Friday, March 25, 2011


In an episode of South Park, there's a brilliantly catty assault on the writers of Family Guy. Wandering into the studio where Family Guy is produced, Cartman discovers the writers' secret: in a vast tub filled with water and white balls, on each of which is written a cultural reference or a noun or verb, manatees use their noses to bobble the balls up out of the water into a chute. Family Guy writers then simply put the balls together to make a gag. In effect, they have created an elaborate random cultural reference generator using lovable water-based mammals.

Out of context, this joke might itself seem to be randomly generated: Volleyballs + Family Guy + Manatees . . . Hey, the writers for Family Guy get their ideas from volleyballs selected by Manatees! However, in the context of a two-part episode about the art of cartoons and censorship, the joke doubles back on itself: one defence of comedy is that it is exempt from moral opprobrium and deserves to be judged lightly if at all because comedy is about the accidental, the frivolous, the wild and witty and rapid and excessive connection of things that are not usually (or ought not be) connected, and so cannot be held entirely responsible for its hubris, its exaggerations, and so on.

As an attack on Family Guy, though, the point is clear: the show's script is simply reference masked as comedy. And it's a solid criticism, one that might be levelled elsewhere (I seem to remember thinking that the second Shrek film was nothing but what was at the time contemporary references to popular icons - although I'm not entirely sure I saw the second Shrek film). But what is the relationship between reference and comedy? That's the question I'm curious about here.

First, Categorical Distinction: a reference is to something that is (for a moment at least) categorically distinct as a concept; that is, a reference evokes something that is understood, in that moment at least, to be whole and meaningful and boundaried. Herman Melville, Family Guy, Conrad, Al Pacino, Don Corleone, Don Draper, Lassie, Sarah Palin, Jesus; or voodoo, skyscraper, pawn; or genius, tree-huggers, Dylan fans, etc. . . . A reference, on its own, may evoke any number of different and misleading agreements about a unique meaning, and simply throwing a reference out there - Henry IV, Ronan Keating, chastity - confers no guarantee that the visceral, even stereotyped or archetypal sense that the reference generates is shared; but whatever subsequent connotations, uncertainties, confusions might occur, there is a moment when we (think we) agree upon a unique meaning, the quiddity of the reference. In comedy, quiddity is not enough: there must be a twist where the impersonation brings someone to life in unexpected ways; the gag twists and toys with our expectations about that person or that type of person; parody sticks a rubber dagger deep into the quiddity (cue Craig Brown's parody of Martin which begins - and might as well end - with "I am a serious.") Reference alone is not enough: the essence, the quiddity of the reference must be rattled, transformed, skewered or exploded.

Second, you have to Get The Reference. A reference is something that needs to be caught: metaphorically (and sometimes literally), the name must have a face, the place must have a geography. Similarly, something is always unspoken or submerged in a joke, which is why one gets the joke, doing the silent but active work of getting it (and this is why a simple explanation of the joke, which contains all the same material, tends not to be funny). And both getting the reference and getting the joke can be accompanied by laughter. When I laugh at a joke as part of an audience, I can only assume that the other members of the audience and I are laughing at the same thing, that we have agreed upon the passing of a reference and are enjoying the witty way in which the reference has functioned in the comic context. But the fact that others are laughing suggests only that they know there has been a reference. (You know this laughter, maybe you've laughed in this way - it's a public signal that you have spotted a reference embedded in what someone has said). And, of course, there are social conventions around this laughter of recognition: we might laugh because other people are laughing, or we might laugh because we think there's been a reference which we might have missed and we don't want to look like the buffoons who missed it. Laughter's ambiguity clouds the distinction between a reference per se and a comic reference: in both cases, a mental line has been drawn between those partaking in the present act of communication and an Other, encapsulated in the reference; the laugh of recognition and the laugh of comic appreciation cannot be easily disentangled. Anyone who has laughed at a reference that wasn't supposed to be funny, or who has laughed because other people are laughing, will be aware of how isolating and confusing the distinction can be. The point here is not a normative one: I am not trying to distinguish how we should laugh or when we should laugh. Rather, it's to highlight that one of the most extraordinarily potent features of comedy, the intimately detailed and ecstatically brilliant use of reference (in impersonation; in jokes, whether about blondes or Obama or Moses or porn stars; in parody and satire; in caricature), fundamentally relies upon a subjective response in the audience, getting it, that cannot be wholly distinguished from any other form of reference.

So we can look at South Park's attack on Family Guy and say "oh snap!"; we can engage in a debate about the use of cultural references in 30 Rock vs Community (I have not read the link because I have not yet seen the 30 Rock episode, though I have no doubt it will be better than the Community episode; I actually enjoy Community, but don't think it has ever ascended to the sustained, snow-capped ridge of genius that 30 Rock has planted its flag in and commandeered for the past few years); but we are put into an awkward position: on the one hand, a reference is a categorical distinction, and, furthermore, comic reference is a distinct contextual manipulation of reference; on the other hand, these two domains (reference and comic reference) are not necessarily categorically distinct and, furthermore, the manipulation occurs, at least in part, but necessarily, in the audience.

I'd be curious to hear your thoughts about this.

[Edited to remove "The" from Family Guy - sigh]


Björn said...

I am not sure I understand what you take to be "comic" about a "comic reference" as opposed to just a "reference", which may be used in a piece of comedy (as might a prop, or a word), without in itself being comic?

sw said...

Thanks for the very fair question, which drives right into the heart of the matter.

My post could have been called “what makes a reference funny?” I began with the argument that reference alone can be mistaken for comedy: perhaps I would temper this (according to my subsequent argument) that weak or diluted comedy gropes towards references in the hope that the laughter of recognition will be mistaken for laughter at what is funny. I used as an example one of my two takes on South Park’s mockery of Family Guy and my own impression of a Shrek film I’m pretty sure I saw. So I began to wonder about the role of reference in comedy and the relationship between references and comedy. A "comic reference" is indeed a reference used in a piece of comedy, like a prop or a word. But you ask, what makes it comic? I thought I offered an answer: twisting the quiddity, where comedy does its work on the reference. A comic reference is not merely naming something through reference, but shaping its meaning, changing how we understand it, warping it at its essence. Asking how comedy twists, shapes, changes, warps, and does its work is asking how comedy works. I have some thoughts on the answer(s). Instead of then sharing these answers, I turned back to look at laughter and “getting it”, both of which are shared by reference and comedy (moving away from the specifics of the relationship between reference and comic reference). The point I then came to was the final awkward position, which I repeat: on the one hand, a reference is a categorical distinction, and, furthermore, comic reference is a distinct contextual manipulation of reference; on the other hand, these two domains (reference and comic reference) are not necessarily categorically distinct and, furthermore, the manipulation occurs, at least in part, but necessarily, in the audience.

(There is another way of responding to your question: you say 'a "reference", which may be used in a piece of comedy (as might a prop, or a word) without in itself being comic" - the response is this: nothing, no reference, no prop, no word - except fudgesicle - is in itself comic ).

Björn said...

If I understand you aright, which very likely I don't, you are claiming that a "comic reference" is distinct, and also not distinct, from a "reference"?

Being myself uncomfortable with claims of the form "p and not-p", I would argue that it cannot be the reference itself that "twists the quiddity"; it must be the whole context in which the reference is deployed. If the reference, itself and alone, were to "twist the quiddity" (assuming I understand what this means, which very likely I don't), it would not be comprehensible as a reference.

Probably this disagreement or misunderstanding can be cleared up if we agree to talk of the act of reference, thus encompassing context, comic intention, and whatnot?

sw said...

Björn, everything you say suggests that you do indeed understand what I am writing, and you have every right to be uncomfortable with the "p and not p" claim. Although I will not reject that claim entirely, I was somewhat more cautious in making the claim that a "comic reference" is a "distinct contextual manipulation", and so, yes, it must be "contextual" - as I said at the end of my last comment, nothing is in itself comic, and so no reference can twist its own quiddity (which, you rightly point out, would make it incomprehensible as a reference: I would slip an aside here, muttering under my breath: that is why the comic-in-itself is annihilation.)

The reason I won't agree to consolidate my post and my previous comment into the act of reference, with which both are very tentatively and uneasily consistent, is because the disagreement or misunderstanding that would be resolved by referring to acts is where we will begin to understand what comedy is.