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What's So Funny?

With Inside Jokes, Playful Writers Connect With Their Savviest Viewers

By Amy Amatangelo
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page Y06

It used to be that TV guffaws were punctuated by the sound of a grating laugh track and pointed pause. But with a wink-wink and a nudge-nudge, inside jokes -- those covert chuckles typically shared among friends -- have invaded the television world.

"They just kind of pop out," Donald P. Bellisario, executive producer of "JAG" and "NCIS," said of the secret shout-outs. "You're going along and you're writing something, and it just pops into your head. You go, 'Oh, what the hell. Why not?' and you just stick them in. . . . Some of the audience is in on a lot of them, and some of them are not."

Bellisario's gags used to be so inside that only his pals understood the references.

"I've always named characters after friends and acquaintances that I know. Admiral Chegwidden on 'JAG' was a judge I knew at a country club, and I thought his name was so interesting that I named the character after him."

For Josh Schwartz, executive producer and creator of "The O.C.," inside jokes provide a way of communicating with his audience on another level.

In its second season, the Fox soap has been accused of losing its edge. So Seth, a character on the show, recently ranted that this year hasn't been as good as last year.

"I think it's fun to have a dialogue with your audience in that way," Schwartz said. "It's like, 'I hear you. Just hang in there.'"

From the beginning, characters on "The O.C." have routinely mocked the very genre the show brought back to life. Summer, for instance, is addicted to the fictional prime-time soap "The Valley" (which also is experiencing growing pains in its second season). And a reality version of "The Valley" called "Sherman Oaks: The Real Valley" is reminiscent of MTV series "Laguna Beach."

"You kind of know that people are gonna hit you where you live, so you might as well hit yourself before they can hit you," Schwartz said. "That's my attitude. That's how I got through high school."

Audiences also are savvier these days. Thanks to the Internet and an abundance of entertainment gossip, all sorts of details are just a mouse-click away.

"It's sort of the environment in which I've grown up," Schwartz said. "We all come to these TV shows or movies with the full context of what's going on in the media. We kind of know that people come to these things fully contextualized, so why not invite them in?"

To remind viewers about the heroic future of the adolescent of steel, "Smallville" incorporates visual images (Clark wears red and blue, the colors in Superman's costume); clever casting (Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, who starred in the 1978 "Superman" film, also appeared on the series); and verbal cues (in the pilot, Clark is asked, "So what are you? Man or Superman?").

"When you're doing the origin story of Superman and everybody is so familiar with this iconic character, we thought it would be fun to have those references," said Alfred Gough, executive producer of "Smallville."

"For us, it just winks to an audience of big Superman fans. That is sort of our primary audience for that. Some of the references are pretty obvious, some are less obvious. It's just a nod to the long history that Superman has enjoyed."

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