Will 'The Simpsons' still be funny when no one gets the references?

simpsons-shinningImage Credit: FoxWe live in an era of hyper-referential humor. Shows as diverse as Glee, Community, and South Park all regularly feature “theme” episodes that riff on pop culture iconography — look at Glee‘s Christmas episode (in which Sue Sylvester re-enacted How the Grinch Stole Christmas), or Community‘s upcoming Pulp Fiction episode, or the episode of South Park that riffed on TRON (before TRON was briefly cool and then lame again). You can thank The Simpsons for all the nonstop pop culture references — Matt Groening’s iconic animated series turned hyper-referentiality into an art form, regularly packing in throwaway references to high and low culture right from the start.

Even after a decade of diminishing returns, the show’s place in the TV pantheon is secure… or is it? Salon‘s Matt Zoller Seitz has written an intriguing argument that shows built on pop culture nods — what he calls “footnote shows” — simply don’t age well. (He singles out an extended Hollywood Squares joke in an early-’90s Simpsons episode.) Considering how much of TV humor is now constructed on a foundation of referentiality, it’s definitely worth considering: Will we still consider “footnote shows” funny decades from now?

Short answer: Yes, with an “if.” Long answer: No, with a “but.” The ’90s-era Simpsons episodes weren’t funny because of the references — they were funny because the writing was snappy, the characters were fully-realized, and the individual episode plots were structured so well. There was wordplay, and farce, and topical satire. (There was also just outright silliness — see Sideshow Bob getting hit by all those rakes.) The references were the icing, not the cake. Also, it’s worth considering that not all referential humor is created equal. Most episodes of Family Guy are filled with scattered pop culture tangents, which can bring a pleasant “A-Ha!” feeling if you’re aware of what’s being referenced. But the Christmas episode of Community was funny, even if you had never seen the claymation Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, because the show had a point to make: About Christmas, about friendship, and about Abed’s specific character arc.

That’s the key to good referential rumor — it has to be motivated by something more than just a need to make a nod to pop culture. Sure, some episodes of South Park can look a bit long in the tooth. (See: the “Obama gets elected” Ocean’s Eleven spoof that seems to have been created purely so the show could have an Obama episode right after the election.) But when an episode has a legitimate point to make, it can age remarkably well. Just look at “The Passion of the Jew,” in which Mel Gibson is revealed as a crazed masochistic madman. That episode was made in early 2004, and darned if it doesn’t play even better today — it’s an uncanny peek into the future.

Conversely, you could argue that referential humor simply doesn’t age well… but only because, really, most humor doesn’t age well. Drama doesn’t really change, but comedy is constantly evolving. (And that evolution is ever-present: watching an episode of Mike & Molly and Childrens’ Hospital in the same night can feel a little bit like traveling from 1985 to 2042.) The first time I watched The Simpsons, I was so young that I didn’t really get any of the references. When the show did its brilliant parody of The Shining, I was still so young that my parents wouldn’t let me see R-rated movies, and Stephen King books were specifically kept in the upstairs bookcase where I couldn’t find them. But I still laughed at “The Shinning,” because the writing was funny. And, even better, it added to my pop culture knowledge.

That’s the strongest counterargument to Seitz: Even if referentiality doesn’t age well, it does provide an incredible education. I know so much about pop culture today because The Simpsons gave me a baseline knowledge. Watching “Rosebud” when I was a kid laid the groundwork for my appreciation of Citizen Kane, which led me to the rest of Orson Welles’ films. The Simpsons and its referential ilk may not age as well as some Platonic Ideal of a sitcom that exists in a vacuum — Fawlty Towers? But it has so many random British references! — but they do provide an important service to humanity. They’re the gateway drug to the wide world of pop culture. And that will never get old.

Comments (42 total) Add your comment
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  • Elizabeth

    Always thought the references in”Rocky & Bullwinkle” were entertaining.

    The bigger question will be how much longer before we had dumbed-down entertainment so its just pandering to the lowest common denominator? How soon will it be before viewers can’t invest an ounce of intelligence to ‘get something’?

    • K

      “And the number one movie in the country was called…’Ass.’ And that’s all it was for 90 minutes. [farting noise accompanies picture of naked ass on movie screen while audience laughs]. It won 8 Oscars that year, including Best Screenplay.”

      • Nick T

        What are you talking about? Jack@ss? That didn’t win Oscars. What? What?

      • Sammy

        It’s a quote from the movie Idocracy.

      • Nick T

        Ohhhh. Ok. Sorry. Thats makes sense.

    • Brad

      “How soon will it be before viewers can’t invest an ounce of intelligence to ‘get something’?” We’re already at that point.

    • Meli

      ….3…2…1….

      Right now, apparently.

  • Tom

    I still consider the show utterly hilarious and to still have the best writing team of all time. Pop culture references are always dangerous territory because they do not age well, but a perfectly constructed joke around a pop culture joke will still work (i.e. Homer as the terminator, sensing “Possible Homersexual” after Bart crank called Moe’s asking for Homer Sexual is still my Dad’s favorite joke ever. He still calls me this. Yes. I’m gay. But we laugh.

  • JLC

    You don’t see them much any more, but when I was a kid, Bugs Bunny cartoons featuring caricatures of 30s and 40s stars were on all the time. Even then, it was hard to figure out who some of them were, like Jerry Colonna or Eddie Cantor. Now, I’d guess less than 1% of the population would recognize them. At the same time, WB produced a lot of cartoons that didn’t rely on that stuff that are still funny today, like Robin Hood Daffy. Moral of the story: a cartoon relies on contemporary cultural references to its peril.

    • Ty

      Heh – old Bugs Bunny toons were so very racist…

      …Not that anyone cared back then. If The Simposons ever tried to get away with an exact story from one of those old cartoons, the media would go nuts and Fox will be shut down forever.

  • adam

    The Grinch Who Stole Christmas???? Seriously!? Come on, EW. It’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

    • John

      And RUDOLPH was not claymation.

  • Seth

    I think that they’ll age well enough if the references are relatively well-known and not just limited to the current era. Also, they’ll age better if the show has more to offer than simply pop-culture gags, which is why, for all its humor based on popular culture, I think that Community and other similar shows will still be enjoyable in the future. (Really, Seinfeld has aged reasonably well, despite how much of the humor is rooted in 90s references.)

  • Chicki

    The current era pop culture jokes will become nostalgic, and then funny again.

    i love the simpsons, I love watching old shows. Shows from 20 years ago with pop culture references make me nostalgic now!

    besides, if something is truly funny, it will ALWAYS be funny.

    Case in point, Futurama was a show, although set in the future, had a TON of 90’s references. They are still funny because now we may feel a bit of nostaliga, and also because the jokes are awesome and withstand the test of time, pop culture or no.

    • Buddymoore

      I agree with you about Futurama. Since it has been back on the air, it still relies mainly on the 90’s, and earlier, for its pop culture references. I also find the jokes that don’t reference pop culture to be extremely well written and even more hilarious. Matt Groening is a genius.

    • Meli

      And to this day, one of the funniest references in Futurama for me to this day wasn’t necessarily to politics or current movies–it was to a popular phrase: Bender and Fry are caught by police, and then suddenly Bender’s bottom hatch opens and a brick falls out on the floor. I laughed for five minutes solid over the clever visual way of saying Bender crapped a brick.

      • Meli

        oh geez *and to this day* twice…I never said I was a good proofreader. Sorry.

  • Asha

    I think the majority of the jokes will age well but there will be some that don’t. It’s just impossible that every single joke is going to have the same impact 20 years later. I think the major jokes will still be funny and some of the subtle ones may go over a younger generations head. I feel though that I was 4 when the simpsons started and as I got old and watched reruns in high school and college, I still got the jokes on the episodes that were airing when I was a very small child (so a 10-15 year lag time bewtween airing and seeing it). I mean let’s face it, you can watch the first episode of the simpsons and it is 20 years later, do yu still find it funny?

  • poo

    Simpsons was funny in the 90’s. Not anymore. I still laugh at all the classic episodes but I dont laugh at all at any of the new ones.

    • Jay

      Go back to bed, Gramps!

      • Brad

        Don’t hate him for speaking the truth. I’m gonna guess you also think Two and Half Men is the funniest sitcom ever.

    • Jeff

      you’ve never laughed at a newer simpsons episode? really? then why are you continuing to watch?

  • Brian Wallace

    I guess at one point I may have liked the Simpsons but there has been so much awfulness I can’t see how. If a baseball player has two or three good seasons and 17 awful ones, he’s not really a Hall of Famer is he?

    I agree with Seitz’s article. Pop culture isn’t culture (I realize the irony of this on the Entertainment Weekly message board.) It’s only humor if you “get it.” It’s a game of one-ups-manship to see how clever and obscure you can get.

    I blame Generation X, their parents divorcing and having to be raised by television. No one CARES how accurately you can parody “The Brady Bunch” or “The Star Wars Holiday Special.”

    Not just “The Simpsons” or “American Dad.” I think “Seinfeld”, “30 Rock”, “Community”, etc. They’re ALL going to just be forgotten like MC Hammer. The last 20 years will be looked back upon as an unfortunate period of cultural navel-gazing.

    I know it’s hated by most but there’s an animated show that relies on HUMOR, not POP CULTURE: Bob’s Burgers. That show could have been made in 1979. It’s really, genuinely funny with good strong characters.

    Brian Wallace

  • Crystal

    A perfect example of a show that can seamlessly tie pop culture references into the plot, story, and character arcs is Spaced. I’m not sure how well it will age, but I know that I didn’t get many of the references initially, but it was still funny, sharp, and clever.

    The Simpsons may not be as good as it used to be, but it still beats the majority of things on television ::cough:: Glee, Two and a Half Men, How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, etc. etc. etc. ::cough:: (That was a long cough)

  • Sarah

    This argument can be applied to WB Looney Tunes — they referenced current pop culture all the time. In the 1990’s, when I was still in elementary school, I didn’t know who Peter Lorre was, but I still loved those cartoons. And when I first saw a movie with Peter Lorre, I thought “Oh, that’s that guy!!” And now, Looney Tunes is funny on different levels.

    Referential comedy is a time capsule. It may not provide the same entertainment than when it was originally produced, but it’s still entertaining.

  • Nick T

    This is why BUFFY will last forever!

    • AG

      People have already forgotten about Buffy

      • Ryan

        Only because Willow’s spell went wrong.

    • rob

      yes. ive been watching the dvds through season 5 but the episode where buffy deals with her moms death is next so ive been procrastinating watching it. amazing hour of tv but really devestating.

  • Marty

    I think the best example of a show making pop-culture references and still being funny long after the references occured would be “The Golden Girls.” The golden girls constantly have President Regan or Bush era references or gags (See the episode where Rose writes the letter to Mikhail Gorbachev).

    These episodes are STILL funny. Some of the jokes fall to the side, but over-all the show is funny as ever! The Golden Girls probably will be, still, 40 years from now!

  • Dan Marrin

    Gotta say: this was a well-argued article and a better pop culture oped than many I’ve seen here in the past. Good topic!

  • The Truth

    Every show seen 10 or more years later will not connect to new audiences like it did when it originally aired. The language, technology, current events and culture changes over time. The real test is if the show is still enjoyable even if the new audience does not get or understand all of it.

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