Bean Farmer Albert Sinatra Dog did I discover that there is a high-end dog food brand called Bil-Jac. That must've been where the idea came from.
(The language is music. Just say it out loud -- from a Howl of the Wolf News report about the world's first man-made baby: "Adam 1-3's incipient negritude will come as a pleasant surprise to his honorary Aquarium parents, Ralph Bunche and Ida Lupino.")
Where was I? For more on the response to MSZ's pop culture column, see his follow-up, "Should comedy worry about its shelf life?." Oh, and you'll definitely want to check out this: "Time to declare war on the shaky camera."
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