“Are we ready? Are we set? Atomic batteries to power, turbines to –”
Marty and I just finished a discussion on the Monkeyman Productions blog about our company’s tendency to include pop culture references in our shows. Since a lot of the blame for that has to be laid at my fingertips, I thought I’d touch on it for a moment here as well. While they can – and hopefully often do – add another layer to the show, and the relationship between the characters both making an allusion and appreciating it, it’s also easy to take them too far.
“Assuming I can find my brunette wig. It got all fake-bloody during the Buffy show. Never found my eyepatch, either.”
Godzilla on Sundays, one of my flagship plays in this regard, has 73 separate references in a show that runs about ninety minutes of stage time. That’s almost one every minute. 32 movie references, 11 references each to live-action TV shows and to cartoons, 5 to music, 4 to comics (comic books, comic strips, webcomics), 3 celebrity references, 2 literary allusions, and one mention each of a play (though it was another play of mine), a video game (Luigi’s Mansion, of all things), and an Internet meme. And it’s a play with only two characters, so each time the joke (so to speak, because they’re not anywhere near all humourous) is shared between the same two people.
And, hopefully, with a sizable portion of our audience. There’s no denying that a bit of the thrill from throwing in references to Glen or Glenda or Adam West is the reaction it gets from the geeks in the crowd (with a Monkeyman crowd, they’re in the majority). But it can’t be – I fight very hard when working and reworking my plays to keep it from being – the only reason, or a signifcantly important reason. If it was all about getting that sudden laugh of familiarity and nothing else, I’d write a play that was all quotes from Edgar Wright and Dan Ackroyd and Tina Fey. (Okay, I’ve just copyrighted that idea. Nobody else touch it.)
“Henry, the mild-mannered janitor?”
There’s a bit of a contrast if you look at our current production, Uncharted Zones. This show has a total of 37 references over about the same length of time, and most of those come in the last ten or fifteen minutes – during the last of the four stories that make up the play. And yet the show overall has nine characters interacting in four wildly different locales and delves much further into science-fiction and fantasy than GoS - you’d think that would provide even more opportunities to include a series of sly little winks to the audience, right? So why is it that in the first case I’m throwing them out there like Willy Wonka with tree full of gumdrops, and in the second I’m doling them out sparingly … like Willy Wonka with a gobstopper clenched in his fist?
I firmly believe that you don’t write to a specific audience. Not when you’re creating your dialogue. You may come up with a situation and even characters based on the sort of audience you’re hoping to hit, and in both these cases I’m doing that (if anything, there’s more to geek out over in the plots included in UZ) to a point. But once you’ve put your scenario and the folks who inhabit it into the mix, the most important thing to allow is that the things that are said and the things that occur be true. Not true as in non-fictional, but authentic and believable. As you proceed through drafts and tease out plot points, you may find that you heighten that reality a bit here and there – though it takes a delicate touch – but at all times the most important loyalty you need to hold is to be true.
In GoS (and similarly, my zombie apocalypse play Dead Man’s Party), there are so many references because the characters are quite literally geeks like us – and that’s the way I talk among my geeky friends. If I feel particularly emotional on departing a gathering, I might intone, “I have been – and always shall be – your friend.” If I’m the one watching them leave and I want to wish them well, I’m likely to say, “Have fun stormin’ the castle!’ So Dale and Kadin speak in the same way. I don’t sit there with a list of references trying to shoehorn them all in – they come naturally from the truth of who the characters are. In plays like Uncharted Zones (and, oddly enough, The Nefarious Bed & Breakfast), there just aren’t as many characters for whom that verbal shorthand comes naturally, and the geekery comes more from the situations and from aspects of the characters themselves.
“Girl, I don’t want to fight. I’m a little bit wrong and you’re a little bit right.”
Sometimes in the past, I’ve referred to our use of references as “the language of Monkeyman,” and while to a point it’s the truth, it also gives a bit of an incorrect impression. The language of a Monkeyman show – and of any play I appreciate by any good playwright – is whatever the characters and the situation require. We happen to focus on a lot of fairly geeky characters – gals and guys like us – and because of that we make a lot of references. But the most important thing isn’t that we fit in a Godzookie joke, or that the second Phoenix play was in part a parody of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The important thing is that even through the nods to comic books and cartoons and Talk Like a Pirate Day, we show you some truth. I hope I do that in all my plays, overtly geeky or not, and I hope you’ll be satisfied with nothing else as fellow artists – or as an audience.
“Up from the depths, thirty stories high …”