Pop Culture References

For a geek, it’s not enough to like a book, television show or movie, it is imperative that they be able to recite lines from it at the drop of a hat. Should someone ask what time it is, it’s necessary to respond with the line about time being an illusion from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, regardless of whether or not the person asking has heard of it. To a geek, this represents “wit” and “humor”.

It stands to reason then, that if a television show itself starts dropping such references, then surely the geek is at ground zero of a comedy explosion, especially if the references are to mostly geeky things! The geek gets two delights out of this: first, he can be impressed with himself that he “got” the reference, since he’ll assume he was one of the few to do so. Secondly, he will feel as though the show is speaking to him, validating his sense of importance in the world. (There’s also a third effect if the reference is to something geeky on a show that is itself not geeky; it’s a sign of mainstream acceptance, which we have already established that geeks crave.)

Isn't this photo hilarious?

Isn't this photo hilarious?

The other type of reference that geeks enjoy is a reference to bits of obscure pop culture. Here the referrer has a fine line to walk. The reference must be something that is simultaneously not well remembered and not completely forgotten. The 70s is a good decade from which to mine these references, as the bands, television shows, and bad movies are just beginning to fade from popular consciousness, but are still accessible to geeks who lack the mental ability to discard knowledge they no longer need.*

Once you’ve dropped the name of an old no-hits-wonder band or single-season Saturday morning cartoon, your work is done. You don’t have to formulate a joke revolving around “Tenspeed and Brown Shoe” — simply dropping the name is the extent of the joke. Shows such as “Mystery Science Theater 3000″, “Family Guy”, and pretty much the entire “Adult Swim” lineup have made episode after episode around this idea of comedy.

There is an old joke:

A guy is in prison his first night and after lights out, the prisoners start shouting numbers.

“Seventeen!” someone yells, and the cell block is filled with laughter. Once it dies down, someone shouts, “Thirty-six!” and again, the place is in stitches.

After a while the new guy asks his cell mate what’s so funny. His cell mate explains that they’ve been there for so long, they’ve memorized all the same jokes, and now only need to refer to them by number.

The new guy, wanting to fit in, yells, “Twenty-five!” but there is only silence.

“Son,” says his cell mate, “Why don’t you leave the joke telling to someone funny.”

As bizarre as the prisoners’ concept of humor is, it’s exactly how geek humor works. What is said makes no difference whatsoever, just the idea that it is recognized by both people as something that, at some point, was funny to them. This is exactly how geeks use Monty Python references. If a third party mentions a parrot, it’s a race for any nearby geeks to start yelling about how it is “pining for the fjords”. Other geeks will howl with laughter, even though the reference adds no humor to the situation; the joke is simply that the reference was made. If a co-worker is talking about his vacation and mentions, say, riding on a hovercraft at some point, the office geek has to ask if it was “full of eels”. He’ll then look around to see if anyone “got” his joke, despite it not being a joke at all, simply a line from a Monty Python sketch. But when it was said in the sketch it was funny, and the line shares a word with the topic at hand, so by geek rationale, he’s made a joke.

Of course, like everything else a geek does, these references are also a way to start a fandom-rating contest. A glorious moment for a geek is when he drops a line from “Red Dwarf” that another geek — also a supposed fan — doesn’t recognize. Radiant in superiority, the alpha geek can now explain to his inferior exactly which episode it happened in, and then follow with the rest of the scene.

Making and recognizing them requires utterly useless information, makes geeks look “weird”, and allows them to believe they’re having some sort of social interaction, and that’s why geeks LOVE pop culture references.


* Incidentally, this is one of the areas where geeks and hipsters overlap, the latter also constantly trying to prove their reference-dropping-and-getting chops. One of the saddest sights in the world is the hipster wearing the Boo Berry t-shirt who’s just seen a guy walk in wearing Fruit Brute.

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15 Responses

  1. Having known people whose idea of telling a “joke” is the rote recitiation of Monty Python skits or scenes from The Simpsons or Family Guy, this entry resonates with me.

  2. This one hits a little too close to home. Conversations between myself and my friends would frequently go:

    Me: Monty Python Reference
    Friend1: Futurama reference
    Friend2: Simpsons reference
    Friend3: Corrected Simpsons reference

  3. I’d buy that for a dollar!

  4. Damn, I know this well, especially when it segues from one- liner to spontaneous group recital:

    Friend A: Mentions parrots
    Friend B: Parrot sketch reference
    Friend C: More parrot sketch references
    Friend D: Spam sketch reference for no other reason than it’s also from Monty Python
    Friends A-H: Spam song and Spam sketch lines recited in unison

  5. Don’t know if makes me a geek, but me and a friend use a “Jungle Fever” bit. When Wesley Snipes asks his crackhead brother Samuel L. where the television was that he “borrowed” from their parents he says “We SMOKED the TV!” So:
    A-Where’s my cell phone?
    B. Man, we SMOKED the cell phone!

    Maybe it’s geekier with Monty Python references or stuff from the ’70s.

  6. MST3K used references to make jokes, whereas Family Guy simply makes references *as* jokes. It’s the difference between writing a song and playing Guitar Hero, basically.

  7. [...] As we’ve discussed, most geeks seem to think humor consists solely of reciting things they saw on television or movies, regardless of context or audience. We’ve also seen how some geeks think that nothing’s funnier than the thought that someone who actually couldn’t care less would be appalled by whatever the geek is reading, which is why Johnny Ryan can pay his bills. [...]

  8. I don’t like the “was it full of eels?”-example. If the hovercraft had actually had been full of eels, that would definitely add humor to the situation, or at least “art imitates life”-irony.

    Otherwise, I feel guilty as charged. Darn.

  9. I hate this. The worst part is that once you work yourself into such a deep cognitive rut, it’s a constant effort to pull yourself out. It’s a difficult habit to break. Hell, I only even noticed I was doing it because nobody else seems to have grown up on the collected works of Mel Brooks.

    I fear the coming of the day when “I find your lack of original conversation disturbing” becomes just another popular catch phrase. Way to be, geek culture.

  10. Yeah…anytime we’re gaming and we see stairs someone “has” to go

    “Where do these stairs go?”

    to which is replied:

    “They go up.”

  11. I guess I’m a geek…this is all new to me…Gilmore Girls, is, albeit a very girlie show, but is ALL about dialogue with random historical and pop culture references, ranging from comparisons to Pol Pot to mentions of Rosie O’Donnell’s Riding the Bus With my Sister and the Donner Party. I’ve actually started an informational blog (a collection of articles written by me) of pop culture and historical references. A new one everyday for us ‘geeks’ to enjoy :)

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