So, according to NPR, it’s impossible to make pop-culture references in comedy now without alienating your audience. Unfortunately, this article blows its wad talking about comedic references in a fragmented culture, when it could be using the tired fragmented culture motif to discuss how comedy is changed as a whole.
But, before I get to that, I would like to first make a point on references. Pop-culture references are a comedic gimmick. They are there simply to get a cheap, quick chuckle out of the audience. Or, they’re meant as a loving homage or inside joke on the part of the writer. That’s not to say references are bad, but that is why they are there. References endear you to a show, but they’re not what keeps you watching. What keeps you watching is substantial, genuinely creative comedy and (God willing) characters you care about and are interested in. The author cites the “Lincoln" SNL bit that spoofs Louie:
On a recent episode of Saturday Night Live when the comedian Louis C.K. played host, one skit parodied his eponymous show on F/X. It riffed on the theme song and the discursive style of his comedy.
But here’s the thing: Fewer than 2 million people watch Louie. About 7 million watch Saturday Night Live. That means even optimistically, at least two-thirds of the audience is missing the joke.
What? What’s funny about the Lincoln bit is seeing Abraham Lincoln walk around in today’s modern world, watching him do stand-up, and seeing him awkwardly feel entitled to have black friends. The fact that it’s a spoof of Louieis just an added bonus. It’s the Rainier Cherry on top of a hot fudge sundae in Seattle. It tastes good anywhere, but it has the added benefit of being familiar to a select few.
There is a real ignorance about comedy nowadays - which, is ironic considering we’re living through a comedy boom. People don’t think of comedy as an art form the way they do music. People like to think that comedy is universal. That if it’s funny, it’s funny. But, we also say music is universal, and yet we accept that we won’t like or “get” all music. The comedy scene, like the music scene, is just as fragmented as the rest of society. There are genres of comedy now where 15 to 20 years ago that wasn’t the case. Now, there are indie comics and rock star comics and everything in between. You even have an old guard that sits around and talks about the old days. So, what needs to be understood by people like the author of this NPR article is that not every piece of comedy is meant to make them laugh. Because if you don’t get it at all, that’s fine. You don’t have to, maybe you’re not meant to.