Thinking 'bout: referential comedy
"Milk was a bad choice!"
-- Ron Burgandy
Growing up, referential comedy was my jam- just re contextualizing funny things and quoting the movies I watched all of the time. It's all my friends and I would do. It's what I would do with my parents. It's how I learned to laugh. It's how I learned to make people laugh. In a way, it was a way of reminding everyone present that we had something in common. It made us feel like we belonged. It felt inclusive.
But I've been thinking 'bout referential comedy. It's not inclusive. It's exclusive.
It gives us a sense of belonging- it's the edge of the pool we can cling to when the water feels too deep.
What if we kept swimming just a little bit longer?
In improv and creative pursuits, I think referential comedy is like anyway- it's a vestige of doubt. It's a little marker that we're thinking twice. It's letting the fear win. We think if we mention Michael Cohen, Marie Kondo, or whatever Netflix movie I'm supposed to watching this month we'll get a laugh, and get the audience on your side.
But most of the time I've pulled the referential comedy ripcord in an improv scene, I've noticed the bottom falls out of that laugh fast. You've borrowed comedy, and now there's a vacuum. Worst case scenario, someone from the backline comes out as Michael Cohen. Best case, they edit you quick.
And what does a reference add? The people who get it just laugh because they're in the club, and the people who didn't either feel bad about themselves, or turn against you.
We grow up emulating the greats, and we should! But if you're out there improvising, writing, or otherwise creating then trust you, don't feel like you need to stand on the shoulders of comedy giants to get a laugh.
Swim a little bit longer. Fight that fear a little bit more. Instead of a reference, give the audience something only you can give that they might reference one day...or die honorably in your scene trying.
So, I've been thinkin' bout referential comedy.