The Art of Pop-Culture References

The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.

Before I watched S2 E05 of Ted Lasso, I saw this tweet thread from a friend:

I only really had Apple+ for Ted Lasso, but I’m just really not feeling it this series… Two people just did a piece to camera, out of nowhere. Sat in the football crowd, speaking to the camera — I thought they’d reveal a person where the camera was, but no. Just an out of nowhere PTC.

I was intrigued. When I watched the episode, I realised that the scene in question was a tribute to the interviews from When Harry Met Sally (one of many rom-com references in the episode).

This is what Film Crit Hulk said about it in his recap:

When they went to the fans and did the When Harry Met Sally interview right to the camera I was dying. Once again, they are just totally unapologetic in the rule breaking. I love it.

Of course, both of their reactions are valid. If you got the reference: what a treat! But if you didn’t, then it’s a really bizarre, out-of-place scene that makes no sense whatsoever.

As you can probably guess, I’m the kind of person who loves a good pop-culture reference. (As someone who struggles a lot with belonging, my soul is actively on the lookout for any evidence that I might be part of some group. You know that thing? I know that thing too!!)

So this got me wondering: if you’re going to do them, what’s the best way to do them?

And that, in turn, made me think of The Simpsons.

• • •

I started watching that show when I was around ten, long before I developed any real pop-culture knowledge.1 And yet, I never once watched an episode and thought: what was that about?

And I think that’s because most of their references fell into these two categories:

  1. They still made sense or were entertaining in isolation, so you didn’t need to know what they were referencing (e.g. Lisa getting a new pony, or the family looking after a haunted lodge).
  2. They were lightning fast, so they weren’t disruptive even if you did need to know what they were referencing (e.g. Homer and Marge reflecting on the film Rashomon)2

So while I loved it, that’s maybe why the Ted Lasso scene wasn’t as effective: it didn’t make sense if you weren’t familiar with When Harry Met Sally (and was possibly even actively confusing), and it might have lasted for a bit too long (it was around thirty seconds or so).

In other words: if we’re going to include references, they have to work for everyone on some level.

  1. Fun fact: it was probably because of watching The Simpsons (and exhaustively reading the accompanying episode guides) that I’m the nerdy fountain of pop-culture references I am now. For example: I knew about “Stellaaaaa!” long before I actually watched A Streetcar Named Desire.
  2. Futurama used a similar approach to physics and maths jokes.

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