Turtles All the Way Down: When Sitcoms Pay Tribute to Other Sitcoms
Last week’s Community shed light on the way that pop culture is entrenched in the collective conscious, in the form of a conversation about, of all things, Cougar Town. In the episode, Abed discusses his dilemma about making a cameo appearance on a show (as “Chad”) that he watches, calling attention to the weirdness that is watching a television show about a fictional reality that interacts with actual reality. Meta-reality aside, television writers often make these kind of pop culture references to pay homage/give credit to where credit is due for ideas. What follows are just some of our favorite examples of sitcoms mentioning other sitcoms.
Scrubs — Cheers
One day, Scrubs will get the respect it deserves. The show was ahead of its time, and the way it plays with TV reality isn’t all that different from what Community is so applauded for now. But it also paid respect to the sitcoms before it: in the stellar episode, “My Life in Four Cameras,” a writer from Cheers visits Sacred Heart and is diagnosed with lung cancer. J.D. then begins to imagine what life would be like as a multi-camera sitcom, complete with a laugh track and clapping when a fan favorite character, like the Todd, walks on-screen. But life isn’t a sitcom, and the patient is going to die. To cope, J.D. goes home and, like Bill Haverchuck, watches comedies to ease the pain.
South Park — The Simpsons
There are dozens of sitcoms that owe a major debt to The Simpsons, including The Office and anything created by Seth MacFarlane, but only one has spent an entire episode paying respect to the greatest show of all-time: South Park. In 2002, during the show’s sixth season, Matt Stone and Trey Parker penned an episode called “Simpsons Already Did It,” which makes light of the fact that no matter how original the plot you’ve thought of, there’s a good chance the Simpsons, well, DID IT.
Roseanne — Leave It to Beaver/The Jeffersons/Lost in Space/The Wonder Years/Please Don’t Eat the Daisies/Gilligan’s Island
By its seventh season, Roseanne was beginning to show signs of creative strain. To compensate, Barr and the rest of the writing staff started coming up with out-there ideas, like the clip show episode, “All About Rosey,” where Roseanne is visited by famous sitcom mothers from the past, like June Cleaver and Louise Jefferson, and “Sherwood Schwartz: A Loving Tribute,” in which the Conner family is reimagined as the shipwrecked crew of the S.S. Minnow from Gilligan’s Island, and vice versa. As amusing as it is to see Jackie as Gilligan, and Gilligan and Jackie, the episode’s best moment is when David appears on the island as…David. He sulks away, saying, “I don’t even like this show. I wanted to be on Friends.”
Seinfeld — Murphy Brown
One of Murphy Brown’s most memorable running gags is her long line of incompetent secretaries. The most famous one, though, didn’t even take place on the show: in the Seinfeld episode, “The Keys,” at the same time Jerry and George find Elaine’s spec script for an episode of the Candice Bergen-led hit show, Kramer heads out to Los Angeles to become an actor, and ends up with a gig on the show, working for Murphy as fast-typing Steven Snell. A year later, as a way of saying thank you, Seinfeld and Larry David briefly appeared on the creator of Murphy Brown’s, Diane English, new show, Love & War.
Freaks and Geeks — Dinah!
In one of Freaks and Geeks most touching scenes, Bill Haverchuck is alone in his living room, completely at peace with the world even though he had been humiliated earlier in the day in a gym class basketball game. Why? Because he’s eating a grilled cheese, drinking some milk, and watching Garry Shandling perform standup on Dinah! As the Who’s “I’m One” plays in the background and we see Bill’s genuine laughter, one thing is clear: no matter how shitty things are going, you can always count on comic geniuses like Shandling (and for the viewer, Judd Apatow) to cheer you up.
30 Rock — The Carol Burnett Show
On the live episode of 30 Rock (a show about a live show doing a live show is…woah), Tracy tells Liz that he likes it when the cast members laugh before saying their lines on The Carol Burnett Show, implying that he would like to do the same. This is both a comment on Tracy never breaking character (because he is the character?) and a sitcom commenting that during a live show, sometimes the jokes are too good to not laugh to, something Jimmy Fallon knows all too well. (Also: later in the series, Matt Damon appeared on the show as Liz’s boyfriend named…Carol Burnett.
The Sarah Silverman Program — Mr. Show with Bob and David
Television writers often make references obvious, basically yelling “Hey! Look at this thing! Get it?” But occasionally, the references are so discreet that they function as a nod to the fans who get it but don’t interrupt the show for those who don’t. In the “Humanitarian of the Year” episode of The Sarah Silverman Program, Brian Posehn wears a “Titannica” t-shirt. “Titannica” was a fictional band in a sketch on the “Return of the Curse of the Creature’s Ghost” episode of Mr. Show with Bob and David, an episode that Sarah Silverman appeared on.
Curb Your Enthusiasm — Seinfeld
Never one to shy away from making a skewed version of his personal life public, two years after Seinfeld ended, Larry David returned to TV on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, where he plays only a slightly more hyperbolic version of himself. He hangs out with Ted Danson and Richard Lewis, both playing themselves, and because he’s half of the team that created Seinfeld, he’s constantly asked about writing a reunion episode — which he and Jerry finally do in season seven. The two get the rest of the group, including Newman (!), back together, not because Larry cares about appeasing the show’s rabid fan base, but rather because he’s trying to win his ex-wife Cheryl back. And really, isn’t that what show business is about?
Cougar Town — Spaced
Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson pitched Spaced as a “cross between The Simpsons, The X-Files, and Northern Exposure,” so it’s no surprise they loaded their show with tons of references to other shows. On the Complete Series DVD, there’s even a special feature called the “Homage-O-Meter,” which details every reference the show made. But what is surprising is that years after Spaced went off the air, Cougar Town paid tribute to the show’s infamous finger-gun fight. As Travis is falling down during the battle, you can hear him say, “I love Spaced.”
The Larry Sanders Show — The Ellen DeGeneres Show
The Larry Sanders Show changed the way that comedic television was written, and many writers believe it to be the genesis of Extras, 30 Rock, Entourage, and many more. The show, which still hasn’t totally received the credit it deserves, was one of the first to work within an alternate version of “reality” wherein real people and celebrities would play versions of themselves that were amplified for the show. During the “Ellen, or Isn’t She?” episode, Larry and guest star Ellen DeGeneres hook up, putting her sexuality in debate, considering she’s slated to “come out” on the show. The discussion of her sexual preference, as well as the fact that DeGeneres would come to host her own talk show, makes her appearance particularly memorable on a show full of memorable moments.