We are living in a golden age of geek-friendly references in comedies and sitcoms. There are the obvious examples, of course: The Big Bang Theory is the biggest sitcom on television and is deliberately pumped full of references to geek culture because the primary defining characteristic of four of its lead characters is that they are geeks, while on the other end of the spectrum we have Community, smaller in terms of viewing figures but offering a brand of humor built on geek culture references; a show written by geeks, for geeks.
But in the these halcyon, post-Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings movies, post-internet millionaires, computerized, Marvel Cinematic Universe-endowed days, geek references are all over the place, including mainstream sitcoms. The three male leads in How I Met Your Mother were all huge Star Wars fans (unsurprising in a show starring Doctor Horrible and Willow Rosenberg), New Girl opened with a Lord Of The Rings reference in the pilot episode, while Parks And Recreation’s male lead likes to dress up as Batman and its coolest, hippest character knows well that “everyone on Game Of Thrones can get it.” Sure, there are other characters who laugh at anything remotely geeky and Ben Wyatt, Ted Mosby, and Jessica Day are all portrayed as particularly “geeky” characters, but it’s an affectionate portrayal, their geekiness just another of their foibles – and two of the three characters just mentioned are the show leads
It wasn’t always like this. There was a time when The Simpsons’ depiction of “nerds” in “Homer Goes To College” was pretty much par for the course – all male, all wearing glasses, all suffering from speech impediments and/or asthma, all socially inept. In the 1990s, before Jackson’s first trilogy, before Doctor Who came back, when the internet was new, before JJ Abrams made not just SFF television in general but even Star Trek cool and culturally acceptable, any expression of fondness for any kind of genre show would provoke sniping and derision. Two of the major sitcoms of the 1990s featured lead characters who might today be considered ‘geeky’ – Frasier’s Frasier and Niles Crane, and Friends’ Ross Gellar – but all three were academic geeks/nerds, Fraiser and Niles being obsessed with high end literary/classical culture, while Ross’ geekiness was largely restricted to his professional interest in dinosaurs (and he even chose palaeontology for his major “on a dare”).
Back in those dark days, for those of us who hid our secret love for Star Trek: The Next Generation from our school-friends and read The Return Of The King tucked under the desk, any reference to something geeky in mainstream popular culture, especially a non-mocking reference, was a thing to be celebrated. And you didn’t get much more mainstream in the mid-1990s than Friends. We all felt old when we passed the tenth anniversary of the fourth-most-watched finale in US TV history and now we feel even older as we approach the twentieth anniversary of the pilot’s first airing this September. To commemorate this unsettling event, we here present ten of our favourite geek references in this juggernaut of a pop culture phenomenon.
10. “Spock’s birth control!”
TOW The Cuffs
What? An encyclopedia salesman (randomly but awesomely played by Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller) tries to give Joey the hard sell, particularly on the V volume. This is the only response Joey knows to, “What do you know about vulcanized rubber?”
So? References to Star Trek outside of geek culture tend to be either to Captain Kirk or, far more likely, to Mr Spock, the best known and, for many, best loved character from the original series. Here, Joey demonstrates that, while he doesn’t understand half of his friends’ jokes and doesn’t know where the Pope lives, he does know that Mr Spock is a Vulcan.
See also: Joey’s Italian-speaking grandmother may not know how to speak English, but she knows her films. “She doesn’t know ‘Hello’ but she knows Capricorn One” (“TOW Ross Can’t Flirt”).
9. “My favourite part was when Superman flew all the Jews out of Egypt!”
TOW The Holiday Armadillo
What? Ross is desperately trying to get his son Ben interested in Hannukah as well as Christmas, but caves to Ben’s desire to see Santa, only to find there are no Santa costumes left and ends up dressed as a giant armadillo. Wanting to help, Chandler and Joey dress up as well – Chandler actually finds a Santa costume, but Joey turns up as Superman. All three settle down to tell Ben about Hannukah, but Joey can’t resist altering the story a little…
So? This is one of the strongest Ross/Ben episodes, in which it’s impossible not to feel for Ross as he desperately tries to get his son interested in his heritage – but it’s also very, very funny. As Rachel observes, by the end “it looks like the Easter Bunny’s funeral in here”.
See also: Dressing up often brings out the SFF references, such as when Phoebe dresses as Supergirl and confronts Monica as Catwoman (“TOW The Halloween Party”).
8. “My third nipple opens the door to the magical land of Narnia”
TOW Phoebe’s Husband
What? During a six-way row in which everyone starts spilling everyone else’s secrets, Monica informs the others that Chandler has a third nipple (how Monica knows this at this early stage is unspecified). Ross wants to know if it does anything “special.”
So? Good luck getting that mental image out of your head. You’re welcome.
See also: This isn’t the only reference to SFF for children in the show. When Monica briefly dates a guy who’s still in high school, the others can’t resist teasing her with a Power Rangers impression (“TOW The Ick Factor”).
7. Gandalf the Party Wizard
TOW They’re Going To Party!
What? Ross and Chandler are very excited when they find out their old college friend Mike “Gandalf” Ganderson, so called because he is a “party wizard,” is coming to town. Joey is confused by the nickname, and when Ross asks him incredulously “Didn’t you read Lord Of The Rings in high school?” he replies, “No, I had sex in high school.”
So? This one loses points for the implication that reading The Lord Of The Rings and having sex are somehow mutually exclusive, but the delivery of the line is funny, and it regains some points for referring to Tolkien back in 1997, when the movies were a mere glint in Peter Jackson’s eye.
See also: We’re also told that Monica’s full-figured prom date Roy had seen Star Wars 317 times, which is also mildly irritating as a representation of geeks as socially awkward stereotypes, but we do like the pride with which Monica tells everyone that “his name was in the paper” (“TOW The Prom Video”).
6. “I don’t know, but I think it’s about to attack the Enterprise”
TOW The Sonogram At The End
What? Joey and Chandler are confused by a video of Carol’s early ultrasound scan. Joey wants to know what exactly they’re looking at – Chandler’s pretty sure it’s a random space anomaly from Star Trek.
So? Not only is this a nice shout-out to Star Trek in only the second episode of the series, this is pretty much how those of us without children feel when looking at ultrasound pictures.
See also: Phoebe’s explanation for why she doesn’t believe in evolution, while not referring to any specific show, sounds like it has been overly influenced by space opera, since it involves the alien overlords needing opposable thumbs to steer their spaceships (“TOW Heckles Dies”).
5. “Kind of like The Hobbit?”
TOW Eddie Won’t Go
What? Monica and Phoebe introduce Rachel to a self-help called Be Your Own Wind-Keeper. Rachel is initially confused by their description of how, according to the book, men are lightning-bearers, and assumes it must be a fantasy novel.
So? The Hobbit is a children’s book, so like Narnia it’s something a lot of people have read even if they’re not genre fans, but we still think an even earlier Tolkien reference (1996) from a highly sophisticated character is something to be celebrated.
See also: The same episode opens with Chandler’s assessment of his new roommate Eddie, which while not a fantasy reference, is a good horror shout-out; “Hannibal Lecter? Better room-mate than you!”
4. Mac and C.H.E.E.S.E.
TOW Mac And C.H.E.E.S.E.
What? Joey finally gets the chance to play the lead in a TV show – only to realise he’s nothing without the guy who built the robot that is his co-star.
So? Again, the depiction of the robotics expert as socially and sexually inept is frustrating. But we love the fact that this show is basically the concept behind Almost Human, presumably inspired by Robot Detective.
See also: Over the years, Joey mentions a few invented SF productions he’s been in, but one of our favourites is the apparently ultra-realistic domestic drama he stars in on stage opposite Kate, which unexpectedly turns out to end with him flying away in a spaceship to Blargon 7 to look for alternative fuels (“TOW The Screamer”).
3. Buffay the Vampire Layer
TOW Chandler Can’t Cry
What? Phoebe’s estranged twin sister Ursula has been using Phoebe’s name as her porn name and making a series of adult films, one of which is entitled Buffay The Vampire Layer.
So? Not only do we have a weakness for terrible puns, Buffay The Vampire Layer is the only one of Ursula’s porn films that we actually get to see some of (not that much of). Ursula’s tacky 1980s-esque costume, the cheesy set and lighting and the expression on the vampire actor’s face are all very funny, and while this particular production may not bear much relation to Buffy itself, it’s a sign of a growing awareness of geek culture in the mainstream by the turn of the century (the episode aired in 2000).
See also: Joey mentioned several fantasy projects as well as science fiction that he’d appeared in over the years, though unfortunately they were usually implied to be terrible. Still, we’d go to see the movie in which “Betsy’s been dead for ten years” (“TOW Joey’s Big Break”) and we’re intrigued by the play “with the trolls” in which no one could see his head (“TOW The Butt”).
2. The Shining vs Little Women
TOW Monica And Richard Are Friends
What? Rachel and Joey agree to read each other’s favourite books – Little Women and The Shining, respectively – and end up yelling spoilers at each other and hiding the books in the freezer when they get too scary.
So? Horror fiction has always been a little more mainstream than other fantasy, so it’s not surprising that Joey is a fan of The Shining. But we love this story, not just for the hilarious spoiler-battle (“Beth dies!”) and not just for Joey’s brilliant solution to scary books, but because the point of this plot is that great books are great books, regardless of subject matter. Rachel really enjoys The Shining and Joey loves Little Women – what a book is about is nowhere near as important as how well it is written.
See also: Much later, Joey persuades Rachel to watch Cujo, and finds himself in an uncomfortable position when she hugs him for comfort (“TOW Joey Dates Rachel”).
1. Rachel in the gold bikini
TOW The Princess Leia Fantasy
What? Grateful to Ross for dressing up as a naval officer at the end of season two, Rachel offers to dress up in something for him to fulfil a sexual fantasy. Ross, unsurprisingly, chooses Princess Leia’s slave bikini – but unfortunately he has a chat about sexual issues with Chandler first, which rather ruins things.
So? Princess Leia’s slave costume is iconic and Phoebe is surely right when she says every (heterosexual) guy their age loved it. Rachel wears her hair in the memorable “Danish pastry” style from Star Wars rather than the up-do from Return Of The Jedi, probably to ensure she was recognisable as Leia to anyone less familiar with the Star Wars movies, but the costume is impressive. And for those of us less invested in seeing Jennifer Aniston in a gold bikini, the sight of Mrs Gellar in the same outfit is disturbing but hilarious.
See also: Love for Star Wars has always been somewhere on the line between geeky and mainstream, and long before we ever saw Barney Stinson’s bachelor pad complete with life-sized Imperial Stormtrooper, we discovered that young computer billionaire Pete Becker had two (“TOW The Tiny T-Shirt”).