In-Jokes-Jewels of the Trade

By Clifford, John | American Cinematographer, July 1986 | Go to article overview

In-Jokes-Jewels of the Trade


Clifford, John, American Cinematographer


They have enjoyed a long and dubious history. They exist in all forms of the arts including architecture, painting, sculpture, music, dance, theater, television, and, of course, the movies. They cause you to be stared at when you suddenly start laughing at something that no one else seems to find funnyor to feel that you're missing something as when someone else laughs at something that you don't see as funny. No, we're not talking about obscure jokes, but rather inside jokes.

Inside, or in-jokes are very often included in works of art. These iniokes are communications between the artist and those "in the know." Those in the know could be friends of the artists, co-workers, or even devotees of the artist or the history of the art. To get an in-|oke you must have special knowledge, thus the joke is often missed by the majority of the audience. Sometimes the in-joke is something the general audience might find amusing, but is hidden in such a way that only those who study the art can find the joke.

In motion pictures there are several categories of in-jokes. Names of people, places or things can refer to others. Examples of this type of in-joke is the name tag worn by Harnson Ford in Apocalypse Now. In that film, his nametag identifies him as G. Lucas, an obvious reference and nod to George Lucas. In MeI Brooks' version of the classic Ernst Lubitsch film To Be or Not To Be, a street sign is visible which identifies the street as "Kubelski Avenue." The original starred Jack Benny, and Benny's real name was Benny Kubeiski.

In last summer's hit comedy Back to the Future, the barn that Michael J. Fox crashes into in 1955 is owned by a Mr. Peabody, and his son is referred to as Sherman. This is a reference to the classic TV cartoon Peabody's Improbable History (part of the Bullwinkle shows), which featured a dog, Mr. Peabody, and his boy Sherman as time travelers.

Another kind of in-|oke is reference to an earlier film that tests the viewer's knowledge of films. This type of joke is usually aimed at the film buffs in the audience. In the Steven Spielberg film Gremlins (a film loaded with injokes), set decorators not only recreated the look of Bedford Falls from It's a Wonderful Life and re-named it Kingston Falls, but many details of the set were references to earlier Spielberg films as well. The town's movie theater sports an interesting double bill for the real movie buff. The two films showing are: Watch the Skies (the original working title for Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind] and A Boy's Life (which was the original working title for £7! The Extra-Terrestrial}. In Poltergeist, when the family is finally moving out of the haunted house, thinking that all is well and the evil has been exorcised, film buffs are given an extra clue as to what is to come. JoBeth Williams' character makes the comment, referring to the beautiful morning, "Just smell the mimosa." In the 1943 Paramount film The Uninvited, the smell of mimosa foretold that an evil ghost was about to do something nasty. In Joe Dante's film from last summer, Explorers, he makes a reference to Gremlins in the form of a newspaper story with the headline "Kingston Falls Mystery Still Unsolved," which is being read by the father at the family breakfast table. …

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