The 1990s represented a unique era in American culture. The Cold War was over, and capitalism had triumphed over communism with a miracle invention that promised to make everything perfect forever: the Internet.
The biggest political scandal of the 1990s involved the president receiving sexual release from a woman who was not his wife. Wars were three-day affairs, not endless quagmires. We experienced a seemingly unprecedented period of peace and prosperity. Capitalist democracy had scored such a conclusive victory over all other forms of governance and economic thought that there was talk of “The End Of History,” that we needn’t evolve any further as a society because we had already arrived at such an ideal place.
What lay at the end of history? Why, a television set, of course.
And what lay at the end of history? Why, a television set, of course. In the 1990s, the dominant cultural force wasn’t sex, religion, politics, drugs, or angry cries for revolution: it was television. The prosperity of the 1990s engendered an unusually self-referential, ironic and pop-culture-obsessed period in comedy. The definitive comedies of the age still explored the complexities of sex, money, death, ambition and all the other universal themes coursing through great art, but it did so increasingly through the prism of pop culture, particularly on television.
According to the killjoy theories of folks like Amusing Ourselves To Death author Neil Postman, television was supposed to be the anti-social media, one that separated people from each other and reduced them to a state of drooling passivity. There is an element of truth to that assertion, but the best comedy of the 1990s had a way of bringing people together, of uniting like-minded souls for whom sharing a deep, even encyclopedic knowledge of Mystery Science Theater 3000 or Mr. Show or Seinfeld or The Simpsons was as important a bond as religion or geography or following the same sports team might be for the less pop-culture or comedy-obsessed.
We comedy geeks did not define ourselves by the music we listened to so much as the comedy we consumed. The Simpsons was– and remains — our Beatles, the biggest and the best. Mr. Show was our Sex Pistols or Big Star, a cult landmark whose influence was wildly disproportionate to its initial popularity, or lack thereof. Not too many people watched Mr. Show but seemingly everyone who did went on to form an improv group or create a television show or start a podcast or become an entertainment writer.
The Simpsons was sacred: Admitting you didn’t like [it] was tantamount to confessing you thought Shakespeare was a bit of undistinguished mediocrity.
For a generation largely defined by cynicism and sneering irony, The Simpsons was sacred: admitting you didn’t watch The Simpsons, or didn’t like The Simpsons, was tantamount to confessing you thought Shakespeare was a bit of an undistinguished mediocrity. Television was not The Simpsons’ exclusive focus but it was a dominant focus. In a Time.com piece on the top 100 television shows, critic James Poniewozik argued that “maybe (the show’s) best and favorite subject has been television itself.”
The Simpsons embodied the traits that would define the comedy of the 1990s: an obsession with pop culture and television embodied in an endless stream of pop culture references, inside jokes and parodies, dark humor, irony, a profound, principled cynicism about institutions and celebrities, and an innate awareness of itself as a fictional construct. It is therefore not an exaggeration to call the 1990s “The Simpsons Decade,” since the greatest show of all time towered over the era, and its distinct sensibility was reflected in just about all the transcendent comedies of the time.
The Simpsons Decade is my humble attempt to propose a unified theory of 1990s comedy, tracing a flexible but consistent comic sensibility through dozens of comedies that personified the best the decade had to offer. It’s a chronological journey through the highs of Gen-X pop culture that encompasses everything from Seinfeld to Pulp Fiction to Beavis & Butthead to Space Ghost: Coast To Coast.
Of course, meta-textual humor did not originate in the 1990s and the era’s best comedies built upon the sensibilities of comic geniuses like Steve Martin, Albert Brooks, and Andy Kaufman, artists, whose pioneering work was both genuinely hilarious and a subversive meditation on the nature of comedy. The fathers of this style of comedy include Bill Murray and David Letterman, who live their professional lives in ironic quotation marks and are dazzlingly fluent in the smart-ass language of sarcasm.
Within the greatest and most influential comedies of the Simpsons Decade lies a powerful contradiction. Television was a source of infinite pleasure and comfort. In the immortal words of Homer Simpson, the preeminent idiot savant of the age (never has a fool been quoted as widely and reverently), it was simultaneously “teacher, mother, secret lover.” It entertained us. It distracted us. It told us how the world worked and introduced us to characters we would come to love with a passion and intensity we could never muster for our actual families.
Television is both our childhood friend and the sinister entity that destroyed our childhood. It raised us and it runied us.
Yet at the same time, television is a destructive, even toxic cultural force. It lies to us, feeds our insecurities, taunts us with things we can never have yet are continually told are essential to happiness. It is both our childhood friend and the sinister entity that destroyed our childhood. It raised us and it ruined us.
That was my relationship with television. For me, and for many members of the generation that came of age in the 1990s, television wasn’t just a way of filtering the world into bite-sized chunks that could be packaged with commercials: it was a world unto itself. I was in love with the totality of pop culture, but television reigned above all else. It was not the greatest of mediums but it was the most powerful and influential.
My relationship with television echoes an equally complicated relationship with nostalgia. Nostalgia was a major component of 1990s comedy’s obsession with pop culture and television, but it was far from simple. This warped nostalgia often took the form of mocking and subverting the very forms that gave us pleasure as children, of infecting the quasi-innocent fodder of our youths with the cynical understanding and dark humor of adulthood. For example, TV Funhouse transformed the cheesy-creepy-crappy local children’s shows of yore into a grotesque, drug-and-alcohol-sodden bestial bacchanal; Strangers With Candy hijacked the tone of after-school specials to deliver warped anti-morality tales where good deeds were punished and wickedness rewarded; and Space Ghost: Coast To Coast turned third-rate superheroes into vessels for the dadaistic deconstruction of the late-night talk show format.
Like television, nostalgia is a great and terrible thing. To deny nostalgia is to deny part of our humanity, to reject the seemingly universal, sometimes constructive, even essential need to look back fondly on yesterday with a softening filter that forgets the pain and ugliness of the past and exaggerates the awfulness of the present. Yet to give in to nostalgia is to manufacture an impossibly idealized and romanticized past and pit it against an exaggeratedly grim present. In that respect, nostalgia is less a yearning for an earlier, more innocent time than a pining for an era when the world was terrible in a markedly different way.
My nostalgia for the 1990s is not a hunger for more, it’s a hunger for less, for a time when the world seemed smaller and more manageable.
My nostalgia for the 1990s is not a hunger for more, it’s a hunger for less, for a time when the world seemed smaller and more manageable, when technology was more primitive and less miraculous but somehow seemed infinitely more appreciated. It is a hunger for a time when the world of network television was so small that when FOX and later its dullard descendants the WB and UPN were added to the old standbys of ABC, NBC, and CBS, it didn’t just feel like television was changing, it felt like the universe was expanding.
I am deeply nostalgic for the comedy for the 1990s, even as I am deeply wary of nostalgia. I am a man of the 1990s, which also makes me a man out of time, a relic of an earlier age whose sensibility was forged in the era of Nevermind, Pulp Fiction, Get A Life, and above all else, The Simpsons. I am as as violently estranged from the current decade as old lions Howard Beale and Max Schumacher were from the vulgar and debauched television of the 1970s in Network. But in the media world of today, even those who are “mad as hell” have no real choice but to continue to take it indefinitely.
The world changed dramatically after the 1990s. The Internet usurped television as the dominant pop-cultural force, largely because it provided new, more flexible ways to watch television. Families no longer raced home after work or school to suckle at the glass teat the way the Simpsons did in their opening credits. They still stared at screens — staring at screens now seems endemic to American culture — but now these screens were iPhones or laptops or iPods.
And the attacks of September 11 brought an era of peace and prosperity to a screeching halt and launched a new age of never-ending economic anxiety and perpetual warfare. This scary new millennium introduced the radical notion that there were perhaps forces more powerful and important and worth addressing, whether comedically or otherwise, than television and pop culture. This profound shift could be felt in the changes at The Daily Show, which evolved from a smug spoof of television news and C-list celebrity culture under the leadership of sentient smirk Craig Kilbourne into an essential and fundamentally serious, if hilarious, ongoing critique of government and media hypocrisy with Jon Stewart at the helm. Somewhere along the line, the show’s fake news began to feel like real news, and Stewart went from being a comedian turned faux-anchor into a real newsman, as trusted in his own way by the comedy geeks whose sensibilities were forged in the 1990s as Walter Cronkite was in his day.
For the Gen-X humorists who came of age in the 1990s, to pretend that television doesn’t matter or that it isn’t central to American society would be an act of hypocrisy and self-delusion every bit as nefarious as anything those preeminent bogeymen of the counterculture Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan ever perpetrated.
This is the perfect time for a thorough re-examination and analysis of the comedy of the 1990s.
This is the perfect time for a thorough re-examination and analysis of the comedy of the 1990s. Enough time has elapsed that it’s possible to look back with the distance and perspective to put the era in context, to discern themes and tropes and names that reappear throughout the decade and would go on to have an even more profound impact on the culture in the years that followed.
The Simpsons Decade is comprehensive in scope, encompassing everything from television landmarks like The Simpsons (of course), Seinfeld, The Family Guy, and South Park, whose influence cannot be overstated (though heaven knows I’ll try), to obscurities like Lookwell and Heat Vision & Jack, which aired once (in the case of Lookwell) or not at all (in the case of Heat Vision & Jack). To provide some sense of the breadth of the project, among the comedies I will be tackling here are Oscar-winning masterpieces (Pulp Fiction), paradigm-shifting deconstructionist slasher comedies (Scream), comedy records culled from radio broadcasts (Rock, Rot & Rule), surprise hit movies based not just on old television shows, but on contemporary ironic appreciation of old television shows (The Brady Bunch Movie and its sequel) and music videos from Beastie Boys (“Sabotage”) and Eminem (“My Name Is”).
The Simpsons Decade goes beyond the superficial, Buzzfeed-friendly nostalgia of simply recounting what happened in the cozy, comforting past to explain why it happened, how it happened, why it mattered, and how it continues to inform the comedy of today and tomorrow.
So journey with me to the lost continent of the past for a perfectly cromulent exploration of a decade and a movement that embiggened the world of comedy in profound and important ways.
Check back tomorrow for the first entry, an examination of the Chris Elliott sitcom Get a Life.
Follow Nathan Rabin on Twitter: @NathanRabin