The ’90s, Age of Obscure Pop-Culture References


A comment on my earlier post rightly singled out Mystery Science Theatre 3000 as an example of a show that would toss out pop-cultural references from any era, including some very obscure ones. It was one of those shows whose fans would congregate online and collectively figure out where all the references came from; The Simpsons was another show like that, with its extended take-offs on discontinued comic strips Little Nemo or Dondi; Animaniacs still another, and there were many more.

It adds to my feeling that the ’90s had an unusually broad range of references in pop culture. (Maybe not historically unusual, if you include other media and think of, say, the crazy-quilt of literary references in James Joyce or even P.G. Wodehouse. But unusual compared to now, for certain.) The current era is not unusual for having mostly recent references; up until television started to bring old movies back into circulation, few filmmakers were particularly interested in tipping their hats to old movies. But in the ’90s, a combination of factors — home video, the internet, a generation of writers who had grown up with rerun-saturated TV — gave us movies and shows that were stuffed with references to everything and every era. You’d make a note of the references you got, and maybe go online to find the ones you missed, especially the old stuff.

Here’s one example: this Animaniacs cartoon built up to a very old, deliberately lame punchline that every single viewer could see coming (“the viper” turns out to be the “vindow viper’). And instead of ending there… it ends with an extended reference to those colour Jackie Gleason specials, taped in Miami, where Sheila MacRae and Jane Kean filled in as Alice and Trixie. (Jackie Gleason references were pretty popular with that era of writers; Barney on The Simpsons is partly a riff on a character from the original black-and-white Gleason show.) Presumably the writers had seen those specials when they aired, but this was not only over the heads of kids, it was over the heads of the show’s secondary audience of college kids and even parents. When I saw this cartoon I had seen the original Honeymooners, but never the colour specials, and I had no idea what was going on here or what the reference was supposed to be. Luckily, I was able to find out from the Cultural Reference Guides compiled on the internet by fans. That’s what the ’90s were like. Trying to decode the old, obscure or just plain weird references was almost an interactive experience, very different from just noticing a parody of Goodfellas (which, as it happens, was a recurring bit on Animaniacs).

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The ’90s, Age of Obscure Pop-Culture References

  1. I'm a board member of The Friends of Old Time Radio, which hosts a convention for dramatic radio fans every October in Newark, NJ (entering our 37th year, FYI). I'm probably more familiar with this kind of thing than anyone else my age (44). I love it when they spoof Frank Nelson on The Simpsons or present Itchy and Scratchy as a radio show. I could never figure out how Pinky and the Brain decided to make the main character an Orson Welles parody but it sure worked. The episode where he opines about emphasizing "peas before July" while making a commercial must have shocked more than a few ten year olds if they ever actually found the punchline from Welles' original commercial outtake.

  2. Dennis Miller only lasted a season on on Monday Night Football for amking obscure cultural references.

    The lesson would be "Know your audience."

  3. Alas, the first Jackie Gleason shows I saw WERE the color broadcasts (well, we had a B&W television show, so I didn't notice). Gleason was OK the few times I watched it, but just about everything else was cringe-inducing. Even worse, here in the States, it was a WEEKLY SHOW, not a series of specials. If I remember correctly.

  4. Just to show this issue isn't new, in his book about Jack Benny, Milt Josefsberg talks about being part of a writing session for Benny's radio show. One of the writers comes up with a gag where Jack says he needs to buy some new records because the partygoers at his house don't like dancing to "Cohen on The Telephone." The joke is that "Cohen on The Telephone" was a comedy record, and it came out in 1913, meaning Jack apparently hadn't bought a new record in three decades. Benny and most of the writers liked it, but other writers hadn't heard of "Cohen", and there was a whole debate about whether the audience would get the joke. Finally Benny pointed out that even if the audience didn't know the reference, they'd still laugh at the notion of a "song" called "Cohen on The Telephone."

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