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Meta-Comedy is Still Comedy and Still Plays by the Same Rules

March 10, 2011

(I promise all of my posts won’t be responses to other articles. In fact, I have one about coffee planned for this weekend. With pictures maybe!)

Salon’s TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz offers The Simpsons (and to a lesser extent, Community), one hell of a backhanded compliment when he asks if future generations will understand the show and the myriad pop culture references embedded within. It’s not a leap to suggest that The Simpsons, the longest-running primetime cartoon and a generational touchstone, will endure the test of time, so it’s a reasonable question to ask. Seitz even has a good reason, as he describes the experience of watching The Simpsons (and the Glee “homage” episodes, but I haven’t seen those so I’ll keep quiet) with his two children and having to explain the references to them. I even watch some of the episodes from the first few seasons now as an adult and realize that a lot of it was over my head when I was ten years old.

He even coins (or uses at least) a great phrase for these shows stocked with references – “footnote shows.” The major difference between a “footnote show” and a book with footnotes is that the “notes” on the TV show aren’t included. They are assumed or taken for granted and often run the risk of leaving the audience confused.

This is where Seitz and I start to disagree. His implication is that modern comedies “are starting to exude that expired fish stench while they’re still on the air” largely because of their pop-culture references. Yet his son’s reaction to the Ranier Wolfcastle joke shows that it’s still funny even to someone who isn’t aware of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mid-90s “comedies.” The best uses of pop culture jokes use them in a way that puts emphasis on the joke rather than the pop-culture reference. This is why shows that make references just for the sake of references (late-period Family Guy, for example) makes the mistake of reference in place of jokes. Yes, as Seitz suggests, if the laugh relies solely on getting the reference, then there’s an expiration date. However, the best shows remember that the joke comes first, and that a well-written pop culture reference joke follows the same construction as a well-written joke.

After all, this is why the term “footnote show” works so well. Footnotes are for extra material that doesn’t belong in the main text, and in many cases a text still works without these notes. In this instance, the notes provide extra enrichment and a deeper understanding of the main text. Comedy works the same way – the Wolfcastle joke works well because it taps into absurdity (and an archetype of the action hero that goes beyond Arnold or any specific actor). Knowing Arnold’s dubious foray into comedy takes a joke to another level. In any case, it’s still possible to laugh without having to check at the bottom of the page; referencing the notes just fills in the extra detail. Take Will Ferrell’s “more cowbell” skit – I’m sure plenty of people laughed at that skit without ever knowingly hearing a Blue Oyster Cult song, even if knowing the band’s music makes that absurd situation even stranger (and yes, funnier).

Which leads me (briefly) to Community – a show that treads heavily in referentiality and self-awareness. Another time, I’ll write in more depth about the show (which I love, even when it frustrates me), but now I’ll say that part of what makes the show interesting to me is the way it continually tries to stretch its boundaries. It doesn’t always work for me (on any given Thursday, it’s been my favorite and least favorite of the NBC comedies I watch), but it’s not necessarily because I get or don’t get a reference. My favorite episode of the current season was “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” – not because I grew up with the game (I’ve never played it, but am curious after the episode), but because it made some daring choices in its storytelling (the episode, with only a couple brief exceptions, took place entirely at a table with characters talking rather than acting) and its subject (both Pierce’s villain turn and an oblique treatment of suicide ideation). If the show is uneven, it’s because the storytelling isn’t clicking. Could that be the effect of too many meta-references? Of course, but it doesn’t mean that every meta-joke details the story (nor are meta-jokes inherently funny – they are funny when they are done well the same way that slapstick, puns, insults, and other classical comedic techniques need timing and execution).

Even if it seems like more and more shows overstuff themselves with pop culture references these days, it’s more of a superficial mimicry than anything else. A show like The Simpsons will ultimately survive the test of time not because it made references to the 1990s, but because it made them in a smart, often satirical, and always funny way. When the show lost that edge (depending on who you talk to, anywhere from the late ’90s on), the references stopped losing their craft and made the show hollow and superficial.

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