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

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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.

Originally posted March 9 2011 — 2:07 PM EST

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