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How Long Do Cultural References Last?

Not forever

Celebrities: Popular then forgotten. Recognize her? No?Don't worry, this is just a stock photo. (Tim Pannell/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

On a (mostly) quiet street in San Francisco, the house that served as the Tanner family residence in Full House (a sitcom that ran from 1987 to 1995 and at its peak was watched by 16 million American households) still stands—though, according to Yelp, it's been repainted. Plenty of fans still stop by, and this past weekend, reports Vultureso did actor John Stamos (who played Uncle Jesse on the show).

But, as Stamos joked on Instagram, apparently fans visiting the house didn’t recognize one of the show's stars:

Boy, these youngsters have 0.0 idea what they're missing. #Fullhousehouse. #TURNAROUND.

A photo posted by John Stamos (@johnstamos) on

There's a less flattering explanation for their lack of interest, though: Stamos may be victim to our constantly changing cultural frame of reference. And if all this talk of a early 1990s sitcom is leaving you confused, so are you.

In his newest craft-of-writing essay for the New Yorker, John McPhee explores one key choice writers can make: When is it edifying to introduce an reference that might not be relevant to all readers, and when is it just annoying?

With cultural references in particular, the ease of recognition can fade with time. McPhee writes:

[C]ollective vocabulary and common points of reference are not only dwindling now but have been for centuries. The dwindling may have become speedier, but it is an old and continuous condition. I am forever testing my students to see what works and does not work in pieces of varying vintage.

McPhee cites a New York Times column written by Frank Bruni (also a Princeton University lecturer). "If you’re closing in on 50 but want to feel much, much older, teach a college course," Bruni writes. He elaborates:

I once brought up Vanessa Redgrave. Blank stares. Greta Garbo. Ditto. We were a few minutes into a discussion of an essay that repeatedly invoked Proust’s madeleine when I realized that almost none of the students understood what the madeleine signified or, for that matter, who this Proust fellow was.

In McPhee’s own tests, 18 out of 18 students in a high school English class know who Woody Allen is. Only 17 recognize the name Paul Newman. He keeps testing:

Elizabeth Taylor, “My Fair Lady”—eleven. Cassius Clay—eight. Waterloo Bridge, Maggie Smith—six. Norman Rockwell, Truman Capote, Joan Baez—five. Rupert Murdoch—three. Hampstead, Mickey Rooney—two. Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh—one. “In England, would you know what a bobby is?”—one.

As for John Stamos, gently mocking the fans who don’t recognize him: We'll chalk up their lack of excitment to his dark glasses and hat. But someday Uncle Jesse and Full House surely will pass from our collective frame of reference. Even a potential reboot can only stave off the inevitable.

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