Simon Pegg's new movie Paul was a pretty cute nerd-bonding road-trip movie, but it made me realize something: I no longer laugh at Star Trek in-jokes, or inside references generally.
In-jokes are the least funny type of humor to begin with, but inside references to old science fiction are the least funny type of in-joke. Just referencing a classic science fiction movie, TV show or book isn't funny on its own. A whole branch of humor has withered and died, at least for me.
Welcome back to Monday Hate, an irregular series in which we hate things because it's Monday.
Although actually, I don't hate nerd in-jokes. It's more that they barely register as jokes. I hardly notice when a TV show or movie includes a funny reference to Star Trek, Star Wars, Spielberg movies, or a few other overused sources of nerdy inside humor. I just don't register these sorts of in-jokes — they've become background noise for me.
Paul had some funny bits, to be sure, but the little references to Trek, Wars, Spielberg, Xanadu, superhero comics and so on weren't really among them as far as I was concerned.
But then I realized at some point, the in-jokes in the movie weren't really aimed at me, or at other people who really love science fiction — they were aimed at people who don't really know that much about science fiction, but are dimly aware of the most famous works in the genre. Pegg, Nick Frost and director Greg Mottola have said as much in several interviews — they deliberately pitched the science fiction in-jokes in Paul at mainstream audiences rather than fans, because they knew the fans would like them either way. And as Mottola put it in one interview, these are some of the most famous works in pop culture.
And let's face it: Who's going to feel proud of themselves for catching a shout-out to Return of the Jedi? It's not someone who's a huge Star Wars fan, it's someone who last saw RotJ when it came out in 1983, and feels like a real otaku for noticing the reference. And I've noticed a bunch of reviews of the film in smaller newspapers, by reviewers who clearly aren't terribly knowledgeable about science fiction but thought the references in Paul were great. Sadly, the attempt to pitch science fiction humor at middle America didn't quite pan out, since Paul had a weak opening weekend — although the film will make back its budget overseas.
A while back, we ran an essay by Javier Grillo-Marxuach, creator of the in-joke-strewn series The Middleman, in which he called for a moratorium on Star Wars in-jokes. Grillo-Marxuach wrote:
There was a long ago and far, far away time - I think it was the early nineties - when a character in a film saying "I have a bad feeling about this," or "That's no moon, that's a space station," was an adorable grace note. Today, entire episodes of TV and whole feature films are devoted to Star Wars references. Even the most high-minded and hard-edged ten o'clock procedurals manage to get in a winkety-wink-wink. Worse yet, the franchise's own prequels, sequels and equals - all the attendant films, books, TV shows and graphic novels - are equally full of inside jokes and callbacks to the original. The Hutt isn't just eating its own tail, it's serving it to itself on a silver platter with drawn butter and a finger bowl.
I'd like to propose extending that moratorium to Star Trek, certain Spielberg films, and a number of cartoons and superhero comics.
I think this is what Patton Oswalt was trying to get at in his controversial Wired Magazine essay a while back. For someone who's built his career at least partly on jokes about science fiction and nerd pop culture, the proliferation of jokey references — increasingly aimed at mainstream audiences rather than nerds — seems like overkill. And maybe the buzz of constant in-jokes makes it hard for good nerd humor to rise above and make itself heard — everything just sounds like background noise after a while.
On the other hand, if nerdy humor all starts turning into background noise after a while, because there are too many in-jokes and inside references in pop culture — then maybe that's a sign that nerd humor needs to get better. By which I mean cleverer, or possibly just sillier.
It's wonerful and awesome that science fiction is getting more popular with mainstream audiences. It means we get to have more of the stuff we love, and like I wrote the other day, a world in which Ridley Scott is making more science fiction movies is the world I want to live in. The only bad thing about the current mainstream love of science fiction is that it hasn't spread to television yet. At the same time, though, the proliferation of in-jokes is just reaching some kind of event horizon of infinite un-funniness.
Part of it is because Hollywood types both love science fiction and know that a broad swathe of audiences know enough about the genre to get the jokes — Big Bang Theory gets crazy high viewership figures every week becuase of this. But it's also because Hollywood is still trying to pander to geeky audiences because of a (mostly mistaken) belief that geeks make movies into hits. (See our list of films that made a splash at Comic Con but flopped at the box office for evidence to the contrary.)
And the easiest, most unthinking way of pandering to geek audiences is with little in-jokes, which go by quickly enough that if you don't get the joke, you can ignore it. (Although it's almost the other way around — if you do get the joke, you'll probably dismiss it.)
But yeah, in-jokes are the weakest form of humor. Instead of being outrageous, counter-intuitive, clever or weird or any of the other things a joke can be, they're just sort of comforting. In fact, they're like the oatmeal of humor. They're warm and familiar and have the same consistency all the way down. Your spoon can stand straight up in a bowl of in-jokes.
In fact, the function of the in-joke is best described by the prefix "in-." They include you in the joke and make you feel clever for getting it. They trigger a sense of identification and membership in a group. You passed the test, you get to belong to the inner circle. Gold stars all around.
Of course, some in-jokes are better than others, either because they're snarkier or cleverer, or because there's some weird bit of juxtaposition. Sometimes, the humor comes from hearing or seeing a familiar bit of culture in a new, weird context. At their best, in-jokes become more like parody or spoofs — something that happens in Paul once or twice, like where Paul reanimates a dead bird or when the nerds reenact the fight scene between Kirk and the Gorn.
But mostly, in-jokes are just getting dull. They've been done to death. Lately, they do the opposite of going over my head. They sort of roll under my feet.