They all say Generation Xers love irony in our literature and popular entertainments; we love “wink-wink” kitche; we love high camp; we love meta-texts (texts that are self-aware and self-referential). Everyone points to our love of The Brady Bunch (and other now-campy shows of its era) as evidence of this phenomenon, a particular indicator which never felt especially accurate to me. After all, the first time we poured over Brady Bunch re-runs after school during our pre-teen years, we loved it. We loved it straight on without a smidgeon of irony. Bad 1960s TV for adults evolved into swell recycled kids television in the 1970s. We thought The Brady Bunch was a well-executed, highly engaging, plot-driven dramedy. And we didn’t appreciate the show on any other level until the various TV reunion specials appeared in the 1980s. Then we realized it was bad; but we still loved it because we didn’t want to let it go; and irony allowed you to keep loving things that were really bad. So...(and this is important), we loved it both ironically and with a chaser-kick of sincere nostalgic love. Let’s not kid ourselves, Xers. When we ironically like The Brady Bunch, we are also aiming that disparaging irony back on ourselves for loving it the first time.
Those among us who became writers and lit readers took this love of loving things ironically and made heroes out of writers like Douglas Copeland (especially for his recognition of us in his novel Generation X), David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers and Jonathan Franzen. Dave Eggers seemed the boldest in his performance of meta-writing. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was packed to the rafters with self-awareness.
Before he died, David Foster Wallace gave a reading at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles where he made an unexpected plea for a return to sincerity. We had gone so far with irony, he said. Maybe he thought we had lost emotion, had lost heart. The story he read, "Incarnations of Burned Children" from the short story collection Oblivion: Stories (2004). epitomized tragic sincerity and his point made a deep impression on me. I wondered how my generation of writers set off on this track of "high-plains-irony" we sometimes call post modernism, following on the works of novelists like John Barth.
For Xers, was it really all because of The Brady Bunch?
Ape Culture’s co-editor, Julie Wiskirchen, came to visit me in Santa Fe a few weekends ago and she brought me the new Steve Martin box set of his early TV appearances and specials, Steve Martin: The Television Stuff. The bulk of the material ranges from 1976 to 1982. After watching it, I now propose that Steve Martin introduced Generation Xers to a new type of humor that included large doses of meta-performance and irony. At least I’d like to propose that’s where irony started for me.