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On pop culture references

April 21, 2011

So, there was this article, suggesting that frequent referencing of pop culture / contemporary events (I just tried to write ‘contemporanea’, but the internet reliably informs that this is not a word) gives TV shows, and, by extension, other art forms, “a lack of durability.” Are ” ‘footnote shows’,” as the writer Matt Zoller Seitz puts it, “– programs built around references that feel universal and timeless to viewers of a certain age only because it’s what they grew up with,” a thing to worry about?

I’m wading into this debate about 600 internet years late, let’s see if I can even understand what the blazes they’ve been writing about…

So, to Seitz’s original argument. He was watching the Simpsons episode, ‘Krusty Gets Kancelled‘ with his children, and this happened:

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.

[In the article, he does go on to explain, because it really isn’t]

Seitz’s explanation in the text is a bit detailed for a seven-year-old, true; I don’t hang out with kids of that age much, but I reckon “the very idea of nerdiness would horrify a gym-muscled dolt like Wolfcastle” – perhaps simplified a bit – would do, coupled with a quick googling of Schwarzenegger for the little guy, because expecting him to spell that is definitely too much.

This is the thing. Googling. Internet search engines. Kids these days [YES I SAID ‘KIDS THESE DAYS’ I’M NEARLY 28 YOU KNOW] do not have to peruse shelves-full of beautiful leather-bound Encyclopediae Britannicae [is that the plural? I am trying]  to find stuff out, like I did when researching a primary school project on telecommunications in the early ’90s. Good times. They have the online version, or google, or wikipedia, or whatever they want, on the nearest laptop, netbook, iPhone, chip implanted into someone’s brain,* etc. There’s even an imdb for memes, because people are nothing if not servicey, and you need to keep up with which caption is being photoshopped onto what picture of a[n] [in]famous person this week.

That picture is adorable.

Anyway, so, Seitz goes on to admit, “Granted, some of the jokes were inside even for 1992-93 — ‘The Great Gabbo and the Eastern bloc cartoon ‘Worker and Parasite‘, for instance. But most weren’t.”  Well. I was aged 8-10 in that time period, but I doubt that those episodes got to the UK until a fair few years later. I probably didn’t get those things at first, and I didn’t have the internet to ask. I doubt my parents had the relevant pop culture references to hand.

You know what I did? I lived with it. I knew that there’d be another joke to get in a second. These days, the ‘Worker and Parasite’ bit is one of my fave Simpsons things, and Gabbo still creeps me out as much as ever – ventriloquist dummies are never okay [careful, both youtube vids that I’d say are both nsfw].

A houseful of Saddam Hussein lookalikes – part of an intricate Arrested Development injoke

If you clicked on ‘never’ and ‘okay’, you’ll have seen clips from Arrested Development and 30 Rock, two of the most pop-culture-riffing-tastic – and consistently-low-rating-despite-critical-acclaim-tastic – US shows of our times. I love them both. Let’s take a closer look at one of them.

Arrested Development is novelistic in its attention to detail and its capacity to maintain, develop and cross-reference running jokes that originate both within and outside the universe of the show. It’s meme-y. Memesical. Take, for instance, the parodying of Star Wars Kid. George Michael has taped himself playing around with a light saber, and the footage keeps returning to haunt him, giving people even more ammo with which to mock him, much as the real Star Wars Kid must’ve suffered. The footage is funnier each time you see it because it reminds you of the last time GM was embarrassed by its resurfacing, as well as providing fodder for new jokes. It is helpful to know what AD is referencing as you watch these scenes, but I didn’t – I had to google. Then  – I DOUBLED MY LAUGHS!

For a meme that originates within the show, there is ‘Mr. F‘ (not my fave, but it makes my point). ‘Mr. F’ started off as the possible name of a British agent, then as an acronym on a medical bracelet, then as a reference to Tobias Fünke , then… you really have to watch the series to get how all the permutations are funny in themselves and as callbacks. Herein lies the complexity of AD – it’s too much damn work for most viewers. TV is supposed to be easy!

I’m going to go right ahead and assume that a TV show that was cancelled a few years ago cannot be spoiled. If you disagree, well: SPOILERS AHEAD. Give it a couple of paragraphs.

AD‘s running jokes support a plot that seems meandering but eventually reveals itself to have been tightly and intelligently constructed. The series culminates in a heap of barbed Iraq War references, with the revelation that the Bluth family patriarch, George, has been building houses in Iraq, and so, unwittingly, helping the US intelligence services to gather information. The clues are piling up from the pilot episode onwards, but it takes the genius of the show’s creator, Mitch Hurwitz, to pull it all together and deliver a scathing view of the war.

There was no more important subject for a piece of American TV, art or literature to confront in the years that AD aired (2003-6), and the show did it with belly laughs. This is going beyond pop culture references to a programme assuming historico-political knowledge of a certain era, but it still comes down to the same thing: it’s talking about stuff the viewer either knows about or doesn’t know about. The show’s ideal viewer is an information junkie who’ll take pleasure/pride in getting references and joining dots.

And so, inevitably, to Jane Austen and Edward Saïd:

When Culture and Imperialism was published in 1993, the chapter on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park aroused anger among some critics, because of his discussion of the “dead silence” (Austen’s phrase) that occurs when its heroine, Fanny Price, asks her uncle about the slave trade. The family owns a sugar plantation on Antigua, and Fanny is troubled by this, though to no real narrative purpose (the film in which Harold Pinter plays Fanny’s uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, draws on Said’s discussion to make the point more sharply).

Discussing the novel, Said argues that it is silly “to expect Jane Austen to treat slavery with anything like the passion of an abolitionist or a newly liberated slave”. Said refused to engage in what he termed “the rhetoric of blame”, and attack Austen retrospectively for being “white, insensitive, complicit”. Rather, he criticised card-carrying postcolonial critics for such attacks, and insisted that Austen’s novel is a “rich work” whose “aesthetic intellectual complexity” requires a longer and slower analysis. Austen belonged to a slave-owning society, but we should not therefore jettison her novels as “aesthetic frumpery”.

(Tom Paulin in The Guardian, 25 September 2004)

[sorry if this was tl;dr]

The debate about whether things are reference-y enough or not has always been going on. It’s just that the debate for one medium will use more big words than the debate for another.

So: 3 last points…

1) We all come into life in medias res, so we’re always going to have to ask about old things that we don’t get. This is okay.

2) Works of art/comedy/entertainment always carry hallmarks of the time in which they were made, and will always date to some extent. This is also okay.

3) Some people will get some things, some people won’t, so there is always google, and asking A Real Live Person. Only one of these is okay when completing a crossword, but neither is okay when participating in a pub quiz. You there! Put that iPhone down!

In an internet age, things are only going to get more reference-y and memes-y (just as those hyphens will so soon look old-fashioned) as stuff invented on the internet continues to make its way into other media, and other media continues to be discussed and transformed on the internet.

Plus, it’s not as though everyone watches the same four channels all day every day – people get into different TV shows and films at their own pace, so, these days, there’s no guarantee that you can discuss last night’s TV at the watercooler [is this still a thing? For the UK, please substitute “kettle”]. I mean, I still I haven’t watched The Wire. I know, right?!

Matt Zoller Seitz’s concern for his son is really very sweet. And his worry is as old as the hills, as old as ’90s Simpsons references, as old as you feel right now, after reading this lengthy blog post. Sorry. I’ll wrap it up. Who knows if anything will survive intact, to be understood exactly as it was intended? No one knows, and, no, it probably won’t be. No reason to not keep trying to make stuff, though, or to keep trying to understand it, or to keep trying to share it with your kids.

*For anyone managing to read this in 2021 and beyond [I suppose] [Was I right?].

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