Analysis, Close Reading, Egotism

IWSG: Lazy Reference Humour

This is an entry for the Insecure Writers’ Support Group, which cross-posts on each others’ blogs on the first Wednesday of each month.

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge 2016

The suggested theme in this month’s edition is ‘pet peeves’.

One of my biggest peeves is writers using references in place of humour. Both Family Guy and The Big Bang Theory get stick for this – rightly in my opinion – but during the last week I’ve read an extract from the Ernest Cline novel Ready Player One which takes this to an incredible extreme.

There’s nothing wrong with fiction drawing on references to real life of course – in fact it’s a good thing, as it connects the fictional world to the wider real world, giving the fictional world a greater sense of depth and a broader range of material to draw jokes from.

One of my favourite examples of this kind of humour is from the second ever episode of Family Guy. After Stewie Griffin opines that television is evil because of its influence on Charles Manson, the show cuts away to Manson’s jail cell where he’s watching TV. Manson says “If I haven’t seen it, its new to me” – a slogan NBC were using at the time to promote their repeats. On the surface level this is (darkly) amusing because of the contrast between the very serious image of the mass murderer and the very silly idea of him repeating back an advertising slogan.

Thinking a bit more deeply, this is also a joke about the nature of advertising. By attempting to mould viewers’ desires to suit their own, advertisers are basically trying to do what Manson’s paranoia convinced him that The Beatles were doing.
A joke that uses references well can make these kinds of satirical jabs quickly and subtly. But often references are used purely for the sense of recognition or for shock value – Charles Manson has been referenced five times in Family Guy, with a heavier hand each time. The fourth of these is Peter Griffin taking peyote and suggesting going on a killing spree. It’s not that heavyhanded, dumb humour is always bad of course, but I personally tend to find this kind of joke lazy and irritating rather than amusing. A section from Ready Player One (which made its way around the internet in the light of a trailer for the film adaptation being released at ComicCon) takes this form of laziness to an incredible extreme.

Ready Player One extract

In this extract Wade Owen Watts (the narrator and protagonist) informs the reader of the work he put in to understand the things that inspired James Halliday, the creator of a massively popular multiplayer virtual reality system.

The tone suggests that Cline is trying to be amusing, but there’s nothing recognisable as an attempted joke on that page. If the writer was purely trying to inform the reader that Watts put the time in to learn from Halliday’s inspirations, he could have achieved everything that page of text achieved in a single sentence, by listing nine or ten disparate points of pop culture.

There’s no real reason to list so many works – these are the things that A Generic Geek would like. There’s no amusingly eccentric or lesser known properties, such as My Little Pony or Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

This passage represents a missed opportunity to tell the reader something about Halliday’s tastes, personality and worldview, beyond that he has very orthodox mainstream geek views.

The same goes for Watts, the character who the reader will spend the majority of the book alongside. Other than that he has a “serious cute-geeky-girls-playing-ukeleles fetish”, the passage tells us nothing about Watt’s personal likes and dislikes. Surely there must have been some of these books and shows that he disliked, even loathed. Going by this section, other than sycophantically agreeing with Halliday’s dislike of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull (certainly not the worst thing on that list) Watts doesn’t seem to dislike anything.

My instinct based on this passage is that Ready Player One, like the worst of Family Guy, understands the pop culture it professes to love on only a superficial level. It’s worth asking if any of the things he’d watched and read had an impact on Watts as a person. I’ve only read one book by Robert Heinlein – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. It’s the story of a political rebellion on the Moon and their attempts to gain independence from Earth governments. There’s two things from the book that have stayed with me long after I read it – the idea of rocks being propelled from the Moon with enough force that they hit Earth with the power of a nuclear explosion, and the fictional tradition of ‘line marriage’. (In brief, the idea is that there are multiple participants in the marriage across generations, with the protagonist’s line marriage being over a hundred years old.) This marriage is presented in a bit of detail, and has prompted me to think about the nature, purpose and structure of the family unit, and how it could work differently in different times and periods. Similarly, the Netflix series AKA Jessica Jones has prompted me to think in more detail about emotionally abusive and manipulative relationships. But other than his ukelele girl fetish, there’s no hint of how watching this vast quantity of fiction has impacted on Watts. When I do use references to the wider world in my own fiction, I’m careful to ensure that they serve a purpose within the story, beyond the superficial act of recognition.

It may be that the author’s intent is that Watts is a superficial protagonist who has only understood the fiction he’s engaged with on a skin-deep level – memorising “every scene by heart” in certain films. This may well be something that the book returns to later, so I’m conscious that I may be being too harsh on Ready Player One. But that’s not the impression I got from this passage of the novel, and it reflects a wider irritation I have with The Big Bang Theory and later series of Family Guy.

2017-08-02 IWSG Pet Peeves

12 thoughts on “IWSG: Lazy Reference Humour”

  1. First off, I didn’t realize they were making this book into a movie. I am wondering how they will make some of the parts in the book come to life. I hope the movie turns out as good as the book.
    I read this book around two years ago. There is a lot more to Wade than you can see in this one passage. Because Wade has studied Halliday so much, it helps him achieve goals. Not just once. Numerous times.


    1. Ready Player One may be better than it looks to me, but what I’ve seen doesn’t impress me. It might just be that Family Guy has made me suspicious of things that only seem to engage with the wider world on a superficial level, but RPO looks the same to me.


  2. David,
    By all the gods, please read the entire book and write your thoughts somewhere for me to find. I’m apparently the only individual on earth who haaaaaaaaaaated the book. I tried so hard to like it. Normally if I hate a book this much, I put it down. But I was obligated to finish it (for reasons) and at no point does it improve.
    Your review of that excerpt is like the first rays of sun after an Alaskan winter. You’ve shed some dearly welcome light on why I disliked this book so much.
    I need a kindred soul.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha, you’re not doing a great job of convincing me to read it!

      I’ve no way of knowing how good the rest of the book is, but the extract I read made me think of the laziest parts of Family Guy, throwing out references for the sake of references but without any kind of engagement with them.


  3. I haven’t read Ready Player One, so I can’t say anything about it other than the passage you shared here. I got the idea that the character is the obsessive type, but beyond that, nothing.

    I’ve seen my fair share of lazy references, and they can be annoying. A reference well-used, however, can greatly add to the depth of a story. It’s a difficult thing to do.


    1. Absolutely – a well used reference can tell the reader something about the characters, and connect the fictional world to the wider real world.

      Thinking about it, maybe my Charles Manson example wasn’t the best example of what I was trying to say, perhaps the characters bonding over music in Garden State would be a better example, as that shows something about who those characters are.


  4. I haven’t read the book, but sounds like the writer was going for as wide an audience as possible with the popular geek references.
    And that’s probably why I admire MST3K and RiffTrax so much. They go for the obscure every time. (And scary how many of those I know!)


  5. I haven’t read Ready Player One, so I can’t really say much about it, but I am a little tired of the constant nostalgia trips we seem to get in geek culture these days. An occasional pop culture reference is fine, but there’s so much of it I feel like it’s getting in the way of creating new things.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s