Fifty Years Later, Bits Of Our Own Reality Reflected In 'Jetsons' Future

Audie Cornish talks to Matt Novak, writer of the Paleofuture blog for Smithsonian, about his recent posts about the TV show, The Jetsons, on its 50th anniversary and why it still matters today.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Finally, this hour, we're going back to the future.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "BACK TO THE FUTURE")

MICHAEL J. FOX: (As Marty) Hey, doc, you better back up. You don't have enough road to get up to 88.

CHRISTOPHER LLOYD: Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads.

CORNISH: Oh, Marty McFly, so 1985. Actually, let's go even further back.

(SOUNDBITE FROM "THE JETSONS" THEME)

CORNISH: "The Jetsons" have been celebrating their 50th anniversary. The cartoon debuted back in September of 1962 and in honor of that milestone, Matt Novak has been writing about every episode on a Smithsonian blog called "Paleofuture." And he's been finding "The Jetsons" still remarkably resonant today, right, Matt? How are you?

MATT NOVAK: I'm doing well. How about yourself?

CORNISH: So "The Jetsons," the original "Jetsons" was only on for one season, right, and yet it seems like it's a ubiquitous reference to the future. I mean, why does it have such widespread, I guess, resonance?

NOVAK: Well, as you mentioned, it was only on for one season in its original run. It got a couple more seasons in the mid-'80s, but it ran on constant repeats. So basically, you have these giant generations, the baby boomers, Gen X, seeing "The Jetsons" every Saturday morning, whether it was from the '60s, '70s, '80s or '90s.

CORNISH: So for the few people who have not seen it, describe the vision that "The Jetsons" had for America in the time of, I guess you estimate, 2062.

NOVAK: Yeah. Basically, you know, when the show aired, it was a parody show that was taking a lot of these cliches about the American family. George, the dad, works a few hours a day outside of the home, whereas Jane, the mother, works inside the home and you have two kids and a dog, which "The Jetsons" was really parodying that in a lot of ways, but specifically, when it came to the future.

CORNISH: What are the technologies that were on the show that we have today?

NOVAK: You know, it's interesting to see some of the things pop up like a version of the Roomba, you know. We may not have Rosie the robot, who was their humanoid household robot, but there are a lot of gadgets that you see pop up, such as the Roomba or...

CORNISH: And the Roomba is the little vacuum cleaner that works on its own around your house, right? For those of us who are still using an old vacuum.

NOVAK: Yeah, I can't say that I have a Roomba yet, so I'm not quite living in the future. But I know plenty of people are living in that version of the future. And it's interesting to see some of the things that we don't have, even that we could have had, such as the jetpack or the flying car, which are technologies that we have, but haven't made it into the mainstream.

CORNISH: Now, you write that thanks, in part, to "The Jetsons," there's a cultural sense of betrayal that the future never arrived, which I assume this is where is my flying car syndrome, right?

NOVAK: Precisely. You know, I'm fascinated by this idea that a certain vision of the future was promised to us and that it hasn't arrived, like you said. Where's my flying car? Where's my jetpack? There's really a sense of betrayal by some people that we're stuck with Twitter now instead of daily rocket ships to the moon.

CORNISH: But what's the takeaway from all of this? I mean, why, in the end, do you consider it actually influential?

NOVAK: Well, it's influential because it's important to examine sort of what messages we tell children about the future. You know, there's a lot of different versions of the future that we're telling kids today and the messages that, say, my parents or I got as a kid through "The Jetsons" could very well have had influences on something like public policy, you know.

What if George had taken mass transit instead of getting stuck in his flying car in the middle of traffic in the sky? It seems like something that you're taking a little too seriously when you look at kid's cartoons, but, you know, it's so often referenced today that you can't help but think that these things had an impact.

CORNISH: You say that it actually has influence on policymakers and inventors. You actually kind of see people referencing "The Jetsons" in that way.

NOVAK: Oh, certainly. You know, just the other week, Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, referenced "The Jetsons." He said that it was his favorite show as a kid and he held up, I think it was to Brian Williams, he held up his iPhone and said, you know, this is "The Jetsons." So, obviously there is a very direct link there to the messages we saw as kids.

CORNISH: Matt Novak, thank you so much for speaking with us.

NOVAK: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: That's writer Matt Novak, who's been recapping every episode of "The Jetsons" on its 50th anniversary for the Smithsonian blog, "Paleofuture."

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