The transferral of my entire childhood to YouTube and various streaming services means that I now have the ability to study, in all its pastel and neon glory, the television staples of the 80s and 90s. I will have you know that although I have long regarded the period of 1982-1992 as the apex of Western Civilization, the simple act of seeing Murphy Brown in its original form has given me great pause on the tastes of my youth.
In its time, I thought this represented the apex of smart sitcom writing, and yet its hyperfocus on of-the-moment political issues, fallbacks on tropes, broad acting, and blind reliance on the three-camera format renders it nearly unwatchable in 2021. This show is not smart. This show is Joanie Loves Chachi set in a DC newsroom.
Even the greats deemed timeless– Seinfeld, Golden Girls— have a sticomminess about them that I can’t quite forgive. Is it from over-familiarity? Has endless comfort-food watching rendered them stale and ruined the joke?
But recently I caught up on the final season of a sitcom I’d missed from 2020; it was still “filmed in front of a live studio audience,” and I felt like I was watching something from when McAlpin’s had a tea room. The wicker furniture in that Miami living room hasn’t changed; I have. The culture has. We’re bathed in irony, multiverses, and documentary-style comedies now, and there’s no turning back.
I wonder if this is because I submitted to training as to what was funny and what was not– the relative lack of choice available to us made comparison shopping difficult. Full House and Family Matters were schlocky but safe in their predictability. Were they ever truly funny, or was I just 10 years old?
The forces that sharpened their skills on Catskill stages, or by those who were mentored such sages. Seinfeld may have deconstructed the sitcom subject-wise (“No hugging, no learning”) but it still sank to the level of Wacky Neighbor to do so.
This doesn’t happen with baseball– if we let it. The further back we go, the more we can appreciate bare-knuckle, pitching-all-nine innings origins of our sport. Some obvious social issues aside (it’s eternally embarrassing to the nation and the sport that the Negro League even needed to exist), a look into the way baseball worked in the age of the laugh track is to admire a sport free of lock-outs, analytics, and self-consciousness.
That’s not to say baseball was necessarily better; each era offers its frustrations. I want the entirety of the steroid era replayed. And absolutely nobody wants a full-throated return to players mired in losing teams with no way out. It’s deeply uncomfortable to reflect on the careers that were unnecessarily shortened by years playing on Astroturf–essentially a parking lot with a thin green carpet rolled over the top. Data will get you on base faster than a gut feeling 90% of the time. And inspiring as it was to see Johnny Bench crouch behind the plate with little more than an unattached roll of bubble wrap hanging over his chest, I’d prefer to see concussion protection instead of feeling impressed by such flagrant disregard for potentially lethal head injuries.
It’s easy to sink into the moment and think that the evolution of sport and entertainment, fused as they are, have reached their end point and that there’s no forward motion from here. But in twenty years we’ll see footage of Votto, Moose, and India and turn to one another in the bar all, “Now that was when this game was a game. Look at these real men out there.”
What are we doing right now that future generations will regard as barbaric? There’s always something. Is it the constantly-changing Special Uniforms? The fight over the netting along the baselines? The idea that nine-year-olds should have pitch counts limitations? I vote that whatever replaces the Internet will see a great deal of snickering over our giant pixellated Jumbotrons; the 2031 Reds will be outfitted with a hologram projecting Gold Star ads straight up into the sky, and there’s nothing you and I will be able to do about it.