Thursday, March 08, 2018

Reference material

Often times when writing a script I’ll make a specific reference. Might be to a certain movie or person or fad that once was. One of the keys to comedy is specificity. If you’re looking for a dog name, Dachshund is funny but Schnauzer is funnier.

The trouble with a reference however is that it means nothing if the intended audience doesn’t know it. And over time things fade into the mist. At one time you could do a joke about a horse head at the end of someone’s bed and everyone knew that was an iconic GODFATHER reference. But now? Yes, THE GODFATHER is one of the most well-known and classic movies in history. And it’s still being shown frequently in revival theatres, on TV, and on streaming platforms. But it’s well over 40 years old. Most people today weren’t alive back then. Did you get the reference?  And don't feel bad if you didn't. 

Writers talk about a three-percenter. That’s a joke only three-percent of the audience will get. Sometimes you sprinkle one or two in not so much to get a laugh but to establish authenticity of the period. We did that on MASH. An Adolphe Menjou joke might appear. But it helped put you in the time and place and the six people in America who knew who he was laughed hysterically.

So it’s always a guessing game with references. If you know some specific reference you just sort of assume everyone does, right? But you have to stop and take stock. Do I know this because it’s of general knowledge? Or did my growing up in Los Angeles as opposed to Toronto give me a greater exposure to the reference? Other factors: gender, religion, level of literacy, length of time.

It’s just one of the many things comedy writers wrestle with.

And then there’s the flip side.

I’ll be in a writing room and someone will pitch a joke with a specific reference that I don’t know. But a few others in the room laugh. My first thought is “should I know this reference?” Why don’t I know this reference? Other people knew it, why not me? Is there a hole in my wealth of knowledge? On the other hand, not everybody laughed. Was it because they didn’t know the reference either or they didn’t think the joke was funny? I’m always a little insecure about that.

It’s like there used to be a TV game show called PASSWORD. Two teams of two people competed. One team member would be given the "password" (say HANDKERCHIEF) and with only one word clues would try to get his partner to say the password. (Notice how I felt the need to EXPLAIN how PASSWORD worked.) I always thought, what if I got on that show and was given the password to communicate to my partner and I didn’t know the word? Obviously it’s a common enough word that everyone else in the world knew it and I’d look like a complete idiot on national TV. Same with references except substitute five writers for seven million viewers.

This is the kind of shit that keeps me up at night. I should probably take a Nidol. I mean a Tylenol PM.


Roger Owen Green said...

I watch JEOPARDY! daily (I was on 20 years ago) and I realize I have no idea about 80% of the pop culture references of this decade. But a reference to something from the 20th century, even from before I was born, I'll get about 90% of the time, while the contestants will have three blank looks.
I remember one from 2003:
"Then away he'll schlep on his elephant Shep while Fella and Ursula stay in step"

Anonymous said...

To me, the winner of the "three-percenters" is "Frasier." References to composers, authors, artists, etc. abounded. My favorite was Frasier telling someone the opera would be over in three hours, then, remembering it was Wagner, adjusting his comment to "four hours."

Mitchell Hundred said...

Have you heard of a show called Gilmore Girls? Because Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator and showrunner of that show, loved her some three-percenters. When I started watching it, my sister-in-law loaned me the DVD box sets, and there was a little booklet included with each one that explained all the obscure pop culture references that were made in that season. Anyway, I think it worked there because the references were never really essential to understanding a joke or a plot point: they formed the same sort of background radiation that technobabble did in Star Trek shows.

Also, I could just look the reference up on Wikipedia if I really wanted to know about it.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Re Sherman-Palladino: what was much more glaring was that her high schoolers in BUNHEADS seemed to litter their talk with references few under 40 would know.

I've seen Carol Burnett say in interviews that their parodies of old movies have aged very well because today's younger generation have seen all the same movies in reruns on TV. Seems to me a similar show doing parodies of contemporary movies now would struggle a lot more because the audience is so fractured (and also because it's beyond the scope of live TV to do parodies of the big special effects movies...)


Jim said...

And there speaks the man who gave us a Dan Quayle joke yesterday. Whatever happened to Dan Quayle anyway? Does Alexander Throttlebottom have wider name recognition nowadays?

Unknown said...

I am one of "those guys" that constantly drops pop culture references in regular conversations. Sometimes people get them, but as I get older, less people are getting my Spaceballs and Princess Bride quotes. To which I reply "INCONCEIVABLE!"

ScarletNumber said...

I'm surprised you didn't mention the famous Odd Couple episode where Felix got too clever when giving the clues to Oscar.

blinky said...

How about mixing in a Spring Byington reference once in a while.

Tammy said...

How great is it for your ego when you're one of the 3% though? I have an unfair advantage over most Israelis, having spent a few years in the States as a kid. For example, when watching Wayne's World in the theatre, my sister and I were the only ones laughing at stuff like the Laverne and Shirley parody or "Do you have any Grey Poupon?" Of course there's lots of stuff that still goes over my head. Like, could an American please explain this scene from Friends - Chandler is about to say Eddie is a little crazy, but then Eddie shows up so he changes it to "a little bit country" - what does that mean? It always bugs me on reruns :)

By the way, I recently watched a Spanish show (La Casa De Papel, "Money Heist" on Netflix) and was surprised at how friendly it was to international audiences - there were only 3-4 references to Spanish stuff I didn't know, and quite a few to American pop culture. I wonder if it was intentional, as TV is so global these days.

Jon said...

The "little bit country" probably refers to the old song that Donny & Marie Osmond sang, often on their 1970s variety show. Marie would sing "I'm a little bit country" and Donny would sing "i'm a little bit rock 'n roll".

Anonymous said...

Tammy: The "little bit country" line was a reference to the 1970s Donny and Marie Osmond variety show. Donny had Top 40 hits, while Marie had success on the Country charts. So they had a song that became a weekly segment on the show:

At the time Chandler said it on FRIENDS, it was about 20 years old...which made it a perfect childhood memory for 30-something viewers.

Dan Sachs said...

Or to expand on what ScarletNumber said, if I replied "Aristophanes" how many here would get the reference?

McAlvie said...

I don't mind cultural references, even when its from before my time. I like to think it means the writers assume some level of intelligence and/or sophistication in their audience. Even when I was a kid and most of it went over my head, some of it stuck and made sense later on, so I consider it educational. I have a distinct memory of watching Rocky & Bullwinkle and a joke about the Ruby Yacht of Omar Khayyam. I was ever so much older when I realized that joke was intended for any adults watching. Parents today would be horrified, demand the writers be drawn and quartered, and put the kids into therapy. Back then, parents knew that would just make kids more curious. Better to let it slip harmlessly over their heads.

I do find contemporary shows over peppered with painfully current cultural references annoying. Anything pretentiously trendy is so yesterday.

Dhruv said...

The reference also must be such that even other viewers across the globe can understand. Well, since so many of the shows are syndicated and telecast the next day, so I guess they keep that in mind.

If that too is the criteria, then yes, its very tough for the writers.

My initial Oscar viewings were tough, I couldn't get much of the reference. But now with YT, I scroll through the comments and learn the meaning of the jokes like "Only Disney on ice was Walt", "Dan Quayle - Of Mice and Men" etc...

It must be tougher for writers nowadays, more so because, many of these 3rd World countries have liberalized. The opening of cable TV to western TV shows means more audience. Here we have more than 30 English channels of which just around 10 are for movies and the rest for TV shows. TV shows are the biggest money spinners here. Don't know about there.

More and more people are watching. And many cant get the accents even. So they need to run subtitles.

Jokes not just has to be understood but also needs to be sensitive. Previously talk show hosts used to joke a lot about the religion, customs etc... now for every joke you get a blow back thru online anger and unsubscribing the YT channel of that talk show host.

And so references in some old 90s movies like "Ho! That smells like Indian food in a diaper" is easily understood, but no longer possible today :D

Too many things to worry about for comedy writers, I guess :)

McAlvie said...

"Chandler is about to say Eddie is a little crazy, but then Eddie shows up so he changes it to "a little bit country" - what does that mean?"

As I recall, Chandler switched gears in mid sentence, right? The expression, and I think it is taken from an old, old song, is "A little bit country, a little bit rock and roll." Basically it was Chandler saying, "He's a little bit different," but covering it up at the last moment to avoid being offensive.

And, wow, pop culture references are really complicated to explain!

gottacook said...

Perhaps this is a clue to the longevity of the original Star Trek. All its references were to future people or events, or to ones in our own past that are common knowledge. Sometimes these would even be combined in the same line of dialogue, as when Samuel T. Cogley (Elisha Cook Jr.) pleads with Kirk's court-martial board: "Rights, sir, human rights! The Bible, the Code of Hammurabi and of Justinian, the Magna Carta, the Constitution of the United States, the Fundamental Declarations of the Martian Colonies, the Statutes of Alpha 3. Gentlemen, these documents all speak of rights..."

E. Yarber said...

The key to using such references is making sure they somehow work even for the 97% through the rhythm of the line or the placement of the name.

I once used a gag that went something like this:

Son, we've all had our little fancies.

I used to think I knew Ann Sothern personally.

Going over that scene, I immediately second-guessed the line, figuring that no one would recognize the actress. When I substituted "Marilyn Monroe" or "Bette Davis," however, the moment went flat because the mother began to MAKE SENSE. The POINT of the joke was that she'd spent her lifetime secretly cherishing an imaginary friendship with a performer virtually no one in the audience would know. I felt it worked whether you'd heard of Ann Sothern or not. We all LIKE to think our jokes work, though.

Covarr said...

References are a real sticking point for me, because of how often they're handled very badly. Films like EPIC MOVIE think they can merely acknowledge the existence of something audiences liked, and through some magical transitive property that will mean we like their movie too. It comes across as really lazy.

The best references, in my opinion, are the ones that don't draw too much attention to themselves. Classic THE SIMPSONS had this mastered, in the form of recreating famous cinematic shots, iconic lines woven naturally into dialogue, etc. If you got the reference you would appreciate it, and if you didn't you might not even know there was a reference you were missing. They fall apart when you try to do what THE SIMPSONS does today, which is to really focus in on it, as if to nudge the audience and say "see what we did there?". It's really irritating at times.

I once wrote a character who made nerd references left and right. For the most part, the references themeselves weren't the joke; rather, the fact he was even making them (repeatedly, much to the annoyance of his date) were the joke. If you got the reference, you might laugh at that additional layer. If you didn't, you could relate to his girlfriend. I don't know for sure that this was the best way to handle it, but I didn't annoy myself in writing it, so I figure that's gotta be worth something.

Scott H said...

Answering Daniel Sachs, the password is either "birds" or "ridiculous", depending on who's giving the clue. That "Odd Couple" scene is the first thing I think of when anyone mentions "Password", especially a TV comedy writer like Ken. I was too young to see "Password" in its prime on TV, but "Odd Couple" syndicated reruns were on every night on New York's Channel 11 when I was a kid. And my only context at all for "Aristophanes" is also "The Odd Couple"!

Tudor Queen said...

I am sometimes called a 'pop culture diva' in my circle, and I do manage to retain a lot of information about books, theater, movies, music and television. I'm also a history teacher, and all that 'trivia' tells me a great deal about the cultures of the past and present, plus it has great metaphoric value.

That being said, I'm often stunned at how little of what we once thought of as 'common culture' is being lost. Few of my students have seen "Casablanca," or "Singin' In the Rain" and the horse's head scene from "The Godfather" is not widely known. Some of them have never heard of Hemingway, let alone read anything of his. (He's not my favorite writer but he is incredibly important and influential).

The killer blow, for me, came when it was announced that Kanye West would be doing a project with Paul McCartney. A random survey by one news station established that most of the people out there didn't know who McCartney was and had barely heard of The Beatles! One young person even said, "If Kanye is doing something with him, he must be cool."

Rita May Brown, in a writing guide, once said that powerful symbols are created from a common culture - references anyone can get. Since we no longer have that, we're losing an important writing tool - plus that sense of commonality.

Paul Duca said...


The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

"LOCATION JOKES" are The worst 3 percenter jokes.

These are jokes mentioning or making fun of locations around the Los Angeles or New York area.

Most viewers of TV shows will understand that references to "THE VALLEY" means it's poor or inexpensive. Or Beverly Hills/Malibu/Brentwood is beyond rich.
But other joke mentions of the LA area leave me confused. What am I supposed to infer if someone lives in "Van Nuys", or "Glendale"

surrounding NY areas often refer to "Hoboken" (which is always a funny word), but I'm sure there are plenty of spots picked on that most non-NY area viewers don't get.

Unknown said...

Since you mentioned different dogs names being funnier, what about numbers? What number is funny? For example, I posted a picture of a friend ice fishing, said he was great, caught 3 ice cubes. Is 7 funnier? A dozen? a google? Google-plex?
What is a good guideline for making funny numbers (Besides 69)?

Buttermilk Sky said...

Topical references to the sixteenth century are the reason Shakespeare comedies need footnotes now. You're in very good company.

One of the sharpest FRASIERs involved people questioning his patriotism because he objected to Cam Winston draping an immense flag over his terrace ("It's like living inside a giant clown pocket"). Younger viewers won't know that post 9/11 it was exactly like that, with an almost hysterical devotion to American symbols and Bush policies. Future DVDs of FRASIER and MASH will require an audio track explaining references to not only Adolphe Menjou but Douglas MacArthur and Richard Nixon (not to mention Uncle Miltie, Groucho and THE MOON IS BLUE.) It looks like you're not done writing for these shows, Ken.

Tammy said...

Jon, Michael, McAlvie - thanks for solving a 20 year (yikes!) mystery :) I feel like watching it now, it's one of my favorite episodes.

Jahn Ghalt said...

This is a great post/topic - though perhaps one with an "expiration date".

When I play trivia games with my son, he'll sometimes say - "that's EASY". I say, "it's easy if you know the answer". That's the thing about "3-percenters" - you may THINK the reference is "obscure" - but don't be too proud, the joke may be on you.

When Trivial Pusuit came out in the eighties I noticed that my mother (not particularly intellectual or well-read) was very good at the Arts and Lit category - at least she knew answers about which I had no clue.

When that quiz show ("Millionaire") came out I realized my downfall would be pop culture references.

Rocky and Bullwinkle reruns were a kick in the late-60s to 70s. I could tell that a lot of it was "grownup". My kids devoured the DVD sets when those came out - and it would be interesting to play a trivia game with them as their references pop out.

My "new favorite pun" riffs on two Classical Greek names. I have heard the names but don't know what they wrote - even after looking it up. Listed at the top here (along with some physics, chemistry, and computer-science jokes):

Loosehead said...

Ken, Shitzu is even funnier, though I still smile at my friends Cockapoo. Why is no-one breeding Bulldogs with Shitzus?

Dr Loser said...

Here's a parlor game you can play to increase your cultural reference sensibility (if there is any such thing). Not sure if it has a label: I call it "the Name Game." It's incredibly simple, can be played with absolutely any mix of humans you choose, and everybody learns something.

Basically, you divide the players into teams (30 people in five or six teams works well, but it scales downwards), and get everybody to write five "famous names" on five pieces of paper, scrunch them up, and throw them in a bowl. That's all there is to the set-up.

Then, each team takes a turn. The nominated "reader" takes a name and gives clues to the rest of their team. (Obviously, "First name Honus, second name Wagner" doesn't actually count as a clue.) Rinse and repeat on a two-minute stop-watch or egg-timer, pass the bowl along, and that's about it.

I recommend you give this a try: you'd be surprised how many teams can't get "Jessica Rabbit" or "Charlie Sheen."

Adolphe Menjou would be a little difficult outside true cineastes, though.

Dr Loser said...


The problem with that joke is that it's false clever. It doesn't matter whether you know who Euripides is (you should) or whether you know who Eumenides is (you shouldn't). The actual joke is a dialect pun which only works in an appropriate dialect, which (given good acting) can be conveyed to about 75% of the audience. 100% of whom will either not give a damn who Euripides and Eumenides are, or else not be able to connect them to the joke. It's a classical head-scratcher.

The Descartes joke is very amusing, however.

tb said...

Hey, I got your "Topo Gigio" reference the other day! (God I'm old)

VP81955 said...

I have a script where the heroine, a casino waitress and juco grad, hails from Canoga Park and attended the (fictional) Canoga Academy. Her romantic interest is a scientist with a PhD from Berkeley. (I'm fearing a producer will order me to change it to Stanford because Cal -- arguably our premier public institution -- is a mere state university.)

And I wonder what TV series today would include a reference to the lady in my avatar. I would hope all of you know it's Carole Lombard, queen of comic actresses, whose image has been used on "The Twilight Zone," "Columbo" and "Here's Lucy." (Ball was a close friend of Carole when both were at RKO in 1939-1940.)

VP81955 said...

I remember "Mom" did a joke where Marjorie referred to Tom Jones and Christy replied, "Who?" (Which reminds me -- Kristin Chenoweth guests on tonight's ep, reuniting with "West Wing" cohort Allison Janney and giving Anna Faris someone she can finally tower over, as viewers OD on pert blondeness.)

MikeN said...

Covarr, here's one from the Simpson's. Old style would have been
"You said we'd be greeted as liberators!"
New style had to add in
"This is just like Iraq!"

One I was wondering about was from SNL post election,
Chris Rock says replacing Hillary Clinton with Barack Obama is
"like replacing Patrick Ewing with Neil Patrick Harris".
Ewing last played 15 years ago, and left the Knicks in 2000.
Do people know who he is?

ChipO said...

Password. Only noted here because the celebrity contestant is known to you:
The word is "deer".
Celebrity contestant Alda gives the clue: Doe
Audience contestant answers: Knob.
Camera shows Alda on floor laughing.

ChipO said...

One more.
Godfather horse head:
Godfather came out our high school senior year. One of our friends had just moved out of town to a horse farm, she wasn't totally pleased with the rural environs. She saw The Godfather and a day later had her wisdom teeth extracted. Approx 2 am, one of the stitches wasn't holding and she woke up in a bed of blood - her screams were magnified because she was sure there was a horse head there with her.

Mike Bloodworth said...

You would be amazed at How much research I have to do to respond to this blog. I'm constantly looking up things so that I don't sound like an idiot. THE SIMPSONS had a great take on the extremely obscure reference, they called it "The Dennis Miller Ratio." These days Miller himself is starting to become an obscure reference. The relevance is that too often writers use these references to show off how intellectual they are. Many times they just come off as pretentious and pedantic. Obviously, depending on the show these are appropriate. "Anonymous" mentioned FRAISER. I'm not proud to say that I didn't get many of the references, but the show was so well written that in context you still understood their meaning. One thing that pisses-me-off is when writers beat a reference to death. e.g. Gilbert and Sullivan have other works besides THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE, yet the only song most shows use is "...Modern Manjor General." (FRASIER is guilty of this one, too.) My main problem is with current references. Once again its an effort to show how "with it" a writer is. I'll admit that I'm about as "pop culture" ignorant as one can be. I know who the Kardashians are and I've heard of GAME OF THRONES, I'm hot for Taylor Swift, etc. But, I've never watched their shows and/or listened to their music. I'm just not hip. And Roger, I got it. GEORGE OF.THE JUNGLE.

Emily said...

How times change...

Consider all that bawdy banter between the M*A*S*H doctors and their nurses. Would it still fly in our new Weinsteinian Era?

Just sayin'...

Peter said...

Here's a current reference in the form of a question.

So, Ken, do you own an Amazon Alexa and has she been randomly laughing in the middle of the night?

MikeN said...

Let's review Ken's posts to see if they have ageism.
From Snarky Oscar Review
Who's Cary Grant?
"This is like letting Mel Gibson host the Red Carpet show for the B’nai Brith Awards."
"stars that did snub him included Jennifer Garner, Mira Sorvino, Viola Davis, Ashley Judd, Margot Robbie, Sandra Bullock"
I guess Ashley Judd was in Insurgent, but who's Mira Sorvino, and why are you calling someone from TV ads a star?
" We’ll know next year if Brian Dunkleman returns "
'Unfortunately, in the pool, I have “Man Who Said Sinatra.” '
“Dennis Hopper as King Koopa in SUPER MARIO BROTHERS” Who and what?
"Viola Davis came as Diana Ross." Aside, is Diana the only one like that?
"Hanks was a presenter. And Clint Eastwood. And Elizabeth Taylor. And Jack Nicolson. Now it’s Wes Studi and Danielle Vega. " This doesn't belong, but I just want to say I have no idea who these last two are.
"Sarah Palin & Dan Quayle." I think everyone forgot Quayle. Palin ran and lost 10 years ago, but has done other stuff to stay in the public eye. However they were never a team like Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.
Overall almost all were understandable in context.

Andy Rose said...

There's nothing wrong with a reference as long as the underlying joke is funny without understanding the callback. I didn't see The Music Man until just a couple of years ago, but I always enjoyed the monorail episode of The Simpsons. Old Looney Tunes shorts are full of then-contemporary pop culture references, but I don't need to know that Foghorn Leghorn is a takeoff on a Fred Allen radio show character to enjoy the cartoon.

I think references to old movies and TV shows can score with young people, even if they're not intimately familiar with the source material. I knew that Casablanca was a famous black-and-white film with Humphrey Bogart and a number of memorable quotes long before I actually saw the movie. Kids still flock to Disneyland to see Mickey Mouse even though there's no show currently in production that features him, and they may have never even heard him talk.

I watched the original iteration of Mystery Science Theater 3000 back before there was an internet to look up the hundreds of references on that show. One of the joys of watching was weeks -- sometimes years -- later when I'd stumble across the source material and say, "Oh, *that's* why they said that!"

@ChipO: That Password reference is an urban legend... no evidence it ever happened. In fact, Alan Alda was never even a celebrity on any edition of Password. Jamie Farr claimed in his biography that he was the celebrity involved, but that's easily disproved because all 15 episodes he appeared on have aired and reaired many, many times.

Steve Lanzi (formerly known as qdpsteve) said...

Emily, excellent questions.

Alls I knows is... it feels great when you're part of that 1% who gets an obscure-reference joke in a favorite show. For instance, when I was entering college in 1984, I thought the term "matriculate" was an pretty randy-sounding word for something actually standard/boring (enrollment). Anyway, I can't tell you how satisfying it was when 20 years later, apparently a Simpsons writer had the same thought and included it in one of Homer's college adventures, when he says to Marge in his dorm room "hey baby, let's matriculate!"

In the meantime, though I don't claim to be the first to come up with the below joke, I thought of it a few days ago.

"Hey, did you hear what happened to Vincent Van Gogh right after he cut off his ear? He came down with mono."

Unknown said...

67+ reporting in:

Not long ago I was talking with a younger person about the latest journalistic incontinence committed by Sean Hannity.

My quote:
"It sure sounds like all that Greasy Kid Stuff has finally seeped down into his brain."

Right over his head ...

Well, really, what else can you say about a guy who patterned his appearance after Reggie from old Archie comic books?
(And now that they've changed the character design, that won't make sense any more ...)

At least I hope I got some laughs here ...

Kaleberg said...

I enjoy oddball references, even the myriad ones I don't "get". It's my only connection to popular culture, and it's how I learn things about the past, the present and other cultures. You can learn a surprising amount just from the reference, even if you've never heard the name before. How else would I know that Taylor Swift is a musician or Mel Gibson is an actor? (I'm not saying everything I learn is useful.)

ScarletNumber said...


This is reminiscient of a scene in Arrested Development where David Cross is arguing with Portia de Rossi and their daughter walks in the room. Cross ends up calling his wife a "country music lover"

Liggie said...

One of the best examples of "3 percent" references was in a "Frasier" episode where someone (either Frasier or Niles) showed off his collection of drinking glasses of Henry VIII's wives. Something surprising happened later in the scene, and offstage youbcould hear a glass break. "Anne Boelyn?" somebody asked. "Catherine of Aragon" was the offstage answer. It illustrated the character's superciliousness, most viewers were aware of that English king who kept executing his wives, and if they didn't know the names of said wives before, the punchlines made it obvious they were among the unfortunate bethroeds. (Unless either Anne or Catherine was the one who outlived him, I'm not sure.)

Otherwise, the best reference jokes are where the character's and the intended audience have the same interests. A software friend cracked up at the original "Tron" when Jeff Daniels met a creature that only said yes or no (it was a bit, the basic binary block of programming), and my engineering major father fell over laughing at the "Big Bang Theory" scene where Sheldon created a flowchart to help him make friends, and got caught in an "infinite loop".

Powerful or impactful politicians and their close ones might be a rare reference group that has lasting impact. Clinton's womanizing, Imelda Marcos' shoes, Italy's annual new parliaments, Dana Carey's GHW Bush impression should have legs, as I think "Fake news!" and "But her emails ..." will two decades from now.

Mike Bloodworth said...


Tom Galloway said...

There's a college that each fall releases a list of things that particular group of 18 year old frosh shouldn't be expected to know as they happened before the kids would've been old enough to experience/remember them.

DBenson said...

"Mickey Mouse Clubhouse" is still in reruns on Disney Channel. The show was created to establish Mickey & Co. with preschoolers. Ironically, the last few decades of kids are more likely to have memorized several Disney features than to have seen a single Mickey Mouse theatrical cartoon. Pre-video, the features could only be seen in occasional re-release, while Mickey & Co. got frequent exposure on the Disney TV hour, Mickey Mouse Club, in newspaper comic strips, and in comic books ("Walt Disney's Comics and Stories" topped a million copies per month for a while).

A more striking example is Betty Boop, who became a major merchandising hit even though her shorts (animated shorts) were all but unseeable beyond a few public domain titles.

Andrew said...

To all commenters:
Don't quit your day job.

Unknown said...

This is a common problem for teachers and librarians as well. A professor at Beloit College has a yearly list of what the incoming class of students do not have as common knowledge:
Examples for this year include:

There have always been emojis to cheer us up.

The Panama Canal has always belonged to Panama and Macau has been part of China.

It is doubtful that they have ever used or heard the high-pitched whine of a dial-up modem.

Donald Trump has always been a political figure, as a Democrat, an Independent, and a Republican.

They are the first generation to grow up with Watson outperforming Sherlock.

A movie scene longer than two minutes has always seemed like an eternity.

Kathryn A Librarian

Unknown said...

The reference to political things reminded me of an exchange from All My Children, circa the mid '90s:

There's been a fistfight, and one male character has been really clocked; he's getting a once-over in the ER:

Doctor: How many fingers am I holding up?
Jack: Two.
Doctor: Where are we right now?
Jack: Pine Valley Hospital.
Doctor: What about the President?
Jack: He never laid a hand on me.

Think maybe that one has a future?

Liggie said...

My sister-in-law was a middle school social studies teacher until last year. Her students had no idea what "USSR" meant. She had to remind herself that those 14-year-olds were born well after that broke up.

ChipO said...

@AndyRose - dangit. shoulda snopes'd it.
Editor, please delete my prior post.

McAlvie said...

And I think its important to remember, when it comes to pop culture references, obscure and otherwise, that a lot depends on life experience. You can think something is terribly trendy, but that doesn't mean it will play in Peoria, or still be relevant next week. It may only be clever and current within a specific bubble demographic.

However, a pop culture reference from the past, if it had legs at all, is often imbedded in our cultural memory. You might not have been there when, but if you live long enough, there's a good chance the reference will float by you soon or later. Even if you don't get the joke entirely, you get that it IS a joke.

Given that, it seems to me that using a dated reference is actually a lot less risky than one that just sprouted last week.

MikeN said...

Steve, I caught that Murphy Brown reference.

I know in 2002, there was a college history class, and the students did not know anything about Bill Clinton's impeachment.

Glouster Richardson said...

Does anybody remember when Hank Stram said Come on Lenny, Keep on Matriculating it down the field, a classic moment from Super Bowl III and NFL films

MikeN said...

Black Panther has a character saying(in 1992) 'some Grace Jones looking chick'.

VP81955 said...

Stram coached the Chiefs in Super Bowl I (lost to the Packers) and IV (beat the Vikings). Super Bowl III, 50 years ago next January, was Jets-Colts.

Unknown said...

On Amazon Prime there is a program of bloopers from old TV shows and it includes one of Dick van Dyke messing up a PSA (back when TV stars did their own in-show commercials) for taking your kids to the dentist, early and often. He does the whole spiel and comes to the tagline which was supposed to be something like "good childhood dentistry means no more cavities.' When he gets to the line, he blurts out "good childhood dentistry means fine tobacco."

probably nobody under 80 understands the nature of the blooper, but i burst out laughing. LMAO + LSMFT.