The trouble with pop culture references in film.

I remember the first time I saw “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and seeing Peter (Jason Segal) drunk at his hotel’s bar, acting out the Sex & the City characters and laughing for five minutes. And lest we forget, “The Hangover”’s Alan (the incomparable Zach Galifianakis) saying he can’t go back to Vegas the following weekend because the Jonas Brothers are in town. Cute winks at popular culture appear in movies and for that matter all the time. They allow us to feel included as part of the joke and nod at the time and place where we are when we’re watching – they relay to us the world we live in and make the film come alive that much more. My friends and I make popular culture references all the time – song lyrics and song titles, quotes from movies, references to infamous speeches and puns are staples in our chummy lexicon. This stuff allows for bonding, laughter and a reminder of who and where we are in time, and that a particular work of art – in the aforementioned examples, movies specifically – were made for their audiences.

In short, as most people do, I really like popular culture references.

But, that being said, a recent reliance on referential jokes has become an increasing problem. They’re not a problem right now; any movie made within the last five years will still strike a chord with its audience for a while longer. But what about 10, 15, 20 or 50 years into the future? What state will comedies of the 21st century be in at a time when new audience members are watching these movies and have no idea what Sex & the City is, or who The Jonas Brothers are?

Case in point: Has anyone watched “Footloose” recently? There is a line when Kevin Bacon’s character walks into the room with a skinny tie on and his father makes a comment about him dressing like David Bowie. We laugh at this – not because it reminds us of the world we live in, but because it doesn’t: we laugh unintentionally, because the joke is dated. And dated jokes draw attention to themselves as being “so *insert decade in which the movie was released*”. While people are still watching “Footloose” and it has, in its own right for whatever reason become something of a classic in modern society, I would argue that reasons for this are because, not in spite, of the movie’s datedness. Maybe because of the clothing, the dancing, the Bowie reference, and simply, its frozen-in-time naivety, “Footloose” has become a modern viewer’s novelty. But is this an exception or a rule?

Today’s comedies are not naïve; they’re post-modern and savvy and biting and sarcastic and subversive. Many of them are very good. But sometimes because they’re good, comes time-sensitivity of the nature of the jokes. The Will Ferrell classic “Anchor Man” has a joke at the end about the film’s not-so-bright Brick Tamland going to work for the Bush administration following his stint as part of the film’s news team. The film was released almost nine years ago and while this joke still captures the essence of its time, the roaring laughter of the joke back in 2004 simply does not hold its own weight now; with Obama’s election and further political comedies on the rise, this joke has become somewhat of a moot point. “Anchor Man” is a film that parodies naivety of a simpler time, particular in regard to the media and so many of its popular culture jokes are intentionally dated. However, at the end when the film jumps forward to modern times, the jokes’ wheels don’t fall off necessarily, but get a little looser.

One of my favourite comedies of all time is the Frank Capra romantic ‘romp’, “It Happened One Night”. The film is a black and white comedy featuring one of film’s earliest comediennes, Claudette Colbert, and the incredibly dashing and unexpectedly comedic gem, Clark Gable. Released in 1934, the film profiles a bratty young socialite running away from home only to be met with an unexpected encounter on the bus with a handsome stranger who protects her, brings her back down to earth, and in the end, falls madly in love with her. The film contains little to no nods at popular culture. Its humour is based on quirky characters on the bus and on the road, Colbert’s sassy, mouthy dialogue with Gable, and their slapstick adventures which include: piggy backing over a creek, changing on either side of a blanket draped across a chord separating two halves of a bedroom, a series of misunderstandings, hitchhiking with a driver who sings, ‘, and sleeping in a field. Almost 100 years after the film’s date of release, it still resonates with me. It’s charming and the humour is gentle and poignant and dialogue and character-based, not based on references. You watch the film and nothing about the dialogue jumps out at you as a reminder that the film you’re watching is outdated.

I’ve heard people still cite Buster Keaton as a comedic genius; and yes, the comedy could be construed as outdated in that it is naïve and also based not only upon strictly physical gags but on exposing the lack of limitations of film as it was a new medium at the time. However, people still watch YouTube videos of people falling down and the now-infamous music video by Ok Go featuring the band’s seamless treadmill choreography; strictly physical comedy is inherently funny and it may be too simplistic for some people, and yet, it’s still around.

What I can glean from all this is, many of today’s comedies are going to face problems going forward. Future audiences, except maybe very pop culture-savvy viewers, will meet 21st century comedies with blank stares not because the movie wasn’t good or funny in the time it was made and released ,but because the jokes are passé and irrelevant to a new time period. Comedy has reverted simply from an escape into laughter to a way of reflecting, parodying, and subverting modern time and so its new incarnations may have an expiry date. Comedy then, will always be forced to run to catch up with its predecessors; they will run a little bit before getting stuck and shortly thereafter, surpassed with films that have invented new ways of laughing at, and with, the world its viewers live in, in the moment. Or else, comedies will have to look back into the film archives to reinvent new ways of laughing that do not rely so heavily on the ‘moment’ and more upon other tropes of comedy: situations, dialogue, or relationships.

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