How “The Jetsons” have remained relevant for 50 years
Published: Thursday, September 27, 2012
Updated: Thursday, September 27, 2012 20:09
When ABC viewers heard these words on Sept. 23, 1962, they were being introduced to the Jetsons: “Meet George Jetson … his boy Elroy … daughter Judy … Jane, his wife.”
Fast-forward 50 years, and the show is more relevant than ever: it correctly anticipated much of today’s technology, it is a metaphorical window into the early 1960s and its humor has withstood the test of time.
“The Jetsons” was created by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, the duo that also created “Tom and Jerry,” “Yogi Bear,” “The Flintstones,” “Scooby-Doo” and countless other cartoon classics. “The Jetsons” was loosely based on “The Flintstones,” which shows us a Stone Age where people humorously improvise modern machinery with prehistoric animals. “The Jetsons,” however, presents us with a world where people have myriad wildly imaginative futuristic gadgets but do not seem to appreciate them. Perhaps Barbera best summarized the difference between the two shows: “Fred Flintstone’s backbreaking job of smashing rocks at Slate’s gravel pit reminded us that our own occupations weren’t all that bad. And George Jetson’s complaints about getting sore fingers from pushing buttons seemed funny, considering how much easier he had it compared to those of us stuck in the 20th century!”
The most evident way in which “The Jetsons” is relevant today is the fact that the show foreshadowed much 21st-century technology. True, we don’t yet have flying cars that travel thousands of miles an hour, and our houses can’t be raised or lowered hydraulically to take advantage of good weather. In college, robots don’t give lectures, but we do have something similar: online courses, which allow students to watch videos of lectures instead of attending actual lectures by unrecorded humans. The Jetsons have videophones; we have Skype. Elroy has a machine that enables him to play virtual sports with his family; we have the Wii.
George Jetson works at Spacely Space Age Sprockets as a “digital index operator.” Today, many people have similar job titles. At UConn, for example, University Information Technology Services (UITS) is searching for a person to fill the position of “desktop virtualization engineer.”
In one episode, Elroy goes off to school (via an instant transport tube), telling his mother that he is going on a field trip to the Siberian salt mines. Today, technology has not yet advanced to the point where someone in America can take a day trip to another continent, but Google Street View provides us with 360-degree views of even the minutest details of many different parts of the world. It is almost like being anywhere on Earth.
Gadgets aside, the show is relevant because it serves as a vivid record of the early 1960s. For example, it depicts a future where people are free, happy and prosperous. This differs from other futuristic visions, like George Orwell’s novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” The show’s optimistic tone is largely a consequence of the time period during which the show was made. According to Jetsons expert Danny Graydon, “It coincided with this period of American history when there was a renewed hope – the beginning of the ‘60s, sort of pre-Vietnam, when Kennedy was in power. So there was something very attractive about the nuclear family with good honest values thriving well into the future.” Another manifestation of the 1960s mindset in “The Jetsons” is that the Cold War is apparently still raging. In the episode in which Elroy goes on a field trip to Siberia, his mother tells him, “Don’t pick fights with the little Russian boys.”
Of course, technological advances and social change do not mean that “The Jetsons” is no longer funny. On the contrary, much of the show’s original humor remains, and as technology changes the show acquires a different kind of humor. To provide just one example, consider the running gag in which George takes Astro, the family dog, for a walk – on a treadmill. When a cat jumps onto the treadmill, Astro vigorously chases it, and the treadmill goes out of control, prompting George to scream, “Help, help! Jane, stop this crazy thing! Help! Jaaaaaaane!” Unlike in 1962, many people today have treadmills in their homes, but the idea of walking a dog on a treadmill remains as outlandish as it was in 1962. Even if it ever catches on, people will still be laughing at George’s hysterical cry for help.
I think I’ll stop now. Like George, I’m exhausted from pushing all those buttons (on my keyboard).