"Will future generations understand 'The Simpsons'?" asks Matt Zoller Seitz at Salon, igniting a spirited debate among television critics. "The Simpsons" and other shows that have enjoyed extensive runs at the top, such as "Seinfeld" and "South Park," rely heavily on pop culture references for their humor, he says. "They're all footnote shows: amusing and perhaps hilarious right now, but likely to be dated in five years, quaint in 10, and borderline impenetrable in 20." Is he right?
Many shows do not age well: "Some things will always be funny," and "classic Simpsons" is one of them, says Todd VanDerWerff at the The Onion A.V. Club. But it's true that some jokes don't age well. "Murphy Brown" quickly grew outdated because it relied on current references for laughs, while shows like "Cheers" and "I Love Lucy" deliberately avoided references to the modern world and achieved a sense of timelessness.
Timely references are only part of the humor: "The '90s-era 'Simpsons' episodes weren't funny because of the references," says Darren Franich at Entertainment Weekly. "They were funny because the writing was snappy, the characters were fully realized, and the individual episode plots were structured so well." Sure, the references add to the humor, but they're "the icing, not the cake."
"Will 'The Simpsons' still be funny when no one gets the references?"
What really matters is if it is funny now: Worrying about whether future generations will laugh at a joke is "the perfect way to stifle anyone's ability to produce something hilarious," says Halle Kiefer at Splitsider. If a television show, or any work of art, grows stale, that doesn't mean it wasn't good. It just means "it was written for a specific place, people, and moment in time, and now that time is gone."
"What about the children?!?!, or who cares if our kids understand 'The Simpsons'?"
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- It's official: The religious right is calling it quits
- 10 classic Sesame Street moments we wouldn't show today's kids
- Obama just kneecapped Jeb Bush and Chris Christie's 2016 prospects
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- The dangerously childish morality of liberal ObamaCare supporters
- How science is accelerating our search for alien life
- Alien conspiracy theorists think the government is on the verge of spilling big secrets
- Why insects are the future of food
- The real story behind Deliver Us From Evil
Subscribe to the Week