Jerry Belson once pitched a very obscure joke during a CHEERS rewrite. One of the Charles Brothers said, “Jerry, only three people in America are going to get that” to which Jerry said, “That’s good enough for me!”
A common question that all comedy writers ask from time to time is whether a particular reference is too obscure to get a laugh. The downside of course is that the joke bombs; the good side is that if it works it really works because the reference is so out of leftfield.
On MASH we called them “Three percenters”. We would make mention of an arcane actor from the ‘40s knowing most people would have no idea who he is (or was). But our thinking was this: a) we crammed so many jokes into an episode that if you didn’t get it, another one was coming two seconds later, b) we sprinkled in very few of these, and c) they added to the ambience and helped set the time period (much the same way as vintage wardrobe and hairstyles do).
I notice “Three percenters” from time to time on COMMUNITY. There will be quick pop culture references or lines of dialog from movies slipped in. Not everyone will get them. My sense is the producers know that and don’t care. They’re writing for a very specific audience. But here’s the key: specific but large.
Or at least large enough. HOT IN CLEVELAND is designed for baby boomers. TV LAND doesn't expect as large an audience as NBC but they do want a specific demographic. And if you're 55 and have trouble with COMMUNITY and not get that an episode is spoofing RESERVOIR DOGS, you'll so welcome a show that makes a Twiggy joke.
As always, it comes down to “know your target audience”. If you’re writing a spec it’s easier with an existing show. By watching astutely you can determine the level of their references. A Charlie Sheen joke might work on 30 ROCK but I wouldn’t do one on MIKE & MOLLY.
But what happens when you’re writing a pilot? All bets are off. Now there are no guidelines. Should you do that Sarah Clarke/TWILIGHT gag? In general I would say this: agents, managers, executives – the people who will be reading your pilot – are by and large in their thirties. I think that gives you a lot of leeway – way more than you had when they were all in their forties and fifties. They probably know who Sarah Clarke is and they certainly know what TWILIGHT is. So I wouldn’t self-censor yourself too much. Yes, you always run the risk that a reader might not get a reference and feel you’re belittling them (doing a joke that’s over their head), and to load your script with obtuse gags is insane, but comedy is about taking chances. So go for it. Maybe Jerry Belson was right. If the three people that get the joke are agents you’re submitting to, that is good enough for you.