No Such Thing as an Underground Classic

I won’t be able to post much today, so here as filler is the greatest TV performance of all time, which celebrated its 30th anniversary this year: William Shatner singing “Rocket Man” at the 1978 Science Fiction awards.

Before I get to that, though, I want to make an observation about how the YouTube era has almost completely killed the “underground classic” video performance or audio outtake. For many years, Shatner’s insane performance of “Rocket Man” was something that was known only to a select few people who had or had seen copies; people in the entertainment business were most likely to have seen it, plus people who traded VHS tapes of the event.

That meant that references Shatner’s “Rocket-Man” were basically in-jokes. When Chris Elliott did a parody of the “Rocket Man” bit on David Letterman in the late ’80s, he assumed that most people in the audience wouldn’t know what he was parodying: it was an in-joke for the people in the know, and for most people, it was just a funny or weird bit with a guy talking through an Elton John song with split-screen effects. When Animaniacs parodied it (Shatner singing “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” with another Shatner), it was also an in-joke, something that most of their audience was not supposed to get.

Now, with the Internet, even before YouTube, anybody who wants to see that peformance can see it, and so when Stewie parodied it on Family Guy, the writers knew that much of their audience would recognize the reference. (Unfortunately that also meant that they could have Stewie just imitate Shatner, whereas Elliott, needing to make it comprehensible to people who didn’t know the source, actually threw in funny new bits of his own. That’s why Elliott’s parody is better.) It’s just a different culture now; there really is no such thing as an in-joke, and that applies not only to underground-classic performances, but also to in-jokes about almost anything: the internet will reveal the source of the joke within seconds, and there’s no longer a way for shows to do humour that’s truly “inside.”

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