COMMENT: Reference Comedy
First published March 2000
Reference Comedy
"Lazy comedian slags, lazy comedian slags
Tedious set-ups, predictable gags..."

So sang Alan Davies' ex-girlfriend in May 1999 before dumping him. But despite her valiant efforts, lazy comedians still trawl the media in search of the tedious and predictable to weave into their acts, secure in the knowledge that their audiences are delighted to hear about them.

They scream with laughter as yet another bland comedy sketch show features a reference to Reservoir Dogs or The Blair Witch Project, howl with merriment as a comedian spews out a 10-minute routine about the cast of Star Wars visiting a kebab house and split their sides over a Teletubbies-On-Acid reference.

And if the reference is hot enough, who needs jokes? Fuck 'em - they get in the way.

But heavens, let's break it down into levels. Descend with us now into the hell of Reference Comedy...

A popular TELETUBBIES catches the public's imagination for several months (or, if you want a more cynical approach, the plebs of the country latch on to the next overhyped fad). A good comedian will ignore the SPICE GIRLS altogether, otherwise it's just a cheap laugh at something that's already popular (a guaranteed laugh almost). Lesser comedians, however, recognise immediately the commercial value of the RESERVOIR DOGS and will embrace it wholesale. Don't let them fool you into thinking they're lambasting the DOCUSOAPS satirically. Like all topical comedy, it's just another lie.

Months later. The popularity of the STAR WARS in question has died down a little. Bad comedians are still telling jokes about it. This does not matter to their act, however, as the JERRY SPRINGER has now passed into another level of consciousness. In fact it no longer matters if parts of the audience have never experienced, first hand the SOUTH PARK itself. The fact that they have experienced non-jokes about it for months means that mere references to the BAYWATCH are just as entertaining.

Months later still. An older generation of comedians finally grasps that there's a new THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT to refer to in their tired acts. Again, for the most part, these comedians need not have experienced the THAT WOMAN WITH THE TITS WHO DOES GARDENING first hand. The media climate has told them that it's time to do a parody of it in their non-negotiable Christmas shows. Whether they do this to appear 'on the ball' like the younger comedians who discovered how easy it was in the first place, or because they themselves started out as cocksure as those young shitters and have refused to let go is debatable. But the whole situation is deeply embarrassing - almost a comedianic version of pensioners still referring to teenagers as 'hippies' or 'punk rockers'. To call the older comedians 'out of touch' is fair, but it can be argued that the younger generation of comedians deemed 'on the ball' aren't contributing anything better. They just happen to get there first.

The comedy world is in ruins. Sociologically speaking, people are out for as best a time as they can get and have little education to determine between good things and bad things. This wouldn't be so bad (it's a matter of personal choice after all) were it not for the fact that those choices colour and shape a comedian's desire to entertain the audience. The old, out-of-touch comedian is only bowing to what he or she believes are the wishes of the audience. The younger comedian on the other hand is all too often trying to build up a following and will cynically use every cheap trick in the book to hook that audience. Once that following is achieved there is no excuse. It's a simple matter of cheap humour. For the masses.

Jim Davidson does a joke about Eldorado getting bad viewing figures. Last week.

A comedian once said that true happiness is 'Seeing someone you've heard of on the South Bank Show'. This is how audiences react to comedy sets these days. Sadly, this produces a knock-on effect around the comedy world and everyone tries the same thing. For the comedy connoisseur, this is nothing short of depressing as you see otherwise fine comedians baiting the audience with cheap refs in return for quick laughs. Almost a comedy prostitution. Very few comedians will fight against the tide. There are good ones who simply refuse to participate. But, at the end of the day, all comedy acts, no matter how post-modern, original or boundaries-breaking they think they are, like to hear a delighted audience. Even Big Train had a reference to the Teletubbies.

Anything written by Richard Curtis for instance is liberally strewn with embarrassing half-thought-out little references to media icons every few minutes, each one just that little bit too late, each one receiving a lapdog round of applause from the audience. Perhaps Curtis believes that the audience crave this allusion to topicality but it emerges as little more than an alternative to genuine wit. Curtis is otherwise a likeable enough comedy writer so it seems a shame he needs to litter his work with such needless pandering.

So, in conclusion, take a closer look at a comedian's set. Mentally check the time distance between the emergence of a media ALI G and how long it reverberates around the comedy world. Look at the gushing laziness of the perpetrators. Don't allow yourself to be taken for a jolly icon-reference ride by lazy bastards in a big painted charabanc full of people who are delighted to recognise a reference to someHEH, THESE REFS CERTAINLY TAKE US BACK....