Do References = Comedy?

Today, let’s have a conversation about comedy. Humour can be difficult since everyone has different types of things that make them laugh. You may find abstract craziness to be hilarious, or parody, or toilet humour or physical comedy or puns or sarcastic wit or snarkiness or some combination of the above. That being said, let’s talk about references.

Keep in mind, I’m not talking about referencing something as part of a parody. I’m talking about pieces of media, be they anime or otherwise, that make a reference and do nothing with it. This isn’t to say that something should never reference something else unless they’re going to use it for parody purposes. If you’re using it as part of a character moment or something, fair enough. My issue is with the comedies that throw out references and treat them as jokes. What exactly is supposed to be humorous about the stand alone reference?

To me, at their best they come across as a cheap attempt to evoke the feelings of nostalgia that someone has for that other work in the hopes that they’ll transfer to yours. At worst, they come across as the work of a hack writer who has nothing funny to say so they throw in a reference to Dragon Quest, or Pokemon or something else and hope that it will elicit a chuckle from the audience because you’re acknowledging that something they liked exists. Most likely, it’ll just remind you of something you could be doing instead of watching the anime in question if you know the reference and it’ll do nothing for you if you don’t. So, why exactly is this common? I’ve talked about comedic anime that use references in place of jokes before and I’ve seen, but not reviewed, several others. This isn’t limited to Macfarlane cartoons.

I think it comes down to one basic factor. It’s incredibly easy. Anyone can pick a popular piece of media and work in a reference to it. You can even use the reference in a cutaway clip so it doesn’t have to connect to anything else. Although in anime they’re more likely to throw in referential humour during dialogue and probably won’t have a new scene just to throw a reference in. This brings me to the second question, why does this work?

With most types of comedy there’s a joke there, whether you personally think it works or not. With references, there’s a mention of a thing. So, how is it that this works well enough with audiences that lazy writers can keep using it? I think that there are two major factors. The first is that a lot of cases where references are used as jokes have over the top delivery to make them sound like jokes. The viewer gets the reference,laughs at the delivery and feels satisfied that there must have been a joke in there somewhere. The second is that these supposed jokes play ff of nostalgia and nostalgia is a powerful force.

There’s a reason people keep seeing Hollywood movies based on nostalgic properties in spite of them never being any good. It’s because you want this thing that ties into Transformers or the Ninja Turtles or Rocky and Bullwinkle or Jem (I know it’s not out yet but I will bet you that it’s going to be bad and not truly truly truly outrageous) to be good. But referential humour has a big advantage that those films don’t. Referential humour is inoffensive. You aren’t going to hear some anime characters mention that Dragonball exists and get upset because they screwed it up. Now, if they did an actual parody you might think it was unfair or badly done, but not when they just acknowledge its existence.

So, ultimately, can references be funny? Well, that really depends on the audience. Personally, I don’t think they are but the fact is that there are people who laugh at them and, in the end, it’s not my place to tell you what you are allowed to find funny. So, laugh at references if that’s your thing.

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