Anonymous asked: I have a question, how do cultural references work in a book? For example, I’ll leave it out if I risk getting in trouble, one of my characters is a doctor who lost her license and she’s heard saying on the phone “I did not steal a patient’s skeleton, I leave that to the Germans” as a humorous cultural reference to Team Fortress 2. Is that kind of thing allowed? Or are only programmes like Family Guy allowed to get away with jokes and references like that?

We need to talk about why you seem to think that Family Guy doesn’t qualify as a work of written fiction (and therefore subject to the same scrutiny as any other work of fiction) that is then animated, voiced, and broadcast on television. Family Guy has a whole list of contributing writers whose style of humor appeals to a specific market. This market was small at first, but grew as the mainstream became more tolerant of Family Guy's satire and crude humor as well as their use metafiction and cutaway technique. The writers (and everyone else involved with Family Guy) grew their audience by sticking with jokes that pointed out prejudice, explored every possible avenue of pop culture silliness, and connected people through mutual love or hatred of various archetypes and norms in the show. Among other things.

The point is, these unapologetic writers stuck to their guns and the show became wildly successful. In writing, there is no writer or book or TV show that has a monopoly on anything. Family Guy's success came from a few forms of comedy (at which anyone can try their hand), and these comedic devices may apply to your question. Let's define some terms, shall we?

Black Humor (n): The juxtaposition of morbid and farcical elements (in writing or drama) to give a disturbing effect. If the joke is delivered by the victim of a negative event/tragedy, then the term you’re looking for is Gallows Humor (see below).

Examples:

Satire (n): The use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.

  • The Daily Show
  • Humor of Bill Hicks
  • The Onion

Irony (n): The use of words to convey the opposite of their literal meaning; a statement or situation where the meaning is contradicted by the appearance or presentation of the idea.

Examples:

  • "As soft as concrete", "as clear as mud", and "as fun as cancer"
  • Mary Poppins singing “Stay Awake” to children to magically put them to sleep
  • A jewel thief turns out to be a police officer
  • Commenting on the clear skies when it’s raining out by way of expressing your displeasure

Sarcasm (n): The use of irony to mock or convey contempt.

Examples:

Gallows Humor (n): Grim and ironic humor in a desperate or hopeless situation. The joke is delivered by the victim, otherwise it is Black Humor (see above).

Examples:

  • Batman: The Kryptonite’s near your heart. I don’t know if I’ll be fast enough to get it before the wound closes.
    Superman: Where’s The Flash when you need him?
    Batman: Do me a favor, and lose the sense of humor.
    Superman: Do us both a favor and buy one.
  • "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" from the ending of Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
  • Han Solo says “One thing’s for sure, we’re all going to be a lot thinner!” as he and his companions are about to crushed by a trash compactor in Star Wars: A New Hope.

Cringe Comedy (n): Cringe comedy is a comedy genre that uses offensive or vulgar material or awkward and embarrassing situations to cause audiences to be repulsed or feel uneasy.

Examples:

  • Humor of Louis C.K. 
  • Humor of Ben Stiller
  • Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011)
  • "Jenny" by Flight of the Concords

Now that you know the sort of humor involved in writing shows and movies like Family Guy, you can begin making decisions about how to appropriately apply these comedic devices to your own writing. A few tips:

PRO TIP: Not everyone will think you’re funny. Some people will find you downright offensive and disgusting. You may actually be offensive and disgusting. The reality is that no one gets a laugh 100% of the time. If you think you’re funny and that the jokes you’re telling are worth hearing, then head off into that sunset, comedy cowboy, and never mind what other people say.

Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not allowed to write a certain way, and don’t worry about what other people are writing. Remember, no one has a monopoly on anything in writing (comedic cultural references included). More importantly, remember that it’s up to the reader to decide whether or not they find you funny/insightful/genius/pithy/good/bad, not you. You just focus on getting your writing out there and let your audience find you.

Further Reading:

Books that use humorous cultural references or comedic (then) modern social commentary:

Thank you for your question! To add a book to our list, report an error, and to whine about or comment on this article, message us!

-C


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