Something About The Simpsons

The recent post about Microserfs and the early days of the internet got me thinking about another back-in-the-day cultural turning-point: the dawning of the Simpsons. The Simpsons era, of course, predates the internet. The show has been going on for so long that the original Christmas pilot episode aired when Ronald Reagan (!) was still in office. It’s been going on for so long that an episode from the show’s second season revolved around the premise that Homer is the only person in Springfield who has cable TV (at the time, yes, this required some suspension of disbelief… but still). The show has been going on for so long that I watched the early episodes on a black-and-white TV in the basement of our technologically-challenged home (perhaps this requires an even bigger suspension of disbelief).

Today, there are 486 episodes of the show, spanning 22 seasons… and probably three quarters of these I have yet to see. But, for the first few seasons, it was difficult to overstate the significance of Sunday night, 8 o’clock— you could actually feel the cultural ground shifting under your feet. The thing is that TV and pop culture had landed in an all-time rut by the late 80s: there was just nothing subversive at all in mainstream entertainment that echoed the kind of cynical humor deployed by my circle of teenage friends. Even Letterman and Moonlighting (which were not all that incendiary to begin with) had become (respectively) routine and defunct by that point. And so C&C Music Factory had come to rule the planet. It had gotten so bad that, as a 15 year-old, I had actually stopped watching TV entirely, an unexpected reduction from the approximate six hours per day I had been taking in just a few years earlier.

Coming from this position of total disinterest, I can still remember the peculiar thrill of watching an early Simpsons and noticing that, among a lynchmob of townspeople assembled to attack Bart, there was inexplicably a debauched clown in the group (Krusty, of course). This was exactly the sort of random, irreverent non sequitur that had been so conspicuously absent in the existing paradigm where every joke on every show presented itself with a deadening whiff of familiarity: “have no fear, this joke derives an established tradition of humor and thereby resembles a joke you’ve seen on some other show before.” In this sense, the Simpsons really did feel like a weird harbinger of the internet and its democratizing effect: it was the first instance I could remember of the type of disaffected, Gen-X humor used by people around me bubbling up into mass entertainment and suddenly appearing onscreen. Nowadays, this phenomenon is routine: the ‘humor landscape’ is dominated by memes that start with one or two people, go viral, and eventually become ubiquitous. But, at the time, it felt like some cosmic fissure had must have appeared in order to allow something other than Archie Bunker-style joke sensibility to appear on TV.

I remember reading something about National Lampoon a while aback that claimed that the Lampoon ushered in a new era of American humor. Previously (the article postulated), humor had been based on the Jewish tradition of oy, what a fool am I!. The Lampoon, it went on to argue, moved American humor to a more acerbic, cutting kind of humor descended from English and especially Irish tradition: what a fool are you. I guess that, by the late 80s, this vein failed to reflect the emerging theme of Gen-X humor: what a fool everything is. Maybe the Simpsons signaled a shift to this new mode. Or maybe it just signaled a shift towards humor becoming more responsive to the sensibilities of the society at large.

An L.A. Story

One tidbit from my US trip that I forgot to bring up before: while in SF, I took a quick side trip I took to L.A. to visit former co-blogger Krafty plus some other folks down there.

A mutual friend of ours in L.A.— let’s just call him ‘Job’ for this purpose of this post— is a writer and generally funny guy. For a long time, Job was dating a comedian. Comedian girlfriend, at one point, has a standup gig seven nights a week at a local comedy club (imagine: ‘oh, sorry, once again, we can’t meet because my girlfriend is performing for the 751st consecutive night.’) Then, comedian girlfriend dumps Job and quickly gets not one but two sitcoms picked up by broadcast networks. Yes, it turns out that ex-girlfriend is in fact Whitney Cummings, co-creator and co-producer of of 2 Broke Girls and star, co-producer, and co-creator of Whitney.

But it gets worse: Whitney is essentially a cynical comedy about relationships (‘All relationships end… in sweatpants‘ according to the show’s tagline). It stands to reason a large chunk of the comic material here was pulled from Whitney’s relationship with our friend Job. In fact, the guy in the show— Whitney’s male foil— kind of has the same aura about him as Job. So, imagine: you’re dumped by your girlfriend and suddenly the foibles of your relationship are cannon fodder for a TV sitcom with some stranger playing the part of you. And the city you live in is plastered with billboards for the sitcom like the one above, smirking down at you from dozens of major intersections. And it’s not like this is some obscure show either— it’s Thursday freaking prime time on NBC. I don’t want to overstate the case, but it does seem to be verging on worst-case-scenario territory.

My dad is also friends with Martha Stewart’s estranged former husband, Andy, whose enduring legacy is that fact that he bestowed the highly-marketable last name of Stewart upon Martha (nee Kostyra). But at least Martha never ventured into cynical romantic comedy territory.

Belated Birthday Post: Coulrophobia

This year, I spent my birthday (two weeks ago) in Poland, where I saw an old mailbox (above) but missed the annual birthday tradition where I get to post something random with no contextualizing at all.

After a few days in Poland, we passed through Czech for a wedding, where I was crushed to find that the National Jo-Joo Circus has already left town:

Belatedly, in this spirit of circus arts and birthday randomness, I present to you this video on Coulrophobia, where a woman’s anxiety at facing Mr. Giggles is offset somewhat by the comfort of her stuffed sheep Parsley:

Supply-Your-Own-Caption Contest

From a Mexican TV slapstick comedy that I caught a few minutes of in the Radioshack on Mission St. I was literally just standing in front of a TV taking shots of the screen with my phone while my friend bought batteries for his camera, hence the grainy ‘field footage’ quality of the images.

Unfortunately, I missed the comic denouement where– of course– the doctor finds a pretext to ‘examine’ the nurse and starts pawing at her bosom with his stethoscope to peals of laughter and applause. So, you’re on your own as far as visualizing a conclusion to this Chekovian little drama.

"Lost": That's Not Okay

The creator’s of ABC’s “Lost” won’t do much better for potential fans than me. I was hooked from its opening scene, when the place crashes over the tropical island and everybody runs around the wreckage screaming, and “John Locke” (they are not subtle on this show; there is also a character named Rousseau who is very much “back to nature”) sat amidst the wreckage with a very Zen, “I have something to do with all of this” look on his face. I love the full orchestra (extremely rare for a TV show — I’m not aware of any others that use one) playing a Bernard Herrmann-inspired score; the other liberal borrowing from Hitchock; and, most of all, the constant recurrence of my very favorite literary trope, “the rabbit hole.” Basically every epsiode our band of sexy, remarkably well-made-up Swiss Family Robinson plane crash survivors discovers a new mysterious hatch that leads to another world, or something much like it. I love that they at least try (see below) to participate in genuine philosophical debates, and I even can’t resist the retro-70s stylings of their Dharma Initiative world (not to mention the awesome 1000-foot tall ancient Egyptian-seeming statue that has some secret temple hidden in its base). This is a very weird show for network TV, and I like that they were willing to take all of these risks.

So, as you can see, there’s a lot I like. But really all that has done is make me much, much more disappointed at what a crappy job the creators have done at following through on all of these great ideas. It’s no secret that people complain about all of the unanswered questions in the show — but my beef a little bit different. I’m OK with the mystery and ambiguity about the world they’re in (“Is it the afterlife? Is it an alternate reality?” etc.) What I’m NOT OK with is the way in which the characters react to the mysteries to which they are subjected. Over and over again, a character is solemnly informed that he “must” do something like “journey to the temple” to find some mysterious figure, and nobody ever says, “Why?” And if they do, they always accept an answer like, “Because it is your destiny.” “It’s my destiny? All right then — let’s go murder that guy!” It’s utterly unreal, and even if you are one of those watchers, like me, who is willing to suspend disbelief as to the stuff that’s actually happening, I can’t get past the completely phoney reactions of the characters.

I get that the show wants to explore questions of free will and fate, and, again, I’m OK with a certain degree of ambiguity and abstraction as the trade-off. But this goes way beyond that — the writers are just really lazy (or incompetent). They have some nifty set piece in mind, and they don’t give a damn how they get there. It’s not unlike a show like, say, “24,” where plot developments are simply not possibly consistent with previous ones — but the problem is, “Lost” has this weighty, pretentious vibe as if it’s actually an intelligently-wrought show.

What really kills me, though, is that I am such a sucker for so many of the set pieces/imagery that I willingly submit myself to the completely phoney characters and their reactions to what’s happening around them. I actually sort of dread watching it, because i know how enraged it will make me, but I do it anyway. And it pains me that the creators had such a cool idea, and executed aspects of it in such an interesting way…and then just punted on the tough part, not only of tying it all together, but of conceiving character reactions that make any sense at all.

Hey, “Lost” That’s Not Okay.