The theory and practice of the inside joke

So the other day I was thinking about comics writer Joe Kelly’s run on Justice League of America, and how one of his characters, an Indian shaman, had regularly used the magic incantation “Inukchok!” Which was funny because that was also the magic word used by Apache Chief back on Superfriends.
There were probably some readers who didn’t know that, but they wouldn’t have cared because to them, it was just a meaningless magic word. So I’d count that as a good in-joke.
I’ve been thinking of in-jokes and similar references because Brain From Outer Space and the related stories are rife with them. Atoms For Peace, for instance, has references to the 1953 War of the Worlds film and to Them! My Victorian steampunk psionic novel Questionable Minds refers to multiple characters from fiction: Inspector Pitt, Madame Sara, Holmes, Dr. Jekyll and Moriarty.
So the question is, when does this sort of reference work? And when does it leave the reader lost or overwhelmed (Alan Moore can make every character in League of Extraordinary Gentleman someone from fiction and make it work, but most of us aren’t Alan Moore). Some thoughts:
•It can work if it’s inconsequential, like Inukchok.
•It can work if not getting the joke or the reference doesn’t disrupt the flow of the story and doesn’t leave the reader annoyed or confused. James Branch Cabell, a century ago, used to drop all kinds of obscure names and references from medieval legend into his writing, but if I didn’t know that, I’d think they were just names.
•It can work if it’s not overdone. I’ve tried to be careful in Brain not to drop too many names or unexplained references because after I certain point I don’t find that entertaining, just overwhelming, like an info-dump—and as we all know, those are bad.
Hopefully I can remember all of that when I get to polishing Brain.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “The theory and practice of the inside joke

  1. Pingback: When readers don’t know what you’re talking about: Phonogram (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: LXG’s Black Dossier: Too many injokes? (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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