Cultural references for dummies

25 Sep

Sometimes I get lazy and tweet a reference to Game of Thrones. People love that shit. And I mean, it’s not always lazy—I often reference Game of Thrones because I love Game of Thrones, but the HBO series (and, to a lesser extent, the books it was adapted from) has become a shortcut to a knowing smile, an appreciative nod, or the kind of instant bonding that only occurs when you’ve both shed tears over Ned Stark. Sorry, spoilers.

I wish I could make a graph, because I’ve made some observations about reference humor on Twitter, and how the hell else am I supposed to express myself? This is why I should have paid attention in AP Stat. Anyway! More obscure references are hit-or-miss: they yield greater joy when people get them, but not everyone has seen Waiting for Guffman enough times to quote it from memory. (To those who haven’t, I just hate you, and I hate your ass-face.) Twitter is a fairly unique audience, though, in that these people tend to be more comedy-savvy—perhaps more pop culture-savvy in general. So you can reference that one scene in Valley of the Dolls, and someone will get it. Probably.

Making references is also a lot less of a gamble online. Worst case scenario, no one stars your tweet (or “likes” your Facebook status, or reblogs your Tumblr post), which, you know, traumatic, but still preferable to in-person blank stares. Reference humor obviously works better on the internet, both because of the audience and thanks to the magic of Google. Comedian Pete Holmes actually has a hilarious bit about how Google has destroyed the sense of mystery in our lives—and he’s totally right. But the act of discreetly Googling something in the privacy of our homes gives us the ability to confirm and thus fully appreciate references. Yes, the “flames on the side of my face” line is from Clue!

But back to Game of Thrones. (Finally, right?) At this point, it doesn’t really matter if you’ve watched it or read the books: talking about Game of Thrones is speaking a common geek language that most everyone on the internet can at least “get.” You might not know all the character names—even if you did watch the show—and you might still be uncertain how to pronounce “Cersei,” but you have some sense of what’s going on. You read a joke about direwolves or winter coming, and you say, “Ohh, Game of Thrones!” And then we all feel a little bit closer, maybe. I don’t know. I feel closer to you.

Maybe these “cultural references for dummies” are cheap, and we should be holding ourselves to a higher standard of reference humor. But I think there’s room for both. I like the idea that there are some things almost all of us grew up with: Star Wars, The Beatles, The Simpsons. (By “all of us,” I mean the people I interact with most on the internet. I bet there are some weirdos out there who only speak Monkees.) Perhaps it does create a false sense of companionship, but what’s the harm in bonding over cultural touchstones?

One interesting side effect, however, is that references reveal how not-unique we are. I guess I’m referring less to the Star Wars talk, because duh, it’s Star Wars. But the ones we thought only a few others would get—the Home Movies quotes we pull out at three in the morning. Obviously you make the reference in the hopes that someone can relate, but isn’t there also delight to be had from relishing in the obscurity? While it’s part that obnoxious hipster notion of being there first, I think there’s a less cynical interpretation—the idea that you are part of a secret club. It’s supposed to be our reward for staying in and watching Daria instead of having a social life.

But I don’t know. There’s also safety in numbers, and I take comfort in the easy references. I mean, thank God you’re not going to grab my arm and ask, “What the fuck are you talking about?” And I’m glad we traffic in both the obscure and the mainstream, because it allows reference humor to be a way of bonding rather than a source of alienation. There are the obvious ones we fall back on, and the ones that engage a more limited audience. It’s also the fact that so many of the mainstream references are to things we’re all really into, things we sincerely believe are great. It’s the anti-snark.

Speaking of, can we talk about Ryan Gosling’s scorpion jacket in Drive? I don’t know if you’ve heard, but that movie is sharper than Valyrian steel.

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