This week’s question is from The A.V. Club’s own Becca James:
What’s your pop-culture Sixth Sense moment? For example, I literally just found out that it’s Guy Pearce in Memento… even though I’ve watched that film twice.
Working for The A.V. Club affords me the opportunity to learn a lot of pop culture nonsense, usually regarding a band I was born too late to remember or a film genre I’ve yet to delve into. Though, sometimes, I learn that, much like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense, I’ve completely overlooked the obvious—like the time I realized Andy Griffith was Matlock. I grew up passively watching The Andy Griffith Show as a child, sucked in by the welcoming whistle of its introduction. Matlock, however, was something I was actively interested in—for whatever reason, everything about Ben Matlock, the Harvard graduate turned cantankerous lawyer and widower, spoke to the teenage me. It wasn’t until last year while fact-checking an inventory that it became clear that Andy and Ben were the same person. All of a sudden I understood what it was like for Willis to realize there had been a table in front of the basement door the whole damn time.
This happens to me a lot, but my most embarrassing not-so-revelatory revelation has to be the moment I realized there’s a double meaning in the title Family Matters. I’ve always pronounced it with an emphasis on the word “family,” which, in my idiot head, means the phrase is solely referring to a family’s affairs. It wasn’t until I heard a college friend pronounce it with the emphasis on “matters”—he was from the Boston area, which I feel like is pertinent information here, for some reason—that I noticed the title’s play on words. Family matters! Of course! I could’ve just sat there in shock and not said anything about this Earth-shattering epiphany, but I decided to share it with the room. Needless to say, that’s one I’ll never live down.
As has been well documented on this website, I listened to a lot of country music growing up. That’s probably why I largely missed out on ’80s Michael Jackson—sure, I knew his music, but it wasn’t what I really listened to. Then I hit middle-school age and started branching out from the music I’d grown up with. Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 was one of the first cassettes I bought, and man, I listened to the hell out of it. I had also recently joined my school’s drill team—this seems to be a solely Southern phenomenon, but it’s a sort of dance squad that performs during football halftimes, and this was Texas, so of course my small, Catholic, K-8 school had a football team—and one of our routines was performed to Jackson’s “Escapade.” I was a girl obsessed, hitting rewind, play, and practicing the dance routine. So when a friend’s older sister told me that Michael and Janet were brother and sister, I thought for sure she was just joking with me. Jackson’s a pretty common name, after all, and it seemed impossible that the strange one-gloved man of the ’80s could be related to my beloved Janet, who I’d only just discovered. In those pre-internet days, I had to ask my parents if this was true. Not only is it true, but did you know that Michael Jackson was one of The Jackson 5?
Boy, that Warren Ellis sure is a talented guy. Most of us have just one great gift, if we’re lucky. But here’s a dude who, in addition to writing successful comic-book series, novels, and video games, also plays a whole cabinet full of classical instruments, regularly tours with Nick Cave, and composes beautiful, Western-themed movie scores. When does he sleep? Is there anything he can’t do? As all of you surely know, but I only discovered quite recently, famed author Warren Ellis, who created Transmetropolitan and wrote some of Marvel’s X books for a while, is an entirely different person than famed musician Warren Ellis, who plays in the Bad Seeds. I felt very stupid when I figured this out, but also a little relieved. Gods do not walk among us. No man is that cool and gifted.
Similar to Alex, a couple of years ago I was excited to visit the Crystal Bridges Museum Of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas and see the interactive “soundsuit” sculpture by alt-rock legend Nick Cave. I think I even tweeted something about how stoked I was… until I got there and discovered that there’s another famous artist named Nick Cave. I’m not sure whether to thank or curse my art-savvy Twitter friends for not mocking my ignorance. (I also spent years thinking that Bruce Springsteen’s producer Jon Landau was the guy who produced Titanic, so I’m easily confused by such things.)
I was really young when I first saw Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” video, so I didn’t really pick up on the teen pregnancy part of the family squabble. But my older brothers had started raising hell at home, so I found myself sympathizing with her disappointed dad, Danny Aiello. I also took Aiello to be her real-life father, and found it really sweet that they worked together on the video. When I saw Do The Right Thing a few years later, I was impressed that Madonna had been able to help her father find success in Hollywood. I even told my own dad about how great the Aiello (which was I guess actually the Ciccone) family was. I don’t recall exactly how I was disabused of this notion, but I’m pretty sure it was after Evita was released.
The 1989 movie The War Of The Roses was often playing on some random pay-cable channel in my house growing up (I think it was The Movie Channel?), so I ended up watching it numerous times as a child, even though something tells me children were not the target market for a black comedy about a bitter divorce battle. Still, the Michael Douglas-Kathleen Turner vehicle always stuck with me, becoming an occasional pop-culture touchstone in my mind, even after I discovered most people my age had never seen it, let alone heard of it. Nonetheless, every time I heard the term, I thought it was in reference to the film, and the expression “this is some War Of The Roses-level pettiness” remained a phrase I employed well into my college years. Imagine my surprise when I learned that all the other times I saw those words over the years were not, in fact, citations of a ridiculous American film from the late ’80s, but rather a series of dynastic wars over the English throne during the Middle Ages. If only my final reference to the movie hadn’t come in the midst of a history seminar, one that immediately thereafter saw me hiding in the last row for the remainder of the semester.
Even as a kid, I had a sharp ear for cartoon voices, a talent discovered upon realizing that Garfield and The Real Ghostbusters’ Peter Venkman were speaking in the same voice. (Which is really strange, because Bill Murray played Venkman in Ghostbusters, but when they made the Garfield movie, Bill Murray did the voice of Garfield—look, I’m just making conversation with you, Morty.) So when Rugrats came to Nickelodeon, it was easy to peg the performer playing inventor and father Stu Pickles as the sleepy voice behind the busy hands trying to sell me Shedd’s Spread Country Crock elsewhere on the TV dial. But what I hadn’t developed a knack for was reading credits—otherwise it would’ve dawned on me much earlier that Stu and the Country Crock guy share a performer with my favorite character from my favorite vintage sitcom. They’re all Jack Riley, who broke through in the 1970s as The Bob Newhart Show’s biggest bundle of nerves, Elliot Carlin. Complicating matters: Riley also played Warren The Werewolf in a staple of my childhood Halloweens, The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t. At least there I have a good excuse for not recognizing him: It’s hard to make Riley’s voice out between all of the growling and howling.
My wife has teased me mercilessly about this over the past few years, but I have no shame, so I’ll tell the world: Around 2011 I found myself stuck in a horrible rut of insomnia, and during those many sleepless nights, I’d get up and watch those blocks of Frasier reruns that seem omnipresent on late-night cable. I’d always liked the show, but I gained a new appreciation for it—although an unintended side effect was getting the perky, jazzy theme song stuck in my head. Early one morning, after one of my long, Frasier-binging nights, my wife came out of the bedroom only to have me excitedly throw a huge revelation at her: Did she know that Kelsey Grammer, star of Frasier, also sang the show’s theme song? In all my years of watching it, I’d never put two and two together, until a half-curious Wikipedia perusal at 3 a.m. dropped this bombshell on me. My wife, still rubbing sleep from her eyes, just stared at me like I was a complete idiot. “Who did you think sung it?” she said. To which I had no reply. These days I don’t get insomnia very often. Instead I sleep the sleep of the humbled.
When I finally got around to watching Reservoir Dogs far too late in life, I was blown away by the charismatic turn from a young actor named Tim Roth. His old school, unstudied performance and boyish good looks totally captivated me, and I wondered why I’d never seen him in anything else since. One quick visit to IMDB confirmed I had in fact seen him in a ton of stuff, including only one week beforehand as the creepy baddie in The Incredible Hulk. I must be missing too many steps on the Tim Roth evolutionary chain (I still have yet to see Rob Roy), because even though he’s aged into a perfectly handsome 54-year-old, I still have trouble rectifying that early performance with his later career. In my mind there are just two entirely separate British actors named Tim Roth running around Hollywood.
I do not generally think of myself as a raving moron, but it took decades of being a big Roxy Music fan, and someone who has seen Casablanca probably a dozen times or so (if you haven’t seen it, you should, it’s quite good!), for me to realize that the “HB” in the early Roxy Music song “2HB” was Humphrey Bogart and that the lyrics were explicitly referencing his character and motivation in Casablanca. There are actually lyrics like “Here’s looking at you, kid,” which you’d think would be something of a giveaway but not one I picked up on for decades. When I made the realization, I predictably felt a real dope, but that is nothing new for me.
For most of my moviegoing life, I’ve always been amazed at that great acting dynasty, the Hepburn sisters. I always marveled that the same family could produce two legendary actresses with such different looks, mannerisms, acting styles, even accents. Maybe they were cousins and not sisters? Still, that the same family could produce the steely, indomitable star of The Philadelphia Story and The Lion In Winter, and the ingenue who charmed the world in Sabrina and Roman Holiday is just remarkable. Which is something I managed to believe for more than a decade into the existence of IMDB and Wikipedia without ever being set straight. Obviously, the two are no relation whatsoever, as even the most cursory glance (or common sense) could have told me.
I tend to accept things as they are without questioning them too much, at least when it comes to movies and TV shows and books. It’s why, as a kid, whenever I read or watched something I thought was boring or confusing, I automatically assumed it was my fault somehow; the art itself was exactly what it was supposed to be, I was just doing my part to really appreciate it. That’s changed a bit (if it hadn’t, every review I write would just be, “This is good, I’ll try better next time.”), but I never quite lost that blind acceptance, which is how I was able to watch multiple seasons of Friends without ever getting that Central Perk is a pun. The only reason I did get it was because a character on the show explained it, so I should probably not operate heavy machinery any time soon.
As a kid, most of my favorite performers were either comedians, Muppets, or cartoon characters and, as such, pretty recognizable from movie to movie. So it blew my young mind whenever I figured out, probably around age 10 or so, that Doc Brown in Back To The Future, Judge Doom in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Professor Plum in Clue were all played by the same guy. That’s how I figured out that Christopher Lloyd must be my favorite actor; he appeared in three of my favorite movies ever! Three! It’s entirely possible that if I had known this upfront instead of realizing it later, I wouldn’t have been startled into an ill-advised system where, for a few year,s whoever was in the most movies I loved must be my favorite actor (Rick Moranis logged some time in this position, too). Nothing against Lloyd, of course—he’s a delight—but I was, perhaps, unduly impressed that an actor would not look like the exact same guy in every single movie.
One of the endless stream of catchphrases plucked from my years watching Mystery Science Theater 3000 is TV’s Frank’s line, “He made you mad! He made you mean-mad!” (from episode 609 “The Skydivers,” of course). It’s a go-to on Twitter especially, usually hyping up someone’s online dudgeon—it’s pithy, weird, and can be interpreted as actual support if the person isn’t paying attention, or hasn’t spent an inordinate amount of time watching MST3K. Well, recently, someone, instead of praising me for my encyclopedic Frank Conniff knowledge, chimed in that I was quoting The Grapes Of Wrath. I—the former English major—dutifully looked it up, and, yup. As is the way with many of MST3K’s best oddball lines, it’s a reference, this time to Ma Joad’s fear that Tom’s time in the slammer has turned him “mean-mad.” I still think it’s a win for me—either people have been marveling at my TV’s Frank impression, or they’ve thought I was being literary.
Despite the all-too-evident enjoyment I find in doing deep research to prepare for interviews, in those dark days before the internet was really much of a thing, I found myself experiencing “duh” moments all the time. The one that leaps to mind for me, though, is the discovery that Paul Williams, the short, bespectacled, blond-haired gentleman I knew predominantly from his performances in the Smokey And The Bandit trilogy and various ’70s shows, had written some of the most memorable pop hooks of the ’60s and ’70s. This really should’ve been easy to work out, given how often he was caught singing his own compositions, but back then I just didn’t sit around contemplating who’d written the songs I was hearing, so I just never thought about it. Looking back now, though, it’s a wonder that Williams even had time to act, given how many hits he penned.