The other day I had a few friends over for dinner and we ended up watching an episode of Robot Chicken. This is an 11 minute sketch show commercial minus commercials, using elaborate stop motion animation with action figures and occasionally claymation. The show recently did a Star Wars special, which doubled the length of the program to an even 22 minutes. The sketches in Robot Chicken can run anywhere from 4 minutes to 30 seconds and typically center on some form of pop culture reference. The Star Wars episode is essentially double of what you’d get in a standard episode, and stretches this formula even thinner.
Jokes are made about Admiral Ackbar, this tiny wheeled robot in the first movie, and the alien who says something incomprehensible to Han Solo in the cantina bar. If you have any idea what I’m talking about, congratulations, there’s a mini industry dedicated to you! Family Guy just did two full length episodes remaking the first two Star Wars movies. We mutually recognize these tiny, meaningless fragments of cultural zeitgeists like Back To The Future, Star Wars, and now Avatar. And largely we laugh out of recognition. This is not inherently a bad thing but I feel that more than ever, Western entertainment is structured around providing recognition, simply recognizing something being enough to justify spending time with media. Glee’s success is in no small part due to the number of recognizable songs performed on screen. Avatar is getting a retrospective rerelease a year after its theatrical release – so that, as my roommate pointed out, they can incorporate 20 minutes worth of CGI backgrounds. Has our collective recall diminished to the point that we’re willing to accept the same thing reconstituted over and over again?
Back to Family Guy for a minute. Here’s a show whose comedic formula largely boils down to a series of cutaway gags loosely connected by a few strings of plot. These jokes most rely on a strong familiarity with Western pop culture of the last couple of years. The show was cancelled a few years back before gaining a cult audience on DVD. Fox brought the series back and it became ubiquitous. Creator Seth McFarlane then created a new series, American Dad, with a cast of variations on Family Guy’s characters: the boorish, ignorant father, the prudish, well-meaning wife, the socially awkward son, the talking baby/alien. American Dad even uses the same cutaway gag formula. A few years later, peripheral character Cleveland was granted a spinoff, The Cleveland Show. There are now three shows on TV created by the same man with roughly the same humour, voiced by mostly the same people. Have you met someone who’s actively a fan of American Dad over Family Guy? Or openly prefers The Cleveland Show to Family Guy? They’re minute variations on a theme. But again, the humour is based on recognition. A quote from a 80s movie used in a different context. A tongue-in-cheek reference to a minor celebrity. Or even more modern: an allusion to a recent internet meme. When Wikipedia evolves into a mandatory brain implant, we will have no trouble remembering why Brian the talking dog was dancing and singing while dressed as a banana.
And I’m not excluding myself from this either. I love Community, a show which practically demands fluency in pop culture of the last 3 decades to understand what the character Abed is talking about.
What impact is this going to have 5, 10 years down the line? Pop culture parodies are not new – check the Sinatra parody in this Tex Avery short from 1948, mocking his skinniness around this time (starts 3 minutes in):
But we’re definitely coming closer to culture as ourobouros, the snake eating its own tail in an endless cycle. Humour is increasingly dependent on a sense of knowing (Nitsuh Abebe talks about this trend in indie rock much more eloquently than me) and I’m concerned that it dissuades people from writing in a way that appeals to a sense of surprise, instead of appealing to the familiar. More to come on this in a bit.