In A Fragmented Cultureverse, Can Pop References Still Pop?

Listen To The Original Story

In film and TV, pop culture references are meant to give a knowing nod to those in the audience who understand the joke. But in an increasingly segmented and diverse country, those jokes may be pulling in fewer laughs. This story originally aired on Morning Edition on Jan. 18, 2013.

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For decades, the cast of "Saturday Night Live" took aim at cultural reference points that many Americans knew. Think Mr. Rogers, "Dirty Dancing," Who Shot J.R.? It was a time when there were only four TV networks; no YouTube, no streaming, no Internet.

In this encore presentation, NPR's Neda Ulaby examines what cultural references mean in a media world that has become so fractured.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: This season, "Saturday Night Live" aired a skit making fun of the show "Louie," on FX.

(SOUNDBITE OF "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE" SKIT)

ULABY: If you don't get what's funny about that, don't worry. Louie attracts fewer than 2 million viewers. About 7 million watch "Saturday Night Live." That means at least two-thirds of the audience is missing the joke. Shrunken audience syndrome means we don't share the same set of references anymore. That's not to say some shows don't expertly make them.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

ULABY: These Simpsons can reference "The Wizard of Oz" and then boom, "Citizen Kane."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

HARRY SHEARER: (as Mr. Burns) I want my teddy...

ULABY: NPR's pop culture blogger, Linda Holmes, also points to the sitcom "Community."

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: They've made episodes referencing "Law and Order." They've made episodes referencing "My Dinner with Andre."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COMMUNITY")

JOEL MCHALE: (as Jeff) What's "My Dinner with Andre"?

DANNY PUDI: (as Abed) It's just a movie about two guys talking at a restaurant.

HOLMES: And the thing about the "My Dinner with Andre" episode was, even if you didn't know what it was, you could pretty quickly learn what it was, and so you could get close enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COMMUNITY")

PUDI: (as Abed) Listen to how we talk to each other. We're like robots exchanging catchphrases and references.

ULABY: There's something in television writing called the 2 percent rule. Holmes says the way it works is, TV writers understand that some of their jokes and references will only be understood by 2 percent of the audience.

HOLMES: The good part about it is that the 2 percent of your audience feels really special and feels bonded to you. The downside is nobody likes to feel like they're not cool. This show is trying to impress itself, and its fans, with how insidery it is.

ULABY: There's a way, though, to make outsiders want to be insiders. So many Americans have had that experience watching British TV, including comedian Julie Klausner.

JULIE KLAUSNER: I watched "The Young Ones" and "Absolutely Fabulous." And I didn't know who Felicity Kendal was, but she was a punchline in so many "Young Ones" episodes.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE YOUNG ONES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (as character) Oh, Felicity Kendal's underwear.

KLAUSNER: And then later, when I found out who she was, it was immensely satisfying.

ULABY: Felicity Kendal is a British actress. There's no reason to know who she is unless you're British, or desperate to get in on the joke. This experience of not being in the club, of missing cultural references, is a lot like being an immigrant, says writer Junot Diaz. He talked to WHYY's FRESH AIR about trying to re-create that experience in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." It's a slurry of comic book references, science fiction references and Dominican immigrant slang.

JUNOT DIAZ: The experience that most of us have in the world is that we tend to live in a world where a good portion of what we hear, see, and experience is unintelligible to us. And that, to me, feels more real than if everything was transparent for every reader.

ULABY: You can have that experience of feeling culturally dislocated just by flipping channels in your living room, says Professor Susana Morris.

SUSANA MORRIS: I frequently write about reality TV, and it seems like you need to have a degree in reality TV to really keep up with popular culture references. There is a show on TLC now, where it's just about people trying on bras.

ULABY: Another reality show, "Love & Hip Hop Atlanta," was one of the most-discussed show last year on social media. And it's popular nationally even though, Morris says...

MORRIS: There's regional specificity that, if you're not into the Atlanta hip-hop scene, you would definitely not get. So there's this artist, Rashida. If you're outside of Atlanta, you may not understand why she's on the show, or what she has to do with anything.

RASHIDA: I went, and I talked to Deb from Mizay, who had Nicki Minaj. She knows the industry and she knows...

ULABY: Missing any of these music or TV references? How about video games?

Kirk Hamilton writes about gaming culture. And he has to work to keep up with references not just to games, but even the consoles they're played on - like the Dreamcast, a failed console released over 10 years ago.

KIRK HAMILTON: There are comics all about the Dreamcast and its cool controller. And there's so many references you can make about the Dreamcast, it's really a cultural touchstone.

ULABY: For a specific subgroup. Hamilton admits our cultural common language has split into dialects. These days, you can make a cultural reference without even having experienced what you're referring to.

NPR's pop culture blogger, Linda Holmes, says cultural references can end up working as new, culturally created ideas.

HOLMES: That everyone agrees means the same thing. An example would be Jodie Foster getting up at the Golden Globes, and talking about privacy and saying...

JODIE FOSTER: I am not Honey Boo Boo Child.

HOLMES: I doubt she watches "Honey Boo Boo." She wouldn't show up in the audience. And I doubt most of the people she's addressing watch "Honey Boo Boo."

ULABY: And for the majority of people who don't watch "Honey Boo Boo," that is the show about a rambunctious Southern family showing off their 7-year-old in child beauty pageants.

ALANA THOMPSON: I'm a beauty queen and I'm a redneck Honey Boo Boo Child.

HOLMES: There is a kind of cultural understanding that this is now what it means to see the decline of your civilization.

ULABY: All this presents a challenge to comedians like Julie Klausner, who's thoughtful about what references her audience will get.

KLAUSNER: I assume everybody's seen "Fargo." I assume everyone knows what I'm talking about when I mention - I don't know - Kerri Strug.

ULABY: She's a gymnast. I had to look that up. Klauser's philosophy, when it comes to cultural references in her comedy, is to be generally inclusive; to bring heart to her storytelling that will carry along even those who don't get every single reference she makes.

KLAUSNER: I want to use what I know. And hopefully take people along whether or not they know the original thing or not.

ULABY: The wrong way to use references, she says, is just doing it to show off and establish your superiority.

KLAUSNER: And I am talking about the kind of Dennis Miller-y - like, machine-gun style reference, reference, reference.

ULABY: Do you hear that cultural reference in a critique of cultural references? They've always worked as reminders of who belongs, and who's just visiting.

TYLER PERRY: (as Medea) Sing about it

ULABY: If you ever see a stage show by Tyler Perry, for example, you'll often see a moment, says Professor Susana Morris, when a cultural reference gathers in his mostly African-American audience.

MORRIS: They're singing a song - it might be gospel song, or it might be an R&B song - and then there's a spotlight on the audience. And this is a moment for the inside crowd.

PERRY: (as Medea) Sing it, Atlanta. Sing it.

AUDIENCE: (Singing) And you can't hide love...

PERRY: I knew you knew it. I knew it.

AUDIENCE: (Singing) ...and I betcha...

MORRIS: Like, this is a moment that not everybody gets.

ULABY: But it's a moment when a cultural reference does exactly what it's supposed to do - connect to something larger, whether you get it or not.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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