A couple of weeks ago, Whiny the Elder and I were flipping around the TV dial when we stumbled upon an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show–one of the best of the early 60’s sitcoms (if not of all time). I found out later that it was episode 4 of the third season, entitled “Very Old Shoes, Very Old Rice.”
It was an enjoyable enough episode, but then something happened at a little after the 16-minute mark. Everyone laughed at a reference joke, and we looked at each other in utter bewilderment. (Watch it and see for yourself. Background for the joke is at the end of this post.)
Now, reference jokes are nothing new, and not getting the reference being made in a 50-year-old sitcom isn’t exactly surprising, either. But it made us wonder about the nature of reference jokes and how something so full of them, like Saturday Night Live or South Park or Family Guy would be perceived in 50 years.
Even more than that, we wondered if we had discovered something that was indeed rare. It was a joke that included a reference without any context, thus making it completely unfunny to those who didn’t get the reference–but a reference that (at the time) was not so obscure that most people wouldn’t have been expected to understand it. People laughed, not because the joke was funny without the reference or the simple mention of the reference, but because it was a funny joke that included a reference that everyone knew.
Most of the time, a reference can be interpreted as funny (or at least understood) from its context. For example, you might not remember actress Sally Struthers and her commercials asking for help for starving children…
But you can still watch South Park’s Sally Struthers hides food and understand the absurd notion that this is a woman hoarding food while there are starving Ethiopians outside her door. Whether you just assume that the name “Sally Struthers” was pulled out of a hat by the writers, or you remember her and get the joke that this is the polar opposite of something that was on TV 30 years ago, it’s still comprehensible (if not funny, depending on your taste).
On the other hand, there are tons of examples where a reference isn’t even a joke. The laughter comes from the shared experience of the thing that’s been mentioned. It seems like every time I see Big Bang Theory the joke is simply “hey, I know that nerd reference! ah-ha-ha-ha!” There’s no joke. Just the reference. Or, again, going to South Park…a parody of Family Guy where the reference is to their constant use of non-sequitur references…
I guess the reference we saw in Dick Van Dyke was pretty close to the latter. There was no context that gave the slightest clue what was funny about a man being called “Judge Crater.” It’s just weird to find a reference that was so well-known in 1963 that the writers of a nationally televised show, including Carl Reiner, John Whedon (Josh Whedon’s grandfather), and Garry Marshall, felt like it was safe to get a laugh without a setup…yet, no one I know of today would have the slightest clue about it. (Although, I did find a Judge Crater reference in Archer, “Skytanic”. When Malory and Lana complain about the absent bartender, Malory says, “Guy sees an empty glass and all of the sudden he’s Judge Crater.”)
It makes me wonder how many references from old Warner Brothers cartoons I missed, because I didn’t get the reference, and they didn’t bother setting up the joke because “everyone will know who that is!”
So, now, I guess you’re wondering: Who was Judge Crater?