This week’s question comes from reader David Kordahl:
Foreign terms are sometimes so useful that, instead of being translated, they’re lifted out and used wholesale. (“Zeitgeist” and “ennui” come to mind.) The same, on more idiosyncratic scales, can be true for certain pop-culture concepts. For instance, since my wife and I watch It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, we no longer have separate categories for lawn mowing, dish washing, carpet vacuuming, and recyclables sorting: These all fall under the mucky umbrella of “Charlie Work.” Likewise, as Louie watchers, the temptation to eat again directly after a large meal can now be eloquently expressed: “Bang bang?” For both of these (regrettably, for the latter), the phrases have been used often enough to enter our household lexicon.
What pop-culture concepts have you found to be ripe for everyday use?
I don’t think either my wife nor I have ever seen the movie, but around my apartment, a particular quote from Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson’s Shanghai Knights gets a lot of mileage. Any time one of us asks another to do something we are completely incapable of doing, it falls under the rubric of a certain genre of behavior that is ridiculous to expect of the solicited party. We like to call it the “What in our history together makes you think I’m capable of something like that?!” list of actions, in honor of Wilson’s very honest response to Chan trying to get him to leap up through a hole in the ceiling during a fraught moment. Wilson couldn’t do that, and I can’t do this, whether it’s a hip-hop dance routine or an accurate accounting of my taxes.
I’ve watched Matt Thompson and Adam Reed’s Frisky Dingo more times than any other TV show; during a long, aimless portion of my life, the show’s four-and-a-half hour run was my go-to self-treatment for anxiety. So it’s inevitable that Reed and Thompson’s stylized dialogue would leak into my vocabulary. While I’ve never requested a “half-and-half” from anyone, I’ve definitely referred to my enemies as “perfidious,” and launched a “what the hell, damn guy” or two at people who cut me off in traffic. But my most frequent verbal invader is “Boosh,” an all-purpose declaration of victory first uttered by The Xtacles, the show’s most reliable engines of comedic stupidity. Not unlike some of the lines from Reed’s later Archer, “Boosh” has its origins in an oddly literate bit of wordplay—a digressive description of the shotgun-blasting climax of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron”—but really, all it means is, “Hell yeah,” a blind enthusiasm that’s also a ton of fun to say. (Even if it does occasionally get confused for a fan of music-based British alt-comedy.)
Although I could probably come up with several dozen examples from the endlessly quippy Joss Whedon, I have to confess that the phrase I actually say all the time comes from the inimitable, foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker of The Thick Of It and In The Loop. Tucker’s Law takes 11 sweary seconds to spell out: “If some cunt can fuck something up, that cunt will pick the worst possible time to fucking fuck up, ’cause that cunt’s a cunt.” To drive the point home about how succinct and universal a law this is, Tucker follows it up with, “I’ve got that embroidered on a tea towel at home.” I guarantee you that when everything in your life falls apart and you feel like everybody is out to get you, reciting Tucker’s Law in your best Scottish burr will make you feel at least a little bit better.
Incidentally, I do have this embroidered (though not on a tea towel) at home.
You know when you meet someone new, spend an absurd amount of time together, and then find yourself repeating their mannerisms and speech patterns, even when they’re not around? That’s what happened to me with Broad City (because TV is my friend), a show that rapidly infected my brain with its brash banter and kooky quips. There’s a specific rhythm to the way Ilana speaks, which has subtly rubbed off on me over time, and her tendency to slip into different voices means I’ll never say words like “pizza” or “sandwich” normally again. That being said, the one line that has become forever embedded in my brain is from Abbi’s office-supply store rant: “We are garbage people living on garbage island!” I now use “garbage” as a descriptor whenever applicable, particularly when talking about myself after I’ve made a cruddy choice or mistake. I’ve watched and re-watched Abbi and Ilana’s adventures so many times that the regional dialect of Broad City has become my own.
My wife and I speak in a Simpsons patois that’s probably exhausting to everyone else, but another go-to dictionary for us is the Coen brothers’ classic Raising Arizona. That film is eminently quotable, the characters so pronounced, that it has long been a staple of our conversations. The line we most often say is probably “Gotta get on that, H.I.,” whenever we have some looming task. My wife likes to ask new parents, “You’re gonna send ’im to Arizona State?” And we manage to work in phases like “Federal B.I.,” “I love to drive,” “that sum’bitch,” “not that motherscratcher,” “hit the deck, boy,” “we’re swingers—as in to swing!” and others into our speech pretty frequently. It’s probably obnoxious, but it entertains us.
For, oh, about 15 years now, anytime someone says anything about pizza, the first place my mind immediately goes is to the Stella sketch “Pizza.” Specifically, it goes right to the phrase “Real Brooklyn Pizza!,” which is pretty much the only way I can now describe any pizza, regardless of its place of origin. I don’t know why this is the case. Sure, I’ve probably watched that sketch 30-odd times, but why this phrase sticks with me more than, say, the Wayne’s World way of describing someone horrible as “pralines and dick,” I have no idea. That’s a pretty good one too, though.
I have a pair of tattoos that reference Futurama, which is a quick way to understand how much the show has seeped into my daily life. But there’s a multitude of quotes and references that pop up in my day to day that further explain how important the show is to me. From my apartment being nicknamed “Robot House,” all the way down to my use of “we’re boned” as a way to announce unfortunate circumstances, I could comfortably communicate in Futurama quotes for the rest of my days. But the line that I speak most often has to be Fry’s declaration of impatience: When told that he’ll be drinking Slurm “soon enough,” he fires back with, “That’s not soon enough.” I’m generally a patient person, but whenever someone tells me something is happening “soon” there’s no way I can’t come back with this line, making them think I’m a real impatient asshole, as opposed to just a normal asshole.
Although it’s not the movie I quote most often—that ribbon probably belongs to Heathers—What’s Eating Gilbert Grape generously gave me the line, “Mamma! Mamma! Mamma! Wake up!” I use this more often than one might think possible, mostly when trying to wake a friend or get someone’s attention when they appear to be zoning out, though I’ve also been known to drop it into casual conversation before wandering off to do my own thing. But I think it has potential to be a conversation starter as well; it’s clearly versatile, so thank you Arnie, and sorry, Mamma.
My girlfriend works in a library, and as it turns out, there’s a lot of crossover between the crappy, eye-catching movies in its collection and the loads of crappy movies on Netflix. It’s how we ended up watching Stolen, the shameless Taken rip off that casts Nicolas Cage as a reformed bank robber whose spurned former partner, now a one-legged cab driver, kidnaps his teenage daughter. As the film heads into its third act, it introduces a scene-stealing character, Lefleur the sassy taxi dispatcher, who, with his amazing “New Orleans accent,” injected a few new terms into our lexicon. First there’s “sneeching,” which I think is a slang term for “stealing” that the writers or this actor, Dan Braverman, invented. My favorite, though, is “You would do that for me, Bertrand?” It’s a question that comes at the height of the scene’s loud, cliché-fueled tension, but Braverman delivers it with uncharacteristic quiet gratitude. We’ve started using it as the default response to any offering of a common courtesy, such as, “I’m going to the kitchen. Can I get you a glass of water?” And yes, you have to say it in your best bad New Orleans accent.
Is it cheating to mention The A.V. Club’s sister publication? My wife’s all-time favorite Onion article is “37 Record-Store Clerks Feared Dead In Yo La Tengo Concert Disaster.” In reporting a ceiling collapse at a concert, the article expertly skewers indie-rock fashion, (“It’s just a twisted mass of black-frame glasses and ironic Girl Scout T-shirts in there.”), culture (“their cries of ‘sellout’ have been forever silenced.”), and priorities, (“This is a real tragedy. They were going to play ‘Speeding Motorcycle’, and they never play that song!”). At one point, the aftermath is described as “senseless hipster carnage.” So since then, “hipster carnage” has been our code for any too-heavy concentration of tattoos and ironic facial hair. “I was expecting more hipster carnage at a Mark Kozelek show.” “Williamsburg’s got a lot less hipster carnage since the yuppies started moving in.” The all-time highest hipster carnage level we’ve witnessed? Bill Murray doing a Q&A at Brooklyn Academy Of Music following a screening of Lost In Translation. The hipster carnage level was off the charts!
At the risk of being unoriginal, The Simpsons has greatly embiggened my life in immeasurable ways. I’m particularly enamored of some of its homemade words, particularly the aforementioned “embiggened,” and “cromulent,” neither of which has left my vocabulary over the past decades. And why on earth would anyone use impossible when the clearly superior, if fake, “unpossible” is available?
One of the few movies that my whole family can agree on is A Christmas Story. During TNT’s or TBS’s exhausting 24-hour marathons, the movie serves as the background score to our Christmas Eve and Christmas, filling the somewhat boring gaps between Eve dinner and post-present Christmas morning. However, favorite quotes pepper our entire year. Anytime a large package arrives, I’ll immediately regard it quizzically, before saying phonetically, in my best Darren McGavin, “Fra-Gee-Leh. This must be Italian!” to no one in particular. Over the years, we came to regard annoying neighbors as “The Bumpuses.” My mother really got in on the game, washing my mouth out with soap after I got in trouble for calling my third grade teacher a bitch. My personal favorite occured during a childhood trip to Notre Dame for a football game. We got a flat, and as my father struggled to pull over the car, synthetic rubber flapping, I let out a long “Ohhhh, fuck.” I think Ralphie would be proud.
A lot of my understanding of the way the world works has been shaped by the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, which my wife and I quote regularly during all kinds of everyday circumstances. “Accept the mystery,” “Look at the parking lot,” “We’re gonna be fine,” “Do you take advantage of the new freedoms?” and “I don’t want Santana Abraxas!” are all useful phrases when it comes to articulating the capriciousness of the universe and the callous indifference of a changing society. But the Serious Man line that’s most germane to this question is “secret test,” which one of Professor Larry Gopnik’s students offers up as sensible solution to his failing physics grade. Whenever our household is faced with an irresolvable conflict, be it overlapping events for our kids or a home repair we can’t quite afford, we shrug and say, “secret test” (usually followed quickly by “passing grade,” which is the student’s other suggestion in the movie). It makes everything seem so simple. But of course! Secret test. Why didn’t we think of that before?
We all want to be the Slayer, but, sadly, I’ve always inescapably thought of my self as the Xander in the Scooby gang of life, the one person in the room utterly overmatched by forces completely out of his control. So Xander’s exasperated response in the Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode “Triangle,” (“That’s insane troll logic!) to an enraged troll’s ultimatum that he choose which of the women in his life—best friend Willow or fiancée Anya—will be smashed to jelly by a giant troll hammer is a code phrase whenever I’m up against irrational, thuggish authority. I genuinely picture Abraham Benrubi in his Olaf The Troll makeup whenever I’m on the phone with Time Warner Cable customer service.
My wife and I are both fans of the Kids In The Hall, and, perhaps stranger, huge fans of the group’s much-maligned and little-seen (at the time) movie Brain Candy. At one point early in the movie, hapless and frightened employees of a giant pharmaceutical corporation are pitching new product ideas to the pitiless CEO (Mark McKinney), whose signature product has been the pill Stummies. One man describes his idea: “It’s exactly like Stummies.” McKinney presses him for the twist, which he explains thusly: “It’s a much bigger pill.” We use these phrases semi-regularly to describe anything that is ridiculously similar to something else, usually to its utter detriment. For example, the movie Eragon as compared to its obvious inspiration Star Wars: It’s exactly like Stummies. But a much bigger pill. No word on whether it causes flipper babies, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
One of my college roommates bore more than a passing resemblance to Ross Geller and since I have some Monica-like control freak tendencies, Friends became a point of connection for us. His go-to impression was to yell “Pivot!” just like Ross does when he, Chandler, and Rachel desperately try to maneuver a giant couch up a tiny flight of stairs. So “Pivot!” quickly became our rallying cry whenever we needed motivation to move something too. And since we were theater kids, we actually spent a significant amount of time carrying heavy sets and furniture on and off of various stages. “Pivot!” doubled as a way to keep our spirits up during long tech weeks, and it became such second nature that I now have to fight the impulse to scream it at whatever unsuspecting kind soul offers to help me lift something.
Since the original example was “bang bang,” the first thing that came to mind was a ridiculous line from the original Highlander: Connor MacLeod encounters his old Immortal friend Sunda Kastagir for the first time in decades, and Kastagir offers him a flask. “What is it?” MacLeod asks, sniffing it. “Boom-boom,” Kastagir says. “Big strong man like you shouldn’t be afraid of a little… boom-boom.” This now brings up Flight Of The Conchords’ “She’s So Hot… Boom!” with its endless leering innuendo around the word “boom,” so Kastagir’s line can read as a flirtatious gay come-on. It’s that fractional pause that does it. But mostly to my husband and me, it’s just a stand-in for anything one of us is being needlessly squeamish about. Spiders in the pantry? Public speaking engagement? Awkward invitation we don’t want to answer? C’mon, we shouldn’t be afraid of a little… boom-boom.
I’m not sure when it was the first time I heard Joel and Mike and the ’bots on Mystery Science Theater 3000 use the phrase “good old-fashioned nightmare fuel,” but it’s one that’s stuck with me. It’s just so damnably useful—unlike a lot of that show’s best riffs, context isn’t necessary, because the phrase itself is such a perfect description of, well, something I don’t think I’d ever had a description of before. These days, whenever I see something in a movie or TV show or real life that’s supposed to be cutesy, but comes off as horrifying, those are the words that come to mind. It’s a little disturbing how regularly this comes up.
There are so many bits of pop culture that have entered my lexicon but my favorite is from Drop Dead Fred, the movie that was supposed to make Rik Mayall a star in the States but very much didn’t. In college, my best friend and I figured out that we both loved this movie as kids, so we excitedly rented it one night. In it, Mayall’s imaginary Drop Dead Fred tries to get back into the good graces of Phoebe Cates’ Lizzie after he had been banished from her life. He calls her Snot Face as a term of endearment (well, as much endearment as Drop Dead Fred can convey). We immediately picked up on it because we’re both weirdos. We now live in hundreds of miles away but all birthday cards, late night texts saying we miss each other, and other displays of affection are all directed toward Snot Face.
I realize it’s practically a cop-out to say The Simpsons, because we’ve pretty much reached a point in our civilization where there’s a Simpsons reference to fit every situation ever, but the first thing that came to mind with this question was the phrase “Good Morning Burger,” which has become my go-to description of any absurdly overstuffed burger I see offered up by restaurants. Given that the fast food joint nearest to me is a Hardee’s—which you folks on the West Coast more likely know as Carl’s Jr.—you can imagine that I end up uttering it quite a lot.
I realized around the sixth grade that most of my parents’ best jokes came from elsewhere. There were the Mel Brooks lines, strewn throughout dinners and arguments alike (mostly History Of The World: Part I, which wasn’t their favorite Brooks, but their most quotable by a mile). There were the wry nods to Parenthood, probably coping mechanisms as much as in-jokes. But the most quoted property in the Framke household by a mile is Fawlty Towers, John Cleese’s bonkers hotel sitcom that ran just 12 episodes from 1975-1979. (Cleese is a notorious perfectionist.) The series is packed with slapstick, callbacks, and acidic burns. Innocuous quips like, “Is this a piece of your brain?” and calling people “cretins” crept into my childhood, but nothing made a lasting impact like the episode in which Cleese’s miserable hotel owner gets a concussion and tries to wait on a German group without mentioning “the war.” The result is a catastrophic mess, and it’s still one of the funniest episodes of anything I’ve ever seen. The first time I saw Cleese careen around the dining room stage-whispering, “don’t mention the war,” I realized my parents had already made me love the line.
There are a series of prank phone calls called Longmont Potion Castle that go back 20 years or more—they’re almost performance-art level weird—with the comedy coming equally from the guy doing the calls as his unwitting partners. There are multiple phrases that made it into the everyday vocabularies of the fans I know, and it’s like a secret handshake when you say, “I am Gomez” (when you’re doing something extravagant) or, “I’m’a hit you with a tennis racquet” (when you’re faux-angry). With something like 10 to 12 volumes out there, there’s plenty to choose from.