Monday, December 11, 2006

Cultural References

I have read and heard alot of bellyaching about TV shows that have cultural references in them as though this makes those shows worse somehow. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are times when a reference to a movie, TV show, or historical event can enhance the story. Like any literary device, it's all in how you use it.

The biggest complaint people have is that many of today's shows are just a bunch of cultural references strung together. This sort of thing goes back to the late 70's. It was started and developed by the great skecth comedy series SCTV. Dave Thomas even proudly states that they were the first to use multiple references within a sketch. The one he was referring to was their take off of Fantasy Island. They used the narrative structure of that show to incorporate references to Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, Road to Morocco, as well as a typical Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers dance sequence (I'm not sure exactly which movie it comes from). I couldn't find that sketch, but I did find one constructed in a similar way. It's something called My Factory, Myself. It's obviously a spoof of Norma Rae but it also contains elements of The China Syndrome and Kramer vs Kramer as well.

This of course lead directly to The Simpsons. How you may ask? Well, a young Conan O' Brian saw SCTV and watched it religiously. He then became a very good comedy writer in his own right first at Saturday Night Live and then on The Simpsons where he even admitted that they based their writing style on SCTV. I'm sure you can all see the similarities between Bobby Bitman and Krusty the Klown. Like SCTV, The Simpsons do references right, in that they write the sequence as normal, think about what the sequence reminds them of, and then adds them as seen fit. One of the many reasons The Simpsons are nearly perfect in terms of writing. Here are two scenes where the references work beautifully. The first is an homage to Indiana Jones and the next manages to reference 2001: A Space Odessy.

And of course, making references to other things goes back even before many of the SCTV writers/actors were even born. One such example is the first Mickey Mouse cartoon Plane Crazy from 1928. The whole story revolves around (and was inspired by) Charles Lindbergh's famous flight accross the Atlantic.

That's the oldest example I can think of. If anyone knows of a film, animated or live action, that predates Mickey, post a link in the comment section. I would love to see it.

The good people at Warner Bros. did this as well. This example Hollywood Steps Out (by Tex Avery c. 1941) is choc-full of celebrities as well as references to their movies.

Well, those are examples of good shows making cultural references. Now what about the bad ones that make some people so angry? I guess the biggest offender these days would be Family Guy. Well, every once in a while there's one or two things to laugh at. But, when it comes to cultural references, they have it ass-backwards. Rather than making sure the reference fits the scene, they instead shoehorn a reference in. And the reference is most often just a cheap nod to something they hope their audience thinks is cool:

Or, it's a somewhat obscure reference to something from the 80's as if to say "OOH! Look at how much TV trivia we know. We can reference all sorts of things, so there."

The worst part about that clip is that they even got the caricatures wrong. Yvonne Hudson was much fatter than that, Ann Risley had a huge amount of eye-liner under her eyes, and Gail Matthius (spelled wrong in that clip) had kind of an upturned pig nose.

Now there's certainly nothing wrong with making an obscure reference that not many people can recognize. SCTV writers would often do spoofs of old movies that they're pretty sure only they themselves saw. Plus, Naked Gun 2 1/2 got some positive reviews for their reference to Eisnenstein's film school standard Battleship Potemkin (c. 1925) (They stuck in a nod to the baby carriage descending a staircase scene). That sort of thing is fine as long as they don't draw too much attention to it and especially if there's a hint of smugness behind it. I think that's the part that turns people off more than anything.

But hey, none of what I've just typed would have as much validity if I didn't use a similar analysis of my own work, right? I will thus direct you to my student film Hansel und Gretel. (For this one you have to click the title to see it).

In it I make two references. One is from the silent masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Well, that movie was essentially the inspiration for my film really. The part where I have the witch slowly openning her eyes is my nod to the monster awakening in that movie. Also, near the end, I have the monkey do Michael Jacksons moon walk. Yes, I was well aware at the time that this film was taking place in the early '20's way before his father Joe Jackson was even born. But, it was such a small thing that I was sure noone would even pick up on that, and so far noone has (until now that is).

Well, that's all for now I guess. I hope this post has been an enlightening one. If any of you reading this still has a distaste for any or all cultural references, that fine. We all have different senses of humour in this great big world. But, the next time you want to get red in the face about this, just try to remember exactly what you're railing against.


  1. I'm pretty sure silent cartoons were full of (Pop) Cultural references, as well.

    I've read that Col. Heezaliar was supposed to be a take-off on Teddy Roosevelt. Charlie Chaplin made an appearance in a Felix cartoon.

    I agree, that a Pop-Culture reference isn't an automatic "bad thing." If it's used as a substitute for actual comedy writing, then who needs it? Plenty of "classic" cartoons have them and many of them are past their expiration dates! ("Hello, Mert. Is That You?")

  2. Yeah, I don't think pop culture references are instantly evil or wrong. I think your examples here are the cases where people who know real humor know what to use, and when.

    The problem is when movies use the same damn ones over and over again.

    For example, two characters leaping into the air kung-fu style and the camera rotates around them. Yeah, "The Matrix," great. Never seen that made fun of before.

    Or when the script consists almost exclusively of them, i.e., any Dreamworks CGI flick.

    In those cases, it's like a hack standup doing a routine about Smurf sexuality or whether or not Shaggy and Scooby were stoners. Or just mentioning something like "Anybody remember that Australian battery guy from the 80s? What was up with him?" and expecting people just to laugh. Arnold Drummond. Where's the beef?


    "SCTV" and the other positive examples you used deployed their pop culture references for maximum effect, or surrounded them with other types of wit or humor. They were worked into a mixture of things.

  3. Oh- and "The Simpsons" one with "2001" works because it doesn't just merely present a recreation of "2001," it works as a joke by itself even if you have no idea what "2001" is.

  4. I imagine pop culture references are as old as pop culture itself. I remember reading that even some of Shakespeare's plays (don't remember which) contain references to works (don't remember what) of that time. However, I think that obviously illustrates that you need to focus on other elements and make it good, before you dabble in the shout-outs.

  5. my computer doesn't like the page in which you hosted your movie. You should put it on youtube! Anyone anywhere can see it that way.