Japanese TV is awesome. That’s a problem when you’re there, because it can make it hard to get out of your hotel room and into the fascinating, frenzied world outside.
One of the ingenious programs I remember when I last visited (2005) was a game show called "Dead Age.” I speak slightly less Japanese than your average dead Pensacolan, so I had figure out the rules from context.
The gist: Two comic actors introduce each round of the game with a sketch that takes place in an office. Each sketch ends with the co-workers joking over a head shot of an older famous person. After the sketch, the game show contestants must guess the age of the youngest person surveyed who knew who that old celebrity was.
For some reason, this game show came to mind when I saw this poster hanging in the window of Taco Del Mar in San Francisco:
It’s like getting
Ginger & Mary Ann”
"Gilligan’s Island" ran 1964-1967, but lived on in syndication well into the 1980s. Pretty much anyone who grew up the USA during that period could sing the theme song if you spotted them "Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale…," and they’d certainly get the sexy joke that Taco Del Mar has plastered on its in-store merchandising.
But you’d be hard pressed to find an episode of "Gilligan’s Island" to watch in the last 15 years, even in the wasteland of basic cable. Would someone under 21 know their Mary Ann from their Ginger? Is Taco Del Mar’s joke lost on a younger crowd? (Does Taco Del Mar care?)
Gen X may be the last generation to know the pop culture of previous generations. We enjoyed the last pre-digital childhood, when computers were luxury items and connecting to others by keyboard meant typing a letter on a Selecrtic. Video and audio were discovered and consumed on analog devices at the same time everyone else watched and heard them.
What this meant was that our televisions, especially independent UHF stations and off-prime-time slots, were loaded with old shows. As a kid of the '80s, I not only watched the Neilsen hits, but also ancient favorites like "The Little Rascals" (1930s short films), wartime Bugs Bunny cartoons (1940s), "I Love Lucy" (1951-1957), "Leave It to Beaver" ('57-'63), "The Flintstones" ('60-'66), "Bewitched" ('64-'72), "Laugh-In" ('68-'73), "The Streets of San Francisco" ('72-'77), and anything else a bored kid might like.
(I could add that time filters pop culture in strange ways. Neither "Gilligan’s Island" nor the immortal "Star Trek" were hits in 1966. Among the top 10 shows that season were CBS’s Tuesday night powerhouse block of "The Red Skelton Hour" and something called "Daktari.")
It’s all different now. Today’s college kids grew up digital, and they hardly bother to distinguish between a broadcast and cable TV network. Hundreds of channels mean hundreds of demographically microtargeted programs. Would a 10-year-old today want to see an episode of "Cheers," much less "Gilligan’s Island"?
In other words, the Dead Age for all cultural references may be drifting older and older. Most Gen Xers know many of the cultural icons of the '50s onward. How many Gen Yers knew anything about Farrah Fawcett before the day she died? Will the Millennials know anything from the Reagan years? (Kids, he didn't really win the Cold War.)
This isn't trivia. America has precious few shared cultural conventions. As our country has diversified and three television networks exploded into a billion websites, the “now” dominates, and the “then” is mere curiosity (or nostalgia, if you experienced it the first time). Additionally, the relevance of “now” is approaching Warhol’s 15-minute model. Besides perhaps "American Idol," there’s hardly a pop culture franchise with the broad cachet of yesterday’s hits. The other options just didn’t exist back then.
CBS canceled "Gilligan’s Island" 42 years ago. Only three of its seven principals are even still alive. So if we can try to imagine a “Ginger & Mary Ann” equivalent for 2051… we can’t.
This may not seem like it would mean much for anyone except Taco Del Mar’s copywriters. But as time passes, we'll find it harder to relate to our fellow citizens on a pop culture basis. And really, what other culture do we have anymore?