A few years ago I saw the 1953 Ethel Merman film “Call Me Madam” — appropriately enough (if you know the film) it was part of the in-flight entertainment on an international flight. There were lots of moments when one character or other would say something that was clearly meant to be funny, but that to me was simply mystifying. At some point I realized that these were in-jokes — up to the minute political or cultural references that mostly likely, sixty years ago, seemed very witty and knowing.
I noticed in recent weeks that this memory has been on my mind. Just today I just realized why: I had much the same experience several weeks ago seeing Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” on stage (which I wrote about here on February 4).
This delightful play is filled to the brim with the very latest puns and verbal twists of 1598. Alas, unless you are a Shakespearean scholar most of these clever moments will sail right over your post-Elizabethan head. As a friend I mine pointed out, it’s a bit like listening to Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” routine if you’ve never heard of baseball.
Now that everything is on DVD, with subtitle options in just about every language, why can’t they include an option for cultural subtitles? Topical jokes, political references, names of products, as well as actors or other celebrities, mentions of “23 Skidoo” and other lexical mysteries, these would all be explained for the uninitiated.
For recent cinematic and television offerings, this should be done immediately, in the cultural moment. If nothing else, think of all those poor future literary scholars who may spend years trying to parse the meaning of “Snooki”.