Wick Communications

Suge Knight and the Keystone Cops

In Writing techniques on February 17, 2012 at 9:13 am

Be careful with popular references that may not be that popular.

Two examples: First, the other night I was listening to an ESPN broadcast of a college basketball game. The play-by-play announcer and the analyst were bantering back and forth about how one player grew up on a farm. One mentioned that the player had a dog named “Suge” then speculated that the player “must be a Suge Knight fan.” It quickly became clear that the other commentator wasn’t familiar with the founder of Death Row Records, and that became a curious digression away from basketball and into thug life. The next day, in a conversation with one of the reporters at the Half Moon Bay Review, I compared some aspect of our local governance to “Keystone cops.” The writer with whom I was talking had no idea what I was talking about. So I had to explain myself.

The earth continued to spin on its axis following each verbal faux pas. Both communication breakdowns were momentary and kind of humorous, pointing out a generation gap in the experiences of two people in the midst of conversation. Neither was a big deal.

That said, I think these sorts of things are best avoided in print. For one thing, the writer doesn’t have the opportunity to go back and explain the reference. For another, readers can find the experience off-putting. No one wants to feel stupid and missing a popular reference can make you feel that way. Worse yet, many readers will just stop reading if they don’t get it. …

There was a time when Americans, at least, had many common cultural references. We have been a fairly homogenous lot throughout our history, at least in terms of our culture. In their day, everyone knew Charles Lindbergh, Edward Murrow and Jayne Mansfield. Now? I bet the younger people in your newsroom would have to Google one or more of those names. Similarly, the old salts in the room may need help with Thom Yorke, the joys of anime and Words with Friends. McQueen may conjure up images of Alexander or Steve, depending on your generational sensibilities.

My rules of thumb:

  • Avoid old television references. No one under the age of 40 knows Flip Wilson.
  • Ask around. Ask the person at the next desk if they have ever heard of the Keystone Cops.
  • Seek the universal. Don’t avoid popular reference entirely, but understand that you are writing for a broad audience. Make sure your readers can follow along.

Clay

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  1. Clay,

    Great job on the Kicker,

    I just wanted to follow up on the whole Keystone Cops / Surge Knight matter. After we spoke, I googled a few Youtube videos of the Keystone Cops, and they’re downright hilarious. I can see why it’s become a shorthand term for government tomfoolery. The reference is something I wouldn’t mind adding it to my own lexicon, now that I’m in on the punchline.

    I get your point about clever references becoming outdated, but if we ditch the lion’s share of them I think we would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. References like this can add a lot of color to writing. If a writer is doing his or her job, then readers can usually pick up on the gist even if they don’t know what exactly it means for tax code to be “byzantine”, or for a political agenda to be “quixotic”.

    Those words have withstood the test of time and are now included in any dictionary, so you might consider them a different matter than Keystone Cops. But on the other hand, Wikipedia has a whole entry on its Keystone Cops page about how the term is popularly used for bumbling officials. Does that mean the term has reach a point where it’s well-known enough?

    I guess my point is that I may not know what the hell you’re saying sometimes, but I want to defend your right to say it 🙂

    Mark

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