Apr 20, 2011

Uncle Miltie

Caught the second half of my first podcast this morning, from Skepticality. An expert on human factors engineering mentioned "angry birds," which I learned is a game application. The way that he and the interviewer talked about the game made it plain that to them, it's a cultural reference people would recognize. But it was new to me.

Got me thinking. There was a time when if an American referred to Uncle Miltie, "everyone" knew it meant Milton Berle, host of an incredibly popular TV show dating from 1948. Fast forward to the 70s and shows like All in the Family were just as recognizable.

As cable caught on, audiences gradually went to niche favorites. At the office lunchroom, referring to an MTV video or the latest HBO offering might be met with puzzled looks. Later HBO became more widely viewed, but references to shows seen only on Showtime or another less popular pay channel would be of interest to smaller and smaller segments of the lunchroom crowd.

Now we have Facebook, the biggest online community to date, but even so, far from universally accepted although "everyone" has heard of it by now. Mention Twitter or Skype, especially to an older person, and get the same puzzled look a 1952 Ubangi might have registered with a mention of Uncle Miltie.

Cultural references are always limiting. A sports fan who learns how narrowly sports fandom is actually distributed will be astonished, considering the attention given to sports by media and in small talk. A Greek scholar is not surprised to find a reference to Euripedes drawing blanks, and a sophisticate may well revel in the insularity of New Yorker magazine, getting considerable satisfaction from the idea that the yokels in the heartland simply have no clue as to what's going on. There's a lot of middle ground, and considerate people are careful not to indulge in snobbery when they use references that may be niche rather than for "everyone." Snobs, of course, love to beat us with their superiority. "You MUST have heard of Dolce and Gabbana!" A high-end brand of handbags...I think.

After I introduced my friend Dave (aka Also Ted) to the writings of S.J. Perelman, he mentioned how much he enjoyed sorting out cultural references from the circle of sophisticates that Perelman catered to, and to which he belonged. Inside jokes abound, and like my friend, I enjoyed deciphering the offhand references as a kind of code of belonging.

I'm not old enough to have watched Uncle Miltie, but I'm old enough to know about him. No one living is old enough to have heard Euripedes speak, but plenty of people may have read about him. Not enough to put him in same recognition class as MTV or Facebook, of course, but somewhere out in front of true esoterica.

For example, the proper term for a shrunken head from the Amazon is tsantsa. Instead of "How 'bout those Mets?" at the lunch table, imagine the reaction you might get from saying "Saw a fascinating tsantsa at the British Museum on my last visit." Pedantry, anyone?

Getting back to the podcast, it was reasonable for a couple of hipsters to mention "angry birds" without explanation. As a hipster wannabe, I was able to decipher the code just as I deciphered Perelman's references to the Algonquin Round Table.

But I think the age of more universal cultural references is over. Most of us live in niches now. Even the Super Bowl and the Oscars show don't really reach "everyone" any more. Pretty much everyone has heard of the Apple iPhone, but lots and lots of people either can't afford it or choose to ignore it. Compare to Milton Berle or Archie Bunker, which people could get for free. I doubt we'll ever see the like again.

And we didn't even get to pop music. Free radio broadcasts made Harry James and the Beatles household words. I tried to keep up for many years with subscriptions to Rolling Stone and Billboard, which is really expensive, and finally gave up. I accepted the fact I would not and could not remain forever hip (assuming I ever was!) and moved on. So when I read that Jay-Z is virtually a cultural icon now, it doesn't bother me in the least to ask, "Who?"

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