Sunday, June 24, 2018

Slipping inside jokes into shows

A reader’s question will sometimes spark an entire post and that’s the case today. Richard Y. wanted to know about inside references and jokes writers slip into shows. Did we do it on purpose? How often did we do it, etc.? He perceptively noticed that on an episode of WINGS, Steven Weber walks by a magazine rack that features an ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY with his likeness and real name on the cover.

Obviously, I can’t speak for everyone but I’d imagine that all writers slip these little nuggets in from time to time. What good is writing a show for 30,000,000 people if you can’t have a joke or two aimed at only six?

In some cases, writers do this to reward the audience for paying strict attention. I think LOST did that 500 times an episode. There are historical, literate, and spiritual references galore. We didn’t do that on ALMOST PERFECT. But any time Nancy Travis or any character was watching TV they were always watching CHEERS.

Hey, I’ll be honest. We do it for our own amusement. We do it because we can.

There’s a very famous episode of BIG WAVE DAVE’S where Adam Arkin keeps commuting back and forth between Hawaii and Chicago. I’m sure you know the one I’m talking about. Well, we show him on a plane four or five times and every time he’s reading my book, “It’s Gone…No, Wait a Minute!” (This did not result in the huge spike in sales I was counting on, however.)

Animated shows are perfect vehicles for slipping in private jokes. The “Dancin’ Homer” episode of THE SIMPSONS that David Isaacs and I wrote is chock-full of names of actual people I encountered broadcasting baseball in the minor leagues. I play the Springfield Isotopes announcer, “Dan Hoard”. Dan was my partner in Syracuse and is a prominent sportscaster today.

There are often cartoon character likenesses of the writers that show up in THE SIMPSONS and FAMILY GUY. You’d think they’d be more flattering.

It’s always a pain-in-the-ass coming up with names for characters. But this is an ideal way to slip in names of people you know. A lot of my former girlfriends show up as nurses on MASH. One became Charles’ sister, “Honoria”. Yes, I went out with a Honoria. It seems that anytime 24 needed a villain who wasn’t Russian or Persian (so that means twice in nine years) they used the name of a Fox network or studio executive.

Growing up, our family dog was named Babette. My mother named her. Can’t say I was ever crazy about the name. So in an episode of MASH that we wrote, Radar loses his hamster, which he named Babette. Then throughout the show everyone gave him a raft of shit for naming her that. After the episode aired my mom called and said, “Very funny.” But again, what’s the point of producing a primetime network television show if you can’t use it expressly to needle your mother?

Anytime I directed a show and there was a scene in a nice restaurant my dad became the maitre ‘d. That turned into a regular gig on ALMOST PERFECT when the show got picked up and “Annie’s” (named for my daughter) became a permanent set.

I used to love in MAD magazine there were sometimes cartoon panels that were just loaded with little bonus gags in the margins and background. Let’s just say there’s a lot of MAD in MASH.

41 comments :

E. Yarber said...

Will Elder, one of the original MAD artists, dubbed all those tiny visual gags "Chicken Fat."

Andrew said...

True story: When I was in junior high school I would sometimes bring a MAD magazine on the school bus to read on the way. Anytime my bus driver found out (because some idiot enjoyed snitching on me), she would confiscate it and return it to me when she dropped me off, with a stern warning. She was actually a very kind and lovely woman who cared about the kids on her route. But for some reason she detested MAD magazine. "This is smut! This is garbage! Don't bring it on my bus!"

I honestly think I learned a warped sense of humor from MAD, for which I'm grateful.

Mike Barer said...

Since I have a few relatives who write, I find a few inside jokes in the their work.

Gene F. said...

Not all that inside, but in the same vein I believe, a recent favorite came in, of all shows, The Americans. Noah Emmerich, who plays FBI agent Stan Beeman, also played Craig Patrick, the assistant coach of the 1980 US Olympic hockey team, in "Miracle."

In an episode in season 5 Stan was interviewing a source about her relationship with a Russian hockey player. When she asked if he knew of the team he replied "Sure, yeah, I know the Soviet National team." It's a miracle I didn't fall off the couch.

Glenn said...

The best has to be Laurie Metcalf as Nanny G on Frasier... "Do you have any idea what it's like to play the same character for 20 years?!"

Douglas Trapasso said...

The last season of Cheers had several very clever meta-jokes. I won’t spoil it here but one classic line came in the episode where the bar regulars visit a drive-in.

Janet Ybarra said...

A writer for MAD, Dick DiBartolo, was simultaneously the chief writer decades ago on the 1970s version of MATCH GAME. I always thought that was kind of neat.

Covarr said...

I would imagine the key to a good inside joke is similar to a pop culture reference: it needs to draw attention to itself that could cause people to recognize there's an inside joke even if they don't get it.

I mean, when you think about it, a pop culture reference is essentially just an inside joke for more people. As a viewer, it's really annoying when a reference nudges too hard to say "see what I did here", and doubly so if it's a reference you're not familiar with. But it can be a lot of fun if it's subtle.

I would guess the DEADPOOL movies are probably the outer limit of how far you can take (semi-)inside jokes. They're kinda not subtle at all, but they're also over quickly thanks to the films' hyperactive tones. Even if the character and the overall film can wear out its welcome (it didn't for me, but I can easily see how it could for some people), no individual joke ever does, and I think that's paramount to doing inside jokes and pop culture references right.

Covarr said...

GAH, I just noticed a glaring error in my previous comment. It needs to NOT draw undue attention to itself that could make people see the joke even if they don't get it. Proofreading saves lives, kids.

Mike Bloodworth said...

On SEINFELD, there were a couple of references that made me wonder if they were inside jokes. The biggest one is the character, "Lloyd Braun." He has a "nervous breakdown." In other words, he loses his mind. Then several years later I learned that around that time there was an executive at ABC named Lloyd Braun. Coincidence or dig? And in one of the early episodes, Jerry introduces Elaine to his cousin, ######? Levine. Jerry pronounces it leVEEN. The cousin corrects him and says la-VINE. Jerry's response is, "Yeah. And I'm 'Jerry Cougar-Melloncamp." I've always wondered if that was a reference to you.
M.B.

Michael said...

Janet Ybarra, Dick DeBartolo also wrote for other Goodson-Todman shows, including To Tell the Truth!

As for inside stuff, it's hard to beat Warner Bros. cartoons. The all-time winner is that director Friz Freleng was short and red-haired, and had a mustache and a volcanic temper; hard to figure out what character THAT inspired. Leon Schlesinger, the original producer, had a lisp and his animators thought he was a bit, um, daffy. You may recall a Marvin the Martian cartoon where Bugs encounters a scientist at an observatory; "I. Frizby" was Friz Freleng. Friz got even: in one cartoon, there's a couple named Chuck and Dorothy who are caricatures of Chuck Jones and his wife.

My favorite is something I had to stop a tape to see. There's a Tweety and Sylvester cartoon set on a train, and there's some mail. If you look very, very closely, there's an envelope, and it's addressed from Jones to Freleng. THAT is inside.

Howard Murray said...

Prop and art dpartment people also get into the act. I remember on a King of Queens episode I directed there was a scene in a cemetary. The names on the fake tombstones were all the writers and me. Another scene was at a movie premiere opening, and the posters all had some made up fil with me as the director. I got a kick out of it.

Phil said...

I just watched the final double episode of THE MIDDLE, and was impressed with the callbacks to the show's own past - and with the character writing, which struck me as some of the finest this Brit has seen in recent American TV comedy.

Which leads me to a Friday question:

As a writer or producer of a long-running series, do you jump at the chance of creating a proper ending for the characters? Or would you rather just have the last episode be a "normal" episode?

VP81955 said...

On an episode of "Mom," the AA group is having its usual post-meeting get-together at the restaurant when Marjorie suggests Christy get some friends to improve her personal life. "I have friends," she replies, "Phoebe, Rachel, Monica..." The studio audience laughs since they recognize the names of the female characters from "Friends" -- but how many of them got the in-joke? Anna Faris guested on several episodes late in the show's run.

Mike Doran said...

My favorite comes from late in the original run of Murphy Brown.
Protesting the increasing commercialization of FYI, Jim Dial goes on a mini-rant that ends something like "When we're all doing spots for...", then a list of various products and services, "... then we'll all be sorry!"
In the section that I can't recall (sorry!), actor Charles Kimbrough names subjects of actual ads that were appearing at the time, featuring himself, Joe Regalbuto, Faith Ford, and of course Candice Bergen (as themselves, not in character).
The studio audience got it; big boffo laugh.

By the bye, that was Emma Thompson playing Nanny Gee on Frasier.
Just so you all know …

71dude said...

Marion on "Happy Days" insisted that the little boy in "The Music Man" (played by Ron Howard) was a dead ringer for Richie when he was little.

Steve Lanzi (formerly known as qdpsteve) said...

Howard Murray, I'm glad you're here because I admit I've become a King of Queens fan from watching the reruns on TV Land. I've also noticed that whenever Kevin (as Doug) had to do something that made him nervous or nauseous, he would whimper, "Yuspa!" which is the name of one of the show's exec producers, Cathy Yuspa.

Phil: re The Middle, I remember when Ray Romano made his (fantastic) cameo on the show, he/his character kept saying to Patricia Heaton in so many words," I would swear that in another universe, you and I were together..."

And finally, even my all-time favorite film director, Stanley Kubrick, got in on the act. In the record store scene in A Clockwork Orange, when Alex is trying to seduce some teenage girls, there's a 2001 soundtrack LP displayed for sale on the wall between them.

Mibbitmaker said...

In John Belushi era SNL, there are numerous references to a Steve Beshakis (sp?) as character names. The real guy was a close friend from Belushi's from improv days. He even got a not-fictional shout-out in one of the "BUT NOOOOOOO!" Update bits.

Then there's the king of iside references, ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, though so many of those double as pop culture references. Moments like Henry Winkler's character Barry Zuckercorn doing Fonzie's mirror bit in a men's room doubling as an "office", and him literally jumping a literal shark on the same episode that had a (satirically treated) product placement in it.

Speaking of HAPPY DAYS, there was a great inside joke in the episode that introduced Mork that was, unfortunately, cut out of the syndicated version. While Mork waits for Richie at one point, he tunes the TV in to THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, saying, "I like that boy Opie."

Anonymous said...

I am anonymous

Oscar/Emmy/Grammy-Nominated Lindsay Ann Crouse is an in-joke every time she receives a credit— she is the daughter of Russel Crouse of the Pulitzer winning team of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse.

Colin Stratton said...

Don't know if it qualifies as an inside joke, but Trey Parker named Cartman's mom after his former unfaithful fiance. Of course, she was the biggest slut in South Park. Maybe that would be considered revenge.

Rob D said...

Michael - Chuck Jones and co. became worried that Leon Schlesinger would be outraged if he discovered his voice was the inspiration for Daffy Duck. But after previewing the first Daffy Duck cartoon, Leon jumped to his feet, glared around and exclaimed "Jeesuth Cristh, that's a funny voithe! Where'd you get that voithe?" [*] Just one of the many funny anecdotes from Chuck Amuck's very humorous and informative book Chuck Amuck. [* See pg. 90] Highly recommended.

J Lee said...

In the funniest episode of Season 1 of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, "The Snow Must Go On" the Minneapolis mayoral candidates were Turner (85) and Mitchell (23), which referred to writers Lloyd Turner and Gordon Mitchell, who Ken mentioned back in December (and prior to that) were the ones who helped Ken and David with their first script for "The Jeffersons"

Anonymous said...

An obscure one that has puzzled me for years. Morey Amsterdam (?!) appeared in a 1958 episode of Gunsmoke playing a character named Cicero Grimes. Almost a decade later Richard Boone was a great villain in the terrific Paul Newman movie "Hombre". Boone's name in the movie? Cicero Grimes. Inside joke or coincidence?

Tom said...

One small correction. Emma Thompson played Nanny G on Cheers.Laurie Metcalf on Frasier.

Lyle James said...

I have a Friday question about Holiday episodes (Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween, etc). How (and why and who) decides to do, say, a Christmas episode? Some shows did tons holiday episodes (Everybody Loves Raymond) and others did few (Golden Girls). As a sitcom junkie, I've always been curious.

Tommy Raiko said...

@Mike Doran:

To nitpick, Emma Thompson played Nanny G when she appeared on Cheers. Laurie Metcalf played her when the character appeared on Frasier (and by Dina Waters when she appeared as a younger version in a Frasier flashback.)

Andy Rose said...

A couple of David Letterman fans managed to catch an extremely obscure callback. In an early NBC episode, Letterman mentioned that one of his worst gigs as a standup involved a guy who misread his note card and introduced Dave as "Don LaHerman." Twelve years later when Alan Kalter debuted as the show's new announcer, he introduced Letterman the same way.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9SrPDWbzCUk

Pat Reeder said...

I have the entire run of "SCTV" on DVD, and that show was the greatest ever at weaving together inside references and call-backs to previous shows in dizzying ways, to reward the audience for paying attention. My favorite call-back joke came in an episode in which they showed the SCTV commissary and in one brief shot, off in the background, there were guys dressed as Vikings and beekeepers in the food line. In the days long before DVDs or binge-watching, they'd snuck in a reference to "Vikings and Beekeepers," a movie promo parody that had run years earlier and never been mentioned since. To me, it was hilarious on multiple levels: that it was so subtle, that they thought to do it at all, that I was such an "SCTV" nut that I actually caught it, and finally, just the idea that all those years later, those guys were still hanging around the studio in their Viking and beekeeper costumes.

Mike Doran said...

Nitpick acknowledged. My defense (?) is that I only recalled the Cheers, didn't see the Frasier.

In the overall field of TV in-jokes, Paul Henning has to be considered a pioneer.
Love That Bob! named many of its supporting characters after friends and co-workers of Paul Henning, including Harvey Helm, Paul Fonda, and Wally Seamon, et al.
Later on, The Beverly Hillbillies had characters named 'Martin Van Ransohoff', 'Jasper DePew', 'Foster Phinney', and in its last days, a ham actor named 'Dick Bremerkamp'; except for the first one, these were all crew members on Hillbillies.

Donald Benson said...

Semi-inside: In the movie "Munsters Go Home", Herman Munster and Grandpa find signs of a criminal plot. Herman panics and yells "Car 54, where are you?" Fred Gwynne (Herman) and Al Lewis (Grandpa) were both regulars on that show.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

A joke by omission: I recall that in the first season of MAD MEN a couple of characters were discussing which Broadway musical tickets to get for some clients. In the real 1960, Robert Morse, who played the head of the agency they worked for, was the actual king of Broadway starring in HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING. That might be too subtle to be an in-joke, but everyone I know who was old enough to remember it and young enough not to have forgotten it noticed that the characters omitted that show from consideration.

wg

TimWarp said...

My favorite in-joke: the writers of Duckman would often hang out on the alt.tv.duckman newsgroup, and for the episode "A Room with a Bellview" named a couple of characters "Dr. Ducharme and Dr. Morsink." Joe Ducharme created the best Duckman website, and Arnoud Morsink created the Duckman FAQ.

Ralph C. said...

Kevin Smith wrote and directed a film that was almost entirely an inside joke— Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back! If you didn’t see any of his previous films, at that time, you’d probably not get most of it. As Kevin has said, and I paraphrase, it was a $20 million inside joke.

tb said...

"There's a very famous episode of Big Wave Dave's"...haha, EASY now...

Buttermilk Sky said...

In an episode of CHICAGO HOPE, the doctor played by Adam Arkin was trying to get his wife to attend a Bulls game with him. "I can't," she replied, "I'm watching ER tonight." "Fine, enjoy Anthony Hopkins," he replies. "Edwards!" she retorts. "Yeah, whatever." Of course, both shows premiered around the same time, and ER was killing HOPE in the ratings. I'm sure the writers had fun.

Andy Rose said...

@Pat Reeder: I don't know if you've ever read the Dave Thomas book about SCTV, but Vikings and Beekeepers was infamous within the show for having more production problems than any other sketch they ever did. So it may have only been a few minutes on one episode, but the writers and producers never forgot it.

My favorite SCTV inside joke was about the Chapman camera crane. They rented one to do a parody of Chinatown. The executive producer was furious at how far it put them over budget and ordered no more crane shots. So "no crane shots" became a running gag on the show, and the overage was said to have ruined the career of their fictional producer Johnny LaRue, played by John Candy.

The runner was finally paid off in a later sketch parodying It's a Wonderful Life in which Santa Claus gives LaRue what he always wanted for Christmas: a Chapman crane. And of course, since it was the payoff to the piece, the real-life SCTV producer had no choice but to authorize the rental.

McAlvie said...

@Michael - one of the things I always loved about Warner Bros. cartoons, and a few others, is that they played up to the audience. You encountered opera and lots of classical music, right along with the inside jokes. And this at a time when the country was stolidly blue collar, middle class. I can't recall the exact scenes now (must remedy that by binging really soon), but even as a kid I caught a lot of the references. That those cartoons, and many classic shows we discuss on this blog, assumed at least some of their viewers were intelligent, might have something to do with why they stood the test of time.

Greg Ehrbar said...

In an episode of "Dobie Gillis," Maynard mentions several jazz of his favorite jazz performers, including "Gloria Wood." Ms. Wood was a highly respected Hollywood studio singer was hit those high notes in the theme song with Jud Conlon's Rhythmaires.

D McEwan said...

I usually slip some inside jokes into my novels. As long as 99% of the jokes are for everyone, I think it's OK to slip in some stuff to amuse myself and friends in the know. The most-hidden thing slipped into one of my novels is in My Gruesome Life. If you write down just the first letter of each chapter, they spell out a message from the narrator's subconscious. There's only one clue to its existence in the text, and it's also extremely subtle (If you aren't deeply familiar with the text of Dickens's David Copperfield, you have no hope of spotting the clue), so it's there just to amuse me. I only pointed it out to my publisher after the book came out.

Scott Rosenberg said...

I always liked in 30 Rock that every flashback to "Bitch Hunter," the misogynistic cop show whose backlash got TGS green-lit in the first place, it would say "Created By Jack Burditt" (and in one case also Ben Silverman).

And then he created Last Man Standing.

Anonymous said...

My favorite inside joke that ISN'T an inside joke? In one of Joe Dante's films (EXPLORERS, I believe), there's a scene at "Charles M. Jones High School". Everyone familiar with Dante's love of the old Warner Brother's cartoons (which eventually culminated in Dante directing LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION) assumes that it's a reference to legendary cartoon director Chuck Jones. But when asked about it in an interview, Dante insisted that it was the actual name of the school that they shot at! (Of course, once he saw the sign, he knew he HAD to get it on camera, so maybe it still counts?)