Matt Zoller Seitz is a fantastic critic that I don't often agree with. He seems to have become an important voice only in the last year or two, and has since proven up to the task with a veritable blizzard of articles, the sheer volume of which would make John Updike proud.
Last week he released a piece asking a question that I've often thought about myself - entitled 'Will future generations understand the Simpsons?'. In the article he makes a number of claims I find ridiculous -- like that Seinfeld has dated far faster than the Andy Griffith Show. However, I still can't blame him for asking that question.
I would be willing to argue with anyone that The Simpsons is the greatest television show that ever was or will be (or at least the first decade of it...). It was the TV show which displayed to the world what television is most capable of being. Aesthetically, of course, it's barely functional. Yet the content held within their ugly style has a constant stream of extraordinarily crafted lowbrow, highbrow and middlebrow gags that never stop being funny no matter how many times they're viewed, quoted or remembered. No live show, not even Seinfeld, could keep up with the speed of The Simpsons comedy. And, unlike Seinfeld, the fact that The Simpsons could combine so much good comedy with cultural commentary both satirical and earnest makes it more than just a great TV show. To me, The Simpsons is the most extraordinary work of art created in my formative years that I've ever had the privilege of seeing. When people remember the end of The American Century, they won't first think of Philip Roth or Quentin Tarantino, they'll think of Homer Simpson.
And yet, as much as I want to believe that, I have my doubts as well. Posterity plays tricks on us all, and nobody knows what aesthetic priorities 2150 will have. It's entirely possible that future generations will have no idea why it's hilarious that Homer screams about Sherrif Lobo in his sleep. Or why it's incredibly clever to have Mr. Burns looking vaguely (more) like a monster and speaking in rhyme after shutting down the town's power. No two generations can possibly have the same frame of cultural reference, and the meaning of lots (perhaps most)of their jokes will become lost in history's dustbin.
Nothing dates as quickly as comedy. There once was a time when Jack Benny seemed edgy and Dennis Miller didn't sound pretentious. But even the comedy that did not age changed immeasurably before our eyes. No doubt there was a time when Jacques Tahi and the Ealing Comedies seemed LOL funny. Some poeple must have convulsed with helpless laughter as they watched Alec Guinness play eight characters who are all murdered in Kind Hearts and Coronets. To our eyes, movies like the Lavender Hill Mob and M. Hulot's Holiday are still comic gems, but they are not funny in the way the Zucker Brothers or the Farelly Brothers are funny. Perhaps we're more meant to enjoy those 'high comedies' -- we are amused by them even if we don't often LOL.
In a different style of comedy, like The Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy, we also don't LOL that much. But even if we don't, we're amused. There isn't a single gag, no matter how stupid, which is beneath them if they think it'll provoke a laugh. Their desire to entertain us is nothing short of manic, and even if we don't often LOL at their antics, we can't help being entertained by 'low comedy' because there is simply so much to watch that we can't help being swept up by its spirit.
In Chaplin and Keaton, or the Marx Brothers, something still weirder is at play. The gags still occasionally make us LOL. But even when they don't, we can't help admiring the artfulness, the sheer cleverness that went into crafting something so perfect, even if it's not as funny as it once was. At their best, their movies have all the elegance of a mathematical proof, and fortunately have the added appeal of sometimes being extremely funny.
So the cliche goes, a table lasts because it's well-made. Over the years, people may see its qualities differently. But something made with as much innovation and creativity as The Simpsons is bound to have something for everyone. It's highly probable that at least 3 out of 4 jokes will not hold up in 50 years, at least not in the way which we find them funny. And yet it's entirely possible that people will still watch The Simpsons and find them as entertaining as we do. How will they see it? I have no idea, but I think it's safe to assume that they'll find something worthwhile in it.
Springfield Gorge. As far as I'm concerned it's the greatest moment in the history of television and exhibit A as to why the Simpsons will last forever.