Don't Get the Gang Back Together
Phase I: The Past Shines Brighter
It’s not easy to make something great. Many times when something in America hits, there are intentional and unintentional forces at work that explain that thing’s success. In comedy we see it constantly, as the nature of comedy is to be surprised. Take a look at stand-up comedy from the 60s and 70s. In all likelihood, if someone got up and did Bob Newhart’s routine on stage as if it were new, it would be greeted with awkward, sparse applause. People rave and fawn over the dawn of Saturday Night Live, but in the deep waters of intellectual comedy we tread in today, I dare say the original episodes of SNL would be seen as amateurish and boring.
We love vintage shows, movies and comedy, but most of it largely unwatchable to our modern eyes, and that fascinates me. Are we smarter than we were during those times? Are people funnier? Has competition among creatives caused the quality of work to rise significantly?
It’s easy to see where a small sample size of work can titillate an audience into thinking that they’ve really witnessed something special. The show Arrested Development, for instance, only ballooned in popularity as the years passed after its cancellation, and it could be argued that its abbreviated run gave people the sense that it needed to be championed. When the show was revisited in 2013, the general consensus among fans of the original run was that the show was good but failed to capture the spirit of the version that had been cut short.
We see this in music as well.
Fans of an obscure album like the Postal Service’s “Give Up” from 2003 feel a camaraderie with other fans of the album, even though there was nothing actually indie or obscure about that piece of work. The album featured the hit “Such Great Heights” that was covered by a major act and featured in an M&M’s commercial and then later featured in an UPS commercial. It was huge.
In 2013, the band reunited after the question ‘will they ever do anything else?’ had reached near mythical proportions because of the one-off nature of their only album. They finally released previously unreleased/unfinished material, it hardly made a cultural splash, as much of the music seemed dated and, by that point, stale.
In 1998, the cult-classic group Neutral Milk Hotel released an album called “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” In the years following the release, the reputation and following of the album only ballooned with the growth of the internet, circulating an album to larger and larger audience as digital music sharing spread the album to a new generation of listeners. The key factor here, however, is that Neutral Milk Hotel was strangely silent after the release of this album and did not follow it up with another release. The same was true of the Postal Service. This only served to grow the mystique of those two albums.
There’s something about the preservation of a one-off work that keeps its legacy intact.
[caption id="attachment_365" align="alignnone" width="511"] Some people pretend this didn't even happen.[/caption]
When Michael Jordan returned to the NBA with the Washington Wizards in 2001, many fans of MJ and his career were disgusted by the extra chapter he was going to add onto his legacy with a subpar team. Three years earlier, when MJ had closed the book on his Bulls career with a game winning 18-footer that to this day is an iconic sports moment, it seemed like a fitting end to what some consider the most dominant sports career in American professional sports. He was our hero and the story just felt right to end the way it did.
That might explain why many basketball fans refuse to acknowledge that chapter of Jordan’s career: it seemed unnecessary or damaging to his legacy. Additionally, now that Jordan was no longer considered a threat to win a title in a league ruled by Kobe and Shaq, it seemed more of an exercise of ‘can I do this’ than an exercise of ‘should I do this’ or ‘do I need to do this?’
Phase II: Why We Revisit
Anchorman was and is arguably one of the most successful comedies of all time. The brand of humor came at the right time, with the right cast, and the ripples that came after Anchorman will likely influence a whole new generation of comedians.
Then came Anchorman 2, and the question bears asking: why?
The ability to leave things alone seems to escape us. Much like trying to reconnect with the girl you loved as an 18-year-old, it just isn’t the same. The things you thought, the clothes you wore, your whole perspective – has likely changed. You could also get together with your grade school buddies once every ten years for a reunion, but at the end of the night the world has changed and so have you and it’s time to go home.
Sure, it was fun for the 1-2 years that we all walked around and said ‘I’m kind of a big deal’ or ‘60% of the time it works every time’, but at some point you move on. Every time we revisit something like that, whether it be a film with a terrible sequel, a new album from a dormant band or new episodes of a cancelled show -- we’re left with something only vaguely resembling the past.
That moment of nostalgia is exciting, but there’s a clear difference between visiting the past and recreating the past. When fans of the Alien franchise found out about Prometheus (significant because it saw the return of Ridley Scott as director), most everyone was ecstatic to get to revisit that thing that they loved. Of course the film came out and everyone criticized the bejeezus out of it in what could ultimately be translated to this: IT’S NOT ALIEN.
Taking it a step further, it’s not fair to the piece of work to expect the same tricks to work the second time around, because it assumes that nothing has happened since the original work was produced. Anchorman and Alien were brilliant films in their own way, but you can’t deny the fact that everything that came after those films, in those genres, responded to what they did.
We can learn to appreciate things for the context in which they were made. Maybe Bob Newhart’s comedy wouldn’t kill the way it did in the 1960s, but without Newhart’s work in context we might not have enjoyed the razor sharp wit of Conan O’Brien or the subtlety Norm Macdonald’s observations.
Recently the discussion of a Full House reunion took center stage. I immediately stepped in a mental time machine and imagined the laugh track from that show translating to the current TV landscape. I think it’s very safe to say that it would be a disaster. My immediate thought was ‘please, universe, prevent this from happening.’
There’s something about the photographs we take of people – the way we summarize the history of a person’s life or a friendship we had – that lionizes our memory of that person or thing and protects the fond way we that want to look back at it.
It just feels better to keep the past in the past.
It can be extremely tempting to simply recreate what you think of as the glory years of entertainment or even your life as a way to pass the time, but it’s simply a matter respecting the place and time of an event and closing the book on it.
But that’s not really fair, is it? I guess you could even say that it’s a bit ungrateful. There’s a definite reason that every person under the age of 50 remembers Full House. At that point in time, at that place in the evolution of television, for whatever reason, Full House resonated with our pop culture. The likelihood of the producers of the remake changing up the style and tone of the show is high. There is very little chance they will just attempt to roll out the show as it was in the early 90s. It’d be unwatchable.
It’s akin to me deciding that I want to be eight-years-old again. Sure, that was a simpler, joyful time, but I know everything that comes after that. Other than not wanting to die, what reason would I have to become unaware of all I’ve learned since then?
Phase III: Why We Won’t Stop
I mean, this one is easy. Why would Full House get back together? A quick perusal of the careers of Dave Coulier, Bob Saget, John Stamos, etc., would reveal that no, they didn’t exactly continue to climb the ranks after the show went off the air. Why would they reunite? Simple: keep gettin’ dem checks.
We are going to pay for it, and they know that. Hey, what are highfalutin standards when measured against millions of dollars in your pocket? There’s a reason why people sell out. Some of us don’t have the option to pass up the offer to recreate our old work in favor of some system of standards. Most of us will never encounter the dilemma in the first place. They know we want to see Caddyshack 2 and they know we want to hear Guns N’ Roses finally release some new material, so they aren’t going to stop.
Also: it’s easy for me to say. The temptation of making another pandering run at something popular you did in the past is most likely irresistible if you don’t have other options. George Clooney is unlikely to reboot ER because he’s busy producing great films.
There’s nothing wrong with revisiting the things that made us laugh, made us feel inspired to make things ourselves, made us do whatever – but there is something wrong with never moving forward… if you can help it.