Pop Culture References in Satirical News Programs

By Angela Hart

There is a growing trend of pop culture references being incorporated into satirical news programs. For example, on The Daily Show, Trevor Noah made reference to the Ghostbusters theme song and how well-known it is in society. When asked, “Who ya gonna call?” He said the automatic response should be “the Ghostbusters” rather than address the actual issue at hand. He was trying to contextualize the fact that people will know about this movie reference in the film franchise. Now, The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight regularly incorporate pop culture references to encourage user engagement and audience participation as well as to contextualize an issue currently being discussed on-air.

Pop Culture References Encourage User Engagement and Audience Participation

John Oliver uses pop culture references during his monologue or a specific segment of his show to foster user engagement. Oliver will randomly stop in the middle of a thought to interject a celebrity name, movie title, or current events reference that is really well-known within the culture. This pause allows Oliver to break up his monologue and allow a randomized joke for the audience to enjoy. One example, in particular, is when he used Home Alone and then the Last Week Tonight platform used a hashtag he created during the television program. It read, “Wake up, you can’t honestly believe Kevin’s family left him home alone, twice, by accident.” #McCallistersMcMurderers.

The Home Alone franchise generated quite a bit of revenue and has aired every year during Christmas time, constantly being shown to new generations and gaining new followers. This well-known franchise has generated one original sequel and three additional follow-ups. The McCallisters were interjected for a laugh and offered a hashtag element for viewers to utilize in order to gain involvement within the program.

Pop Culture References Contextualize an Issue Currently Being Discussed

On The Daily Show, Trevor Noah made note of the fact that Ben Carson did not know who to call first in regards to the Paris Attacks or international incidents. On Fox News, Carson refused to answer the question on three different occasions. Noah spun this incident using the Ghostbusters’ reference drawing attention to the fact that anyone can come up with an answer, no matter what the question or context of the inquiry is.

“It’s Ghostbusters, come on!” Noah yelled. “Everybody knows the right answer to that question. You could go to any African country and ask a little kid, ‘Who you gonna call?’ He’d be like, ‘Ghostbusters — and UNICEF, I’m hungry."

Rather than name anyone involved with international relations, such as an ambassador, an organization abroad, or even the name of a family member, Carson just refused to answer the question in its entirety. By Noah retorting that everybody knows that answer, it was drawing attention to the fact that Carson may not be well-versed enough in international or foreign affairs to be elected president; therefore, the fact that he doesn’t have an answer signifies his lack of experience and his basic knowledge in this type of situation. If Carson cannot answer a simple question during the primary season, how would he act in the situation if this were to occur with him as president? Would he be able to make decisive decisions in a moment’s notice? This simple pop culture reference draws attention to a very important issue with Carson’s campaign and potential for presidency.

Due to the entertainment element incorporated into many fake news programs, the pop culture references enhance the viewer’s understanding and add humor. Without the constant references, some viewers may not comprehend the facts being discussed; thus, the context is extremely important and, at times, necessary. In fact, it would be difficult to find an episode of The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight that did not have at least a handful of modern pop culture references. 

The Daily Show's Ben Carson's Public Breakup: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMgDZoEsDtI

Last Week Tonight's John Oliver’s Pennies Story: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_tyszHg96KI