I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

On Boredom and What We Do With Time: Fast Times

by Jake Goldman
Aug. 13, 2012

In my undergraduate years, I took a class with an arrogant, pseudo-famous professor whose main bag was analyzing popular culture through an array of cultural and academic lenses. He made lofty theories about gender roles and gender identity in the Dallas opening credits and posited that Cheers was rooted in Greek mythology. I often balked at these theories, partly due to the over-the-top, self-serious manner in which they were delivered, but also because these theories regularly eschewed the meatier (at least, according to me) emotional qualities of television and film.

Now, as a nearly-finished graduate student, I’m not necessarily wiser but maybe more interested in theories like this. They can be fun at times, peeling back the layers of something like that “Call Me Maybe” song (apologies if I’ve now jammed that track into your skull for the day). Still, there is one theory my old professor proposed I refuse to get on board with.

The theory of which I speak has to do with Fast Times at Ridgemont High, arguably one of the greatest American teen films of all time. The idea he proposed was this: Fast Times at Ridgemont High, underneath the fertile topsoil of teenage romance and angst, is a political battle, pitting Thomas Jefferson’s ideas on democracy against Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Party all through the mouth pieces of Jeff Spicoli (Jefferson. Get it? Woof), and Brad Hamliton (Ahem). The Jeffersonian side, of course, fought for the purity of democracy with a focus on farmers and the working class, whereas Hamilton’s idea of a more perfect union is often regarded as the movement that laid down the foundation for what we now know as conservatism, despite Hamilton’s call for a national bank. And so, taking these ideas into consideration, my old professor felt that Spicoli, the joint-toking free-spirit was the modern-day representation of Jefferson’s ideals, while Brad Hamilton, the fast-food manager, always understanding the value of a dollar, was a mouthpiece for Federalism. Ultimately though, this is just a little too cute for me, a little too neat.

It wasn’t until I watched the second episode of Fast Times, the 1986 CBS television series based off the film, that I was able to invent a theory of my own. It was an Occam’s razor moment: Fast Times, simply, is a wonderful examination on boredom, what we do with time and what makes for “valuable” uses of time. Specifically, this idea is brought to the forefront on the TV series via the second episode’s B-story. The A-story is that of a love triangle between Stacy Hamilton, Mark Ratner and Mike Damone, played by -- wait for it -- Patrick-Fucking-Dempsey (more Dirtbag than Dreamy here, though). It turns out that the “B” story is the more compelling, heartwarming piece of the show, a battle of sorts between Jeff Spicoli and the fairly humorless Mr. Hand. This plotline, on the surface, is pretty flimsy and shoehorned in, I feel, just to fill the 24 minutes. However, its ultimate function packs more power than it may have intended to.

Basically, Spicoli is on a mission to get Hand to laugh, even the slightest amount. Spicoli is adamant that every human being has to laugh, has to take life a little less seriously, much like the Sean Penn film version. And, so, Spicoli makes several attempts to force a laugh out of Mr. Hand, who believes that showing that side of himself to students is to show weakness. After two failed attempts, Spicoli slumps into his chair, crestfallen that his orchestrations were unsuccessful. He realizes he doesn't have the textbook needed for the days lesson and Hand hands (Ha, Ha, Goldman) him the desk copy to borrow and upon opening the book, snakes fly out and hit Spicoli in the face. It’s all pretty cheesy and saccharine but still, there’s something about the singular pursuit of making an old codger like Hand laugh that warmed my heart. It’s a small, dumb moment, but a moment that has greater implications on the ways in which we choose to spend our time. Spicoli, seemingly bored and directionless, focuses his energies on making an old man laugh, presumably because he peered temporarily into his future and was terrified at the prospect of becoming crotchety and humorless. And, so, if he could just get a rise out of the dude, he could squash that notion while also performing a decently human act in the process.

The show never truly delivers on the same kinds of laughs the film provided, and that’s due partially due the constraints of the form and partially due to the absence of heavy-hitters like Penn and Judge Reinhold. Still, the performances are solid, especially Dempsey’s, doing a fine job of portraying the slimy, fast-talking Ratner.

And so, while my theory isn’t nearly as academic and layered as my professor’s, I still like it a whole lot better. Because, come on, really? That’s my best argument. My best argument is “Really, bro?” Mainly because, much like Jeff Spicoli, during the vast majority of that class, I was probably high.

Jake Goldman is a writer and a teacher. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.  Occasionally he writes songs.  If you are so inclined, check out Internetdogfist.com for words and Otsego.Bandcamp.com for music.