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05/07/2006: Morley Safer, that's a great one
A few posts back, I was talking about the use of repeated words in dialogue. A few of the examples I used were also Reference Jokes -- a mention of Stratego here, a mention of Bob Barker there. Reference jokes are one of the easiest things to do, and yet so often they're done poorly. People pick the wrong objects and people to reference. Go for the quirk! Chess is not as funny as Stratego. iPods aren't as funny as Stratego either. Stratego is non-obvious, which is what you're striving for. Also, it is a funny sounding word, which is hugely important.
Which would you find more interesting? If I told you that I saw Rob Lowe placing a very specific order at a Starbucks? Or if I told you that I saw Leonard Nimoy having a pair of sunglasses repaired? Personally, I'd be a lot more excited about Nimoy and his eyewear. And it's not just because Spock is dreamy. Nimoy may have a lot more restful pilot season than Lowe, but he's inherently more interesting as a reference. He's got nostalgia value, and surprise value and a funnier name. (The right answer is that I saw Rob Lowe at Starbucks. Too bad, really.)
If you're writing a spec Family Guy, and you've been studying their scripts, you've already noticed how they delight in the off-beat references (The Proclaimers? -- my my). But even in a much more traditional show, it's really worth making the effort to find the perfect reference instead of just putting in one more mention of Elvis or Michael Jackson or Kobe or that girl that disappeared in Aruba.)
Here's a joke from a Jake in Progress script, with some redacted material:
I thought things were going so well.
I thought they were, too! And then she made it clear that in her eyes I’m about as sexy as _______ in an ill-fitting thong.
I thought for a long time before I picked the name I picked. First let's talk about the wrong answer. Do not pick a name from this list:
Rosie O'Donnell, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Oprah, Bea Arthur
Not only are these names kind of expected, but they're kind of mean. All the joke boils down to is: "she's fat" or "she's old." But there's so much more fun to be had if you pick a name from this list:
Winston Churchill, The Ditech commercial guy, Alan Alda, Clint Eastwood, Haley Joel Osment, the poorly-preserved body of a frozen Viking, Porter Goss...
By making it a man, you automatically get the cross-dressing funny. Better (well, sure). And by avoiding obvious options like "Homer Simpson" and generic options like "a sumo wrestler" and too-obscure options like "Morey Amsterdam," you guarantee funny of a much richer sort. And, what's nice is that all of the options are funny in a different way. Haley Joel is funny in his little off-center thong in a completely different way than that poor desiccated Viking is!
The name I actually used in the script was Bruce Vilanch. In retrospect, I'm not happy with it. The cross-dressing is too literal. I wish I'd gone with Alan Alda.
Lunch: another one of those weird tofu shakes. Gakk!