We first asked this question seven long years ago, so reader Andrew Axel requested that we revisit the following topic:
“Hey A.V. Club, I was watching a Simpsons rerun the other day and thought about how much I would actually want to play Billy Graham’s Bible Blaster. (I understand it was apparently based on a real NES game called Spiritual Warfare, and that you can kinda play versions people on the internet made based on the in-show game, but I’m talking about the real deal.) And then I wondered: What fictional works within works would you like to read/play/see etc.?”
This is an easy one: Someone bring me a working copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy yesterday, please (or, barring that, at least by the time we can all get a table at Milliways, The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe). Where else but The Guide am I going to get intergalactic travel tips, towel advice, and the universe’s most dangerous drinks recipe, all contained in a slim package with the words “Don’t Panic” printed on it in bright, friendly letters? Most importantly, though, is that it would all arrive written in the gently sardonic voice of the late Douglas Adams, one of the very few authors, on this planet or any other, whose work I have consumed every word of, and still find myself hungry for more. Just having more of Adams’ thoughts on life, the universe, etc. would be worth the cost of admission all on their own, even if I never managed to hitch my way off this utterly insignificant little blue-green planet at all.
There are plenty of examples of throwaway Simpsons jokes turning out to be prescient looks into the future, but something I don’t think anyone would’ve expected was just how reasonable a My Dinner With Andre video game sounds in 2018. In 1993, when it briefly appeared in the episode “Boy-Scoutz ’N The Hood,” the joke worked on all the levels it was going for: making a video game out of a movie with nothing in it that resembles the traditional idea of what video games are, a game that only an insufferable nerd like Martin would enjoy, and that goofs on the limited interactivity of something like Dragon’s Lair. But 25 years later, it’s not uncommon for games to focus themselves on conversations, having the player choose responses and the dialogue branching appropriately. Hell, it’s so believable at this point that I’m surprised some developer out there hasn’t taken The Simpsons’ joke and turned it into a reality. When it inevitably does, just be sure you don’t “bon mot” when you should have dropped a “trenchant insight.”
There’ve been a lot of fictional video games throughout pop culture, with Ready Player One’s Oasis as the biggest and most recent example. But here’s the thing about pretty much all of them: They look like awful games. They’re pretty much always high-score-chasing gee-whiz effects showcases or never-ending slaughter-fests. Those can be fine in their place, but only David Cronenberg’s eerie, brooding Existenz actually seems like a game-world I’d want to enter, an evocative and moody art-space where violence is threatened but necessary, where mysteries go unanswered and characterization is key. It seems like some sort of cross between the literary riches of Planescape: Torment and the terse survival horror of The Last Of Us, which sounds like just the best (and bleakest) thing on the planet. And it even comes with its own set of collectible peripherals!
The question is not why Inspector Spacetime doesn’t already exist, but when. Community brims over with pop culture references and parodies, but Troy and Abed’s version of Doctor Who might be my favorite, as it’s effectively blended in with my patchy knowledge of the real show to the point where I’m not sure where one ends and the other begins. Everything I know about Doctor Who has been peripherally gleaned though working at The A.V. Club and the one episode I saw years ago (the one with David Tennant where the statues move when you blink), so Inspector Spacetime is a great way for me to pick up more secondhand knowledge of the long-running British show, even if it means I only know the enemies as Blorgons. And from what I can tell, the over-the-top ridiculousness and low-budget effects seen in Troy and Abed’s Inspector Spacetime version doesn’t seem that far off the mark from the real show.
There’s a whole lot of benign weirdness to feel good about in Weird Al Yankovic’s 1989 cinematic opus UHF. Like how a bumbling, stream-of-conscious chatter-prone janitor can become a city’s most beloved children’s show host, or that a small but plucky low-budget television station can beat out its giant, heartless network affiliate competitor. But what I love most about watching the movie is how it hints at a lot of really strange entertainment that was just looking for a place to be seen until George and his UHF station came along. While U52 was able to produce, shoot, edit, and air an impressive number of in-house shows, it had to fill out its time slots somehow, and managed to do so by finding such spiritually compatible entertainment as Gandhi II (“Don’t move, slimeball.”) and my personal favorite, Conan The Librarian. Any show that features a heaving, Teutonic brute cleaving some poor kid in two for being a little tardy in returning his books is a movie I’d happily watch over and over.
I would take nearly anything from Troy McClure’s filmography, but if I had to pick some favorites, I’d say The Contrabulous Fabtraption Of Professor Horatio Hufnagel or Good-Time Slim, Uncle Doobie, And The “Great ’Frisco Freak-Out.” I love the wordiness of their preposterous titles and the sharpness of the parody behind them: With its ridiculous promo shot, Contrabulous embodies the death-by-whimsy over-reach of a celebrity passion project. We actually see a clip of the Good-Time Slim in the classic season six episode “Grampa Vs. Sexual Inadequacy.” It’s a 1971 film that features McClure as a San Francisco hippie who’s also a thief. In the clip, Good-Time Slim (McClure) runs from the police in a VW Bug with another man (Uncle Doobie?), who asks, “Slim, if we’ve got the bag with the stolen diamonds, then what happened to the bag with our stash?” “There’s more than one way to get high, baby,” McClure responds cooly. Count me in.
As much as I’d like to see Christmas Ape Goes To Summer Camp—which I can only hope centers on how the festive primate learns that the real friends he made along the way were the bracelets he macraméd—a fictional documentary seized my imagination in the final season of Man Seeking Woman, and hasn’t let go. In the season-three episode, “Pad Thai,” Josh (Jay Baruchel) and Lucy (Katie Findlay) have become the kind of boring couple that stays in every night with copious amounts of takeout and every Ken Burns documentary ever made. This includes the fake shoe documentary, Shoes: The Sole Of The People, a 14-hour exploration of the things we put on our feet in pairs (aside from socks). We never see an image from the fictional film, but we do hear SNL alum and Man Seeking Woman writer-producer Mike O’Brien fill in for Burns to provide such tidbits—or in Josh’s parlance, “factolas”—as “toecaps are the cobbler’s best friend,” and confirmation that shoes will remain roughly the same size as feet. It’s very much in the show’s tradition of blending reality and whimsy, though Burns’ oeuvre is just a step or two above Blue Bloods. Josh truly echoes my sentiments when he utters “Holy shit” after hearing O’Brien-as-Burns’ introductory line, “The shoe took its first step.”
Maybe it’s the education geek in me, but ever since I read about it, I’ve desperately longed for a real-life version of Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer: a Propædeutic Enchiridion, in which is told the tale of Princess Nell and her various friends, kin, associates, &c. This is the name of the nanotech-enhanced book that forms the basis for Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, a coming-of-age novel that follows a girl named Nell through her youth. Her education is provided in the form of the Primer, an interactive book meant to educate and steer a young woman toward a more “interesting life.” The lessons of the Primer are fascinating, from fundamental instructions about reading and math to physical training such as kung fu, and all delivered via a series of engaging tutors, like an anthropomorphic mouse named Dojo, or the voice of the Primer itself, brought to life by an actress in the novel who comes to care for Nell almost like a surrogate daughter. It’s basically the best and most fun education imaginable, one you’d never want to stop. So, radically different from my actual former seventh-period statistics class.