Will future generations understand “The Simpsons”?

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An article in Salon questions whether shows steeped in pop culture references will be watchable by future generations. The underlying issue is much broader. If postmodern culture serves as the punchline to a joke whose setup is the decades of pop culture that preceded it, can any of it–music, movies, books, TV–be comprehensible to future generations who are so saturated by their own contemporary culture as well as new online media that they have no familiarity with the underlying references? And does it matter, or is this simply the forefront of Generation X’s collective mid-life crisis?

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9 Responses to Will future generations understand “The Simpsons”?

  1. jmavity says:

    This question is a little silly: reading the texts of past ages requires understanding the culture in which they’re written. It’s hard to read Dickens well if you don’t have any cultural context for the author.

  2. rexstuckman says:

    Comedy, especially, is hard to turn timeless. Shakespeare’s comedies are filled with topical references that no one but a historian would understand. Comedy that is funny for all time, as far as I can tell, is either A) physical comedy, or B) comedy based on human relationships. Because those things don’t change. It’s also really really hard to write. I think “The Simpsons” had a few really good years of making great comedy that will probably last for a long time. Then it got caught up in its own success and just reverted to celebrity cameos and references, which are just easier for immediate laughs.

  3. stucky says:

    Alice in Wonderland survives fairly well.

  4. mittenpsychiatrist says:

    As long as the producers of pop culture continue the self-referential regurgitation that (at least) 2 of the pics in the above collage represent, should be no problem.

  5. glt says:

    I think The Simpsons has enough universal humor to make it entertaining and relevant for a long time. I’m young enough that watching The Simpsons in the early to mid 90s, when it was in it’s prime, I didn’t get the vast vast vast majority of pop culture references. I didn’t see the satire, but I still loved the show and thought it was hilarious. Yes, satire is a big part of The Simpsons, but there are also those moments like the episode where Sideshow Bob kept stepping on the rakes, not to mention all the humor centered in human relationships and sex and all that other stuff that has been and will continue to be funny for ever and ever.

    Does The Simpsons have anything to worry about? No.
    Family Guy? God yes.

  6. thelastcpa says:

    I will add to other comments by saying that only by watching Bugs Bunny now do I understand that it was my first exposure to Groucho Marx. When I saw them as a child, I had no point of reference when Bugs did an impression. Culture is a copy of a copy of a copy. We are now copying copies to make fun of the fact that we copy copies.

  7. glt says:

    One thing I’m curious about is a artist like Girl Talk will be in 10 years. Or 5 years. Or even 2. I’m interested to see how relevant his music remains and how the subjective experience of listening to it will change for me as the years go by.

  8. Methossa says:

    I’d argue that there’s plenty that hold up fine. Looney Tunes is a great example. Sure, some of them reference film stars of older days that most people won’t get, but there’s plenty that’s funny without needing some outside knowledge, stuff that speaks to basic human emotions. And to me, that’s the basic idea of something being great art and being timeless is that it’s instantly understandable by anyone. There’s plenty of newer culture that fit the bill, from Fight Club, to Inception, and onward.

    Seinfeld’s a great example too. I grew up watching it as a suburban kid, never having lived in the city or knowing about lots of the stuff they were lampooning. Even without the outside knowledge it was still funny though. It’s no different than any other age. For every masterpiece, there’s legions of trash.

  9. syntaxfree says:

    I’m really more curious on whether something like the Crystal Castles will be understood in five years. Although their music is not steeped in ostensive pop culture references, it made sense in 2010 because it was essentially a freaked out rehash of a nostalgic rehash of 1980s geek-drive “8-bit”/”demoscene” electronica. Sure, the female singer screamed the whole thing into a very sexualized experience, but that only served to highlight even more the sheer abstractness of the instrumental tracks and how it decohered – as if by a catatonic reaction to overwhelming complexity of reality.

    I saw them live. I was there to feel an urge to feel the “future shock”. But now? I’m not even sure that someone entering “pop culture consumer”-dom in 2011 can make head or tails of the Crystal Castles. The explicit references talk is just a special case of the more general problem of context. Have you noticed you can’t just pick up the Aeneid out of the blue knowing nothing about the successive codification of roman origin myths and their importance in roman society? It doesn’t even have spaces between words. The copy at your library will be spaced, extensively prefaced and possibly even translated to english in some form that tries to reconstruct a poetic tone that we don’t know to have been there in first place.

    It’s not that reference-heavy pop culture decays, or even that pop culture decays. Culture decays – all of it.