I’m not a big fan of Family Guy. I realize that some find it hysterical, timely, cutting edge, and I respect that, but I’m not in love. Mostly because I think ironic reference is only funny in moderation.
Here’s an example of an ironic reference from Family Guy:This is a classic, oft-quoted scene. It’s funny because the Kool Aid man's surprise entrance quickly reminds us (the twenty and thirty somethings that watch the show) that the Kool Aid man did say "Oh yeah!" on those commercials all those years ago. We find it funny, and we’re satisfied because we “get it.” Perhaps the problem I have with Family Guy isn't a result of the references themselves, but of their effects in the real world. Because of Family Guy’s pervasiveness in pop culture, everyday individuals--particularly the show's enraptured followers-- have started giving ironic reference a try in conversation. The problem is, talented writers craft Family Guy’s jokes, and most everyday people are not writers. Or talented. Or funny. Here’s an example of real-life ironic references gone bad. Me: I think I'm going to try to nab one of those cookies from the executive meeting this morning. My Coworker: Okay, Donovan. Gonna nab it and throw it into the end zone? Me: What? My Coworker: Donovan McNabb. You said Nab. So I called you Donovan. Get it? Me: I'm not hungry anymore. The tendency to try to implement ironic reference in everyday conversation is propelled by the way social media, the internet, and instant access to information are changing the way we think. When we search on Google or jump from one video to another on YouTube based on links and recommendations, it’s easy to quickly transition from one disparate topic to the next. The internet is like a rabbit hole that we leap into head first, forgetting a few feet in exactly what we were looking for. When Family Guy compares two completely different scenarios to suggest a similarity between them (the definition of a metaphor!) it's the absurdity of their differences that makes us laugh. This clip is an example of standard family guy simile.The set up of most ironic references conform to the same pattern used in the Kermit the Frog clip. One of the characters makes a statement ending with “like the [something completely random]” and then the scene cuts to a different time and place so the viewer can see the completely random scene enacted. Because we're engaged with the visual of the scene and find it funny to see an icon from our childhood, typically known to be sweet and rainbow-loving, cast as a threatening racist, we laugh at this ironic reference without thinking about how it's related to what Peter just said. By the time the Kermit scene ends we've probably forgotten what Peter just said. We don't need to retrace our steps to find the connection. But when real-life people try ironic reference, we don't have all these visual cues or, usually, the effortless transition. And no one likes backtracking, trying to find the connection, only to discover that it's not funny anyway. To wrap it up á la Family Guy, check out this podcast from On The Media, which is tangentially related to what I've been talking about.