This week’s question comes from reader Caleb Shively:
“As a big fan of William Friedkin, I finally got around to watching Jade, a movie I heard was regarded as one of the director’s lesser offerings. And yes, yes it is. Around the 20 minute mark, though, I remembered a line from The 40 Year Old Virgin where, when trying to pick up a girl, Seth Rogen’s Cal tells Steve Carrell’s Andy to act like “David Caruso in Jade” (to which Andy quickly replies, “I know exactly what you mean”). I couldn’t stop thinking about this line and had to watch this one scene immediately after the movie was over.
“Regardless of the merits of Jade, it did enhance this one specific joke very much and made a me love The 40 Year Old Virgin (ever so slightly) even more. What is a specific pop-culture reference that you love, made all the more special from knowing its source material?”
The roundly positive response to Comedy Central’s Detroiters proves that you don’t have to be from Southeastern Michigan to enjoy Sam Richardson and Tim Robinson’s exploits as the Motor City’s scrappiest, goofiest ad men. But if you did happen to grow up in the area during the 1980s and ’90s, there’s a whole extra layer of enjoyment to be found in the show’s detailed parodies of the charmingly earnest vintage sales pitches for local businesses like DOC, Farmer Jack, and Mr. Alan’s. These are sights and sounds that are embedded in my DNA, and to see them recreated for a TV show that reaches several thousand miles beyond the ads’ original broadcast radius is astounding. It’s a savvy move, one that gives specificity and shape to the world of Detroiters, while unlocking a secret language that a lot of viewers might’ve thought they were alone in speaking—a native tongue comprising silky odes to family furriers and memories of a pro-running-back-turned-used-car-dealer’s high-flying alter ego.
Often one needs to experience the origins of a reference to get it at all. Throughout much of my childhood, my mother would, at what seemed to me random times, reply to something I’d said with “And don’t call me Shirley.” “I didn’t,” I’d say or only think, confused and annoyed. I chalked up her not making any sense to being a parent, specifically my parent. It wasn’t until finally seeing one of the greatest comedies of all time that I got it. “Surely you can’t be serious”/“And don’t call me Shirley” is only one of Airplane’s many great running gags (see also: “I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue,” etc.) The whole thing is so incredibly quotable that it’s reasonable to assume that for many people who weren’t yet alive when the movie was released that the jokes came to them before the film did. What a joy, and a relief, to finally get it, and to realize that the gag is, of course, funnier when a deadpan Leslie Nielsen delivers it instead of your mom.
The 1972 film The Poseidon Adventure is in my top-five films of all time: I consider the “ocean liner flips over” movie the standard that all disaster films should be measured against. So I was both shocked and delighted by Chandler’s impersonation of Shelley Winters in The Poseidon Adventure on Friends. As Ross and Rachel embark on the first of many breakups, Chandler flashes back to the trauma of his parents’ divorce, and even starts smoking again. Eventually, he starts flailing about in a truly bizarre fashion in an attempt to distract them from bickering, causing Phoebe to yell out “Look what you’re doing to Chandler!” His strange antics stop the squalling, and he only explains himself in a short offhand comment, failing to elaborate that he was actually acting out the part where Winters’ Mrs. Rosen swims underwater to save Gene Hackman’s Reverend Scott. It’s hard to imagine anyone who would appreciate that strange reference as much as I did, except for the genius in the Friends writers’ room who came up with it.
I could’ve probably filled this with any number of MF Doom’s byzantine internal references, but that’d also be fronting like I understand even a 10th of them without first poring over his Genius pages. (Here are a few fun threads of people freaking out about them, though.) A pop culture reference that clicked for me on a more instinctual level came from Danny Brown, an acquired taste I’ll still cite as the most interesting rapper alive, if pressed. Seemingly on the far other end of my taste spectrum is Persona 4, a 2008 video game about teenagers in rural Japan solving a series of disappearances and stumbling upon an inter-dimensional otherworld. And yet Danny Brown is a huge, noted fan of the series—he named his cat after Chie, the game’s spunky, ass-kicking romantic interest—so much so that he sampled one of its many great, moody backing tracks on “Hell For It,” from 2016’s Atrocity Exhibition. It’s the closing track after a tense, dissonant album, and serves as a brief reprieve, made all the sweeter if you’re in the slim Venn intersection of people who are fans of both of these works.
I was still typing up papers on a word processor (the machine, not program) in the early ’90s, but even I knew about the massive flop that was Apple’s Newton. The first “personal digital assistant” (in design, if not actual functionality), the Newton was, ostensibly, an innovator in handwriting recognition technology. But in reality, your stylus-aided scribblings could turn into utter gibberish on the screen of this high-end gadget. The Simpsons immortalized Apple’s technological misstep in the season-six episode “Lisa On Ice,” with Kearney telling Dolph to make a note on his Newton to “Beat up Martin” for applauding the school’s new academic alert system. The Newton turns Dolph’s scrawling into “Eat up Martha,” so Kearney loses his patience and simply chucks the expensive paperweight at Martin’s head. “Lisa On Ice” is chock full of insanely quotable moments, but this bit of typo-related humor is one of my favorites, in no small part because we can imagine that frustrated bully as every pissed-off Apple devotee. And “Eat up Martha” is the gift that keeps on giving—Apple engineers were so haunted by those three little words that they devoted years to getting the keyboard just right.
John Hodgman’s wonderfully surreal tomes of fake trivia (The Areas Of My Expertise, More Information Than You Require, and That Is All) are chock-full of references designed to reward the sort of careful, deeply nerdy readers who might naturally flock to almanacs of carefully curated bullshit. But I can still remember the “Oh god, my head is gonna pop” feeling that hit me the first time I read this passage from the joke-packed page-a-day calendar Hodgman stuffed into the margins of his second book: “December 4: I complete my controversial shot-by-shot remake of the film Pierre Menard, Author Of Don Quixote.” Given the thematic similarities, Hodgman could probably have counted on his readers being (as I was, having consumed his short story collection Ficciones back in college) nerds for the meta-textual delights of Jorge Luis Borges. But that particular joke—trading on familiarity with Borge’s short story “Pierre Menard,” which presents itself as a literary review of another author’s attempt to recreate Don Quixote, word for word—is so ridiculously dense with specific layers of meta that it still fills me with giddy, nerdy delight, more than a decade after first encountering it.
I’ve always loved April saying her favorite rockstar is Jeff Mangum on Parks And Recreation, because like a lot of good references, it works on different levels depending on whether or not you know who Jeff Mangum is. If you’re not familiar with Neutral Milk Hotel, then the scene—which involves April and new husband Andy playing a knockoff of The Newlywed Game—reads as a joke, because Neutral Milk Hotel is a ridiculous band name that sounds just like the sort of crazy nonsense that April would be into. If you know Mangum, though, it’s a fun and unexpected nod to a band that is just a hair too obscure for the regular NBC sitcom audience. Plus, Andy’s annoyed dismissal of Neutral Milk Hotel as “sad, depressing, weird art” is right on the money. It’s not the funniest scene in Parks And Rec history, but I have to appreciate the completely dumbfounded reaction Chris Pratt’s Andy gives at the mention of one of my favorite bands.