TV writers have probably never wondered if dropping a Lindsay Lohan reference will affect viewers' interest in the show five or 10 years down the road, but today Salon television critic Matt Zoller Seitz raised the question after noticing his kids don't understand The Simpsons.
While watching "Krusty Gets Kancelled," Seitz's 13-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son asked why he laughed at a scene involving Rainer Wolfcastle's movie Help, My Son Is A Nerd!. In order to explain why it was funny, he would have had to tell them:
Wolfcastle was "The Simpsons"' stand-in for Arnold Schwarzenegger, a wildly popular movie star circa 1992-93, when that episode first aired. Schwarzenegger built his fortune on bloody action thrillers, but had recently begun playing against type in such dumb but harmless comedies as "Twins" and "Kindergarten Cop." The movie Wolfcastle was promoting was obviously in that vein, but the plot evoked the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield comedy "Back to School." Wolfcastle's line, "It's not a comedy" was also a joke at the expense of phony '80s macho; the very idea of nerdiness would horrify a gym-muscled dolt like Wolfcastle.
There were a couple of marginal jokes in the scene, too. Brockman's moonlighting on "Hollywood Squares" acknowledged a long tradition of newscasters working as game show hosts and commercial pitchmen on the side (see Wallace, Mike). And "Springfield Squares" is a sendup of 1970s game shows in the vein of "Hollywood Squares" and "Tic Tac Dough." The rest of the episode contained references to the 1929 film "The Great Gabbo," Eastern European animation, Joey Bishop, "Howdy Doody," Ed Sullivan's censoring the lyrics of the Doors' "Light My Fire," the 1968 "Elvis" TV special, the Red Hot Chili Peppers' penchant for nudity, and Bette Midler serenading Johnny Carson during his final week on "The Tonight Show."
I get more invested in TV shows than I probably should, and sometimes when I'm convincing myself that I need to drop $150 on a DVD box set, I rationalize that it's a show I'll enjoy watching for years to come. But will my theoretical children have any interest in my precious Arrested Development DVDs? (Another good question: Will we even have DVD players in five years?)
Seitz argues that comedies with too many timely references will prove less durable as time wears on. I've wondered what's an appropriate age to introduce a child to things like Star Wars (and apparently I'm not the only nerd who has). However, I'd only considered the possibility that like me, my child would be so terrified by the site of Darth Vader's pasty unmasked head that she'd be unable to watch his death scene until she turns 17. The possibility that she'd have no interest in watching a sci-fi film from the '70s never crossed my mind.
Future generations may still love Star Wars since with the exception of the Holiday Special, the franchise doesn't contain any horrifying '70s cultural references and thanks to George Lucas' constant meddling there will soon be version for people accustomed to watching everything in 3-D. But, I believe there's also a good chance more timely TV shows and movies will continue to be popular with young people. I was 9 when I first saw "Krusty Gets Canceled" and I was able to appreciate the humor, even though I missed references to Joey Bishop and Ed Sullivan.
Plus, my mom would always try to explain jokes aimed at adults, like Seitz does with his daughters. Often TV time would turn into a discussions about everything from girls not being allowed to wear pants to school to how she felt about Watergate. Not that I was receptive to everything she pushed on me. Watching The Waltons every night when I was little was tortuous, even after a lesson on the Great Depression. I understood what was going on, but the show's overall tone was too corny for a child of the '90s to tolerate.
Only the most narcissistic artist worries about how their work will be received decades from now, and certainly TV writers should focus more on making programs that are relevant today's viewers, not the show's legacy. Shakespeare's work is printed with footnotes because he was writing for modern audiences who understood his send-up of some royal figure. However, the plays still hold up because they also deal with human nature in general. Ultimately, pop culture references will only limit a show's longevity if they contain nothing else of substance. And if I can survive nine seasons of Waltons reruns, my kids can make it through Daria even if they don't get that Jane Pratt episode.