As word of Kim Jong-il’s death spread, questions flew online at the breakneck speed of modern media: How secure is the North Korean nuclear arsenal? Will this help or hurt relations with South Korea? And, most important: What will become of Avery Jessup, the blonde CNBC newscaster whom Kim kidnapped last year?
Jessup, for the uninformed, is a recurring character portrayed by Elizabeth Banks on the NBC sitcom 30 Rock; last season, she was taken captive and forced to marry heir Kim Jong-un while in North Korea on assignment for one of fake-NBC’s “Hot Blondes in Weird Places” segments. After Kim Jong-il died, on December 17, a corner of the Internet exploded not with questions about geopolitics but rather about geopolitics’ influence on said sitcom character, to the point where Banks herself soon tweeted a tongue-in-cheek message thanking fans for their concern. It has come to this: For some people, the primary reason for following world events is to better understand and discuss the television references thereto.
It was The Simpsons, partly, that brought us to this weird inversion. Television humor before the nineties wasn’t necessarily dumb (Woody Allen, Steve Martin, and Brazil director Terry Gilliam were TV writers at one point) or ignorant of current events (M.A.S.H., obviously, was topical). But Homer et al. popularized an extremely allusive approach to the sitcom that made references to figures like Earl Warren and Grover Cleveland simply for sly laughs, not for the purpose of social commentary. (Bart’s grandpa is so old that Cleveland once spanked him on two nonconsecutive occasions.) The references were higher-minded than those that fill a late-night monologue, requiring knowledge not just of tabloid figures and the current president’s signature quirks, but also the kind of topics that only well-informed people—60 Minutes watchers—would know about.
Today stylistic heirs to The Simpsons are everywhere. In a recent episode of ABC’s Happy Endings, a male character’s hairdo was compared to that of autistic animal-rights advocate Temple Grandin; Parks and Recreation once based a scene on the arrest of Henry Louis Gates; in addition to Kim Jong-il, 30 Rock itself has referenced Lee Iacocca and Hillary Clinton’s 1993 health-care plan. In our world of culture-on-demand, endless online discussion, and wisecracking, it’s now possible to spend enough time in a bubble of smart allusions, and social-media references to those allusions, that the world to which they refer barely intrudes.
That’s how we end up with a large segment of people who react to the potentially globally destabilizing death of Kim Jong-il by talking about a TV show. While this behavior is probably not doing much to further the public discourse, at least they knew who Kim Jong-il was; another chunk of the Twitter world somehow interpreted the news to mean that the rapper Lil’ Kim had died. If only they’d watched more sitcoms.