Comedy, shelf life, and pop culture references

Over at Salon, a writer — looking at The Simpsons, Glee, and Community — asks if comedy based on pop culture references is destined to go sour quickly.

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?

After lots of rebuttals, there was a followup piece: Should comedy worry about its shelf life?

Comedy writers needn't feel obligated to make every joke and every episode a monument to the eternal verities; sometimes the audience is just looking to unwind after a long day, and a Britney Spears impression or a Charlie Sheen joke is all they want or need, and that's fine. And pop culture references are not an inherently bad thing, of course, and I said that in the piece. And yes, it's true, all entertainment -- all art -- dates eventually. We don't look at a Rembrandt painting or listen to a Miles Davis record and assume they were made last week.

But hopefully there's something about the work that transcends the time in which it was created, otherwise it's ephemeral, disposable. I probably singled out "The Simpsons" because it's considered a pantheon series, a great and presumably lasting work. And during the first half of its run, it did have certain timeless qualities. The pop culture references were dense and sometimes deep, but there also frequent references to mythology, ancient history, biblical scripture, opera, Broadway musicals, painting and literature: Shakespeare, Vincent van Gogh, Gilbert and Sullivan, Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, you name it. And the best episodes weren't just a bunch of riffs strung together. There was a coherent, often scathingly funny vision of American life at the core of the series, as well as an intuitive, honest portrait of family and community and human nature; the gags were just wonderful embroidery. But in the last decade, the embroidery has taken over "The Simpsons" -- and just about every other TV comedy of any profile that came after it.

My .02: Almost all comedy sours quickly, even "substantial" comedy. Would Mort Sahl going through the paper and riffing off the news surprise anyone today? Does anyone find Lenny Bruce edgy now? Even Bill Hicks seems dated and he wasn't that long ago. How often does anyone put on a comedy album from the 80s today and crack up?

Sometimes the only comedy that feels truly timeless is absurdist stuff like Steve Martin's 70s output or Steven Wright's one-liners. Maybe Cosby's family material or Chris Rock's bit on relationships also falls under the timeless umbrella. Certain "human condition" topics never go away. But otherwise, it seems like all comedy is a balloon that is slowly leaking relevance. If shelf life is what you care about, comedy is a poor bet.

That said, I do think pop culture references are a pretty lame way to get laughs. In fact, I've written before that I think jokes about pop culture are for passive and sluggish comics (and audiences). Also I've said my least favorite thing to hear onstage is "I've been watching a lot of TV lately and..."

Do jokes like these and you are regurgitating, not originating. It's like when someone tries to have a conversation about the weather. It feels like a pandering, desperate attempt to find something in common to talk about instead of opening up about what one genuinely cares about. ("What if pop culture is what I genuinely care about?" Well then that's kinda sad.)

That doesn't mean I think there's no place for pop culture references in an act. I certainly have jokes that sprinkle 'em in. But I guess I feel the same way about them as I do puns: If the whole reason for the joke is to make a pun or pop culture reference, that's lame. But if it's a tool that you use along the way as a metaphor or fun wordplay while making another point, that's a whole different animal.

For example, Greg Giraldo drops in lines about Barbra Streisand, Justin Timberlake, and Ben Affleck in this chunk. But the point of the whole thing (i.e. all religions are insane) is much bigger than just slamming celebs. That's the difference between being Kathy Griffin and being Giraldo.

Greg Giraldo - All Religions are Insane
Greg Giraldo Stand-UpGreg Giraldo JokesHasselhoff Roast Videos

Of course, anything is possible if done artfully. For example, it's tough to find fault with Greg Proops' operatic takedown of Jessica "Six Flags over stupid" Simpson:


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Mo Diggs said...

I would say that George Carlin's "Class Clown" (an album that is almost 40 years old) has aged better than any other special or album. Most of the material is about school, so his observations on armpit farts and asking dumb questions in class still feel relevant.

But even the material that's not about school holds up surprisingly well, like when he talks about making an elevator ride suspenseful. Even "Seven Dirty Words" has some lines that work, like his observation about how "tits" sounds like a friendly word.

Perhaps the most timeless joke of all time is Woody Allen's "Second Divorce" bit on "Stand-Up Comic" where he imagines baseball during sex but then focuses more on the ball game.

myq said...

You can write good jokes about a moment that will soon be gone forever. Colbert and the Daily Show do it all the time. When it's done well, it's impressive, not sad that next year the context might be missing.

If the joke is good, it's good. If it's not, it's the present-tense equivalent of "remember Nintendo?" without a joke to support it.
It's just "remember the thing that's happening right now?"

PS Also relevant to the discussion I think, a Stanhope interview I just saw (http://www.thefixonline.com/blog/?p=1522&magbox=) says this:

"The guys I laughed at in the 80s when I was learning comedy as a kid. Listening to it again, that’s not funny. Funny builds on itself, not like any other art form, it has the shelf life of mayonnaise in hot sun. It was funny, but someone saw how he made it funny, made it funnier and some one made it funnier."

Abbi Crutchfield said...

You know how everyone is remembering Elizabeth Taylor as a gorgeous actress even though she spent almost as many decades of her life not acting or glamming it up? If you were supremely funny for one moment in time that seems to resonate in people's subconscious, so that even if your material's stale you don't lose relevance. Now go out there and scatter your jokes to the wind!

For the record, wanting life-long adoration is as silly as wanting eternal adoration, but it's a human need. Like glancing at your poop.

myq said...

Forever, Abbi will be remembered as the person who talked about poop here.

Also, now I will.

Damn you, Abbi.

george said...

To Myq's point I think there's a level of cleverness if the joke is about something super fresh. Usually the audience reacts to the joke more strongly if they know you wrote it that day/week.

Though these make me feel great to write knowing I'm getting in on some relevant zeitgeist, it does bum me out when I know a joke needs to be retired due to the pop culture moment passing. Not to mention, it seems like the window of time to pursue these kinds of jokes gets shorter and shorter along with our ability to work our way through these things.

See this Onion article:

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