Karen is occasionally into old episodes of the Muppet Show. I almost always have the same reaction: she puts in the DVD, I walk out of the room to do something else, convinced that I won’t be interested, only to end up coming back to watch it because it’s just a variety of comedy that isn’t done anymore, at least not done well. Many of the jokes are quick…the type you have to be on point to catch. What I enjoy about them is that they aren’t just pop culture references that only the “cool” will get, but rather cultural and artistic references in general that require education to pick up on. Tonight we watched an episode with Brooke Shields as the guest. The episode centered around the group’s humorously ill-fated attempt to do a comedic performance of Alice in Wonderland. The episode was full of fast references, visual and verbal, to this and many other fairy tales, in such a way that the audience wouldn’t pick up on them if they didn’t know what went with which, and didn’t have time to stop and think because everything kept moving. There was a reference to War and Peace early in the episode, and, my personal favorite, a performance of Jabberwocky! I couldn’t believe my ears, nor could I believe that I was able to still recite a good part of the poem along with the performance.
Why don’t we see comedy like that anymore? Don’t get me wrong, I loved Letterman through my college years, and appreciated the particular brand of humor that came with the late shows. That humor, however, was nothing compared to the educated humor that (even) the Muppet Show was able to provide. I think the reason is that our culture at large just isn’t nearly as educated as it once was.
In college, I watched an episode of Frasier in which a reference was made to someone “yelling ‘Heathcliffe!’ across the moors!” I laughed hysterically. My room-mate didn’t get it. More recently, while brainstorming a writing project for my faith community, I wrote a short piece patterned after A Modest Proposal. The editorial staff rejected it, stating that they had never heard of this essay, and thus were afraid readers wouldn’t understand my piece as satirical.
Is it possible that this many people haven’t heard of Wuthering Heights, or A Modest Proposal? Even if they haven’t read them, to have never heard of them?? The last thing I want to do here is be elitist: there are many, many pieces of literature I haven’t read. I don’t look down on those who aren’t well-read because I know all of us are gifted in different ways. Still, what happened to the level of education that was at one time held as the standard? When did the standard become exceptional?
I see an attempt in educational venues of all types, from faith communities to schools, to “bring down” the knowledge to where the audience is perceived to be. This underestimates the audience and students, whatever their age. Instead, why do we not leave the knowledge where it is and endeavor to bring the audience up to that level? The intense focus on the end result (i.e: test scores) is, I fear, doing a great deal of damage to the fabric of our culture, affirming an under-educated generation and raising one behind it that appears unapologetically ignorant in many realms. Already, the things that matter most are minimized in the name of industrialized progress. Spirituality and the arts are pushed to the back as science is deified. At the risk of pushing too hard with the sometimes sweeping generalizations I’ve made above, I have to sound the alarm: we’ve lost so much already…how will that be compounded when video completely replaces the written word, and language is degraded to succinct bullet-points in outlines?
Hopefully, that is the fear of a dark, alternate future of science fiction, and won’t ever become a reality.
If it does, though, I suppose no one will remember the genre anyway, so the irony will be lost.