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An ode to the shows that shaped me

| Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Renee Yaseen I The Observer

“You are what you eat,” they say. Well I say, “You are what you watch.”

I think sometimes we forget that many of us spent countless hours of our childhoods sitting in front of a television. Before school, after school, in the car — it was always there. As younger me sat on the couch, mindlessly absorbing the words of characters on any given show, a certain osmosis occurred. At the time it seemed fruitless, but years down the line, I find myself quoting TV characters more often than I’d like to admit. It’s almost instinctual at this point — everyday occurrences remind me of scenes from the shows that were, for years, constantly streaming in one ear and out the other.

Scientists have been studying the effects of television on the brain and its development for years, and the general consensus is that yes, TV does affect the brain. That verdict is usually accompanied by stigmas that television stunts brain development, or makes you “dumber,” but I believe quite the contrary. My ample exposure to television as a kid affected my brain in a way that was beneficial. The shows I watched shaped my thoughts, my personality, and, most importantly, my sense of humor.

People tend to underestimate the importance of a good sense of humor. Comedic relief can make an awkward situation more bearable. The power of a witty comeback is instrumental in winning arguments big or small. People are drawn to those who can liven up a somber room with a simple, funny phrase. If there was nobody to provide us with these under-appreciated, comedic services, the world would be a much more bland place, deprived of its quick-witted individuals.

At this point, you might be inclined to stop and ask yourself: what is it exactly that makes a person funny? What outside forces are powerful enough to infiltrate the mind of a young person, and change them from a regular human into a human who can make other humans laugh?

The answer to this question is a force that, since the 1930s, has been as constant a force in our lives here on Earth as gravity: television. In recent years, the cultural contributions of TV have been far more evident than ever before. We have managed to create a sense of humor completely unique to our generation, and I believe this humor directly correlates to the shows on which we grew up. It’d be preposterous to suggest that an activity we spent hours doing every day since we could sit up straight has had no impact on the way we now think and act.

When I think about the shows I watched as a child, I see a pineapple under the sea, I remember Josh Peck running over Oprah and I hear Freddie Benson counting down, “five, four, three, two…” While I may have stopped actively watching these shows some years ago, they have stuck with me. If you grew up watching shows like these, you can agree that they were hilarious mainly because they were so utterly random. And if you didn’t, well good luck, Charlie.

In high school, I had a friend with whom I spent the entirety of my school day, and she hadn’t been allowed to watch TV as a kid. Consequently, she never knew what I was talking about. I was constantly spewing out quotes from shows she had never watched, weaving references into conversations like they were universally known. She did not speak my native TV tongue, and this made me fully cognizant of how pop culture subconsciously invades our minds and lays the foundation for what we find funny and how we will make others laugh going forward.

Unlike the worrisome parents who forbade their kids from watching shows deemed “bad” or “unhealthy” in order to raise more enlightened, sophisticated offspring, I say with confidence that my years of TV-watching did, in fact, enlighten me. These shows immersed me fully into the culture that is now prevalent everywhere – in casual conversation, social media, memes. Those less fortunate than I who were forbidden to watch shows like SpongeBob SquarePants (my condolences to you) can see the show’s frequented online presence. SpongeBob has more or less earned himself the title of meme ringleader to the point where if you’ve never watched the show, you still know who he is and what messages his character is supposed to convey in said memes. If you didn’t watch these shows firsthand, you might be surrounded by those who did, and, therefore, are reaping the benefits made available by the random, witty culture that was and is 2000’s television.

This is not to say that TV is the only way one can derive a sense of humor, but in my case, it happened to be one of the more influential sources. Without asking for it, our generation was exposed to a frightening number of platforms that influenced our development. The bounds by which this sub-generation is defined are indefinite, but there is certainly a sweet spot group of us Gen Z-ers who had the privilege of experiencing the pop culture to which I am referring.

We made hundreds of vines. We saw the “Charlie Bit My Finger” video. We danced along to Carly and Sam’s “Random Dancing” web show segment. Then, at the decline of such a wonderful era, we bid farewell to Vine as we know it and sat back in slight disbelief as TikTok (its new, lesser counterpart) emerged. YouTube was no longer a place to watch babies bite other babies’ fingers, but rather to watch “vlogs.” Then Carly Shay moved away to Italy and the rest was history. As we got older, we delighted in more mature shows like The Office — if you can even describe it as such — that incorporated this sense of humor we know and love. Remember when Jim put Dwight’s stapler in Jell-O? Yep, a pretty random, pretty hilarious prank that was.

The shows we watched truly capture what it was like to grow up during the time that we did. We watched shows that were designed to make us laugh at the sheer absurdity and randomness of their content. Years later, we have become a generation who spends much of our time generating and looking at content for the sole purpose of it being deemed funny on social media. We have been able to create this content because of our early exposure to shows that were, similarly, a little bit out there, but we take the random hilarity present in our everyday lives for granted because it has always been there. Kids a few years younger and adults a few years older than us might not understand why a particular, random sentence or image provokes an eruption of laughter. They just don’t get it. We have a tendency to make light of semi-serious things. We are known for our wit and our dark humor.

Who would we be as a generation without our unique sense of humor? Who would we be had we not formed preconceived notions of what college would be like based on the quirky characters at Pacific Coast Academy in Zoey101? Who would we be had we not watched Spencer Shay make spaghetti tacos or construct sculptures made entirely of butter? A far more boring, less creative, less expressive generation — that’s who.

I think when watching TV transforms from an absentminded act into something that leaves a long-lasting impression on people’s identities, that show is praiseworthy. So thank you to all the shows that shaped me. I really do appreciate it.

Meghan Cappitelli is a freshman studying Economics and English at the University of Notre Dame. A native of Long Island, New York, she enjoys running, procrastinating, and eating ice cream for dinner. She can be reached at [email protected] or @meghancapp on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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