We all absorb lessons from our environment, and if you grew up in the 1980s or 1990s, that environment was more likely than not, television. Forget parents – for good or for bad – TV is what raised you into the person you are today.
It wasn’t only the shows that were aiming to teach that imparted their wisdom. Schools programming and nature documentaries played their part by explaining Oxbow lakes and why, if you’re an antelope, it’s a really good idea to not fall behind the pack come lion-o-clock, but the real lessons came from elsewhere. From sitcoms and kids’ cartoons and dramas that made us inwardly say ‘huh, new fact’.
Here, we give thanks to the invaluable education provided to us by TV.
The Correct Ingredients of a Waldorf Salad
Learned From: Fawlty Towers
Celery, Apples, Walnuts, Grapes. CELERY, APPLES, WALNUTS, GRAPES. It’s repeated like a mantra (as far as I remember) in the 1970s BBC sitcom Fawlty Towers episode entitled… “Waldorf Salad”. In it, a British woman and her American husband arrive late to the Torquay hotel run by Basil Fawlty, and attempt to bribe the chef to stay late. In classic Towers style, Basil ballses things up and has to cook for the couple himself. The man orders a Waldorf Salad, Basil doesn’t know what that is, hilarity ensues.
Obviously the internet now knows how to make a Waldorf Salad so this isn’t wildly useful today, but at the time in rural Kent, it made me quite the gourmet. Sometimes having a salad mantra available at your fingertips at any given moment is a comfort too. Even though it sounds like the worst salad ever. – Rosie Fletcher
Lilies of the Valley Are Poisonous
Learned From: Breaking Bad
Like many of my fellow DoGgies here, I imagine the better question is “what didn’t I learn from TV?” Despite receiving many years of sterling public school education in the great state of Ohio (really, Alec, enough now – Ed), I learned all my best lessons from the warming glow of an analog television set. Of all the useful knowledge that TV instilled in me, however, there’s only one example that kept a dog from harm and is therefore the most useful.
That bit of knowledge comes from Breaking Bad season four. In the final episodes of that near-perfect season of television, Walter White uses the seemingly inoffensive white flower “lily of the valley” to poison young child Brock and manipulate his partner Jesse Pinkman into thinking he accidentally dosed the child with ricin. Look: Walter White sucks. But I can’t deny that his revealing lily of the valley’s poisonous features didn’t impact my life immensely. One time at an outdoor party, I noticed someone’s dog hovering around some sweet-selling bell-shaped white flowers. After Googling for confirmation, I ascertained that they were the forbidden Brock bane and recommended to the dog’s owner that they not let their canine eat them. And that’s how the Breaking Bad writer’s room taught me a lesson and saved an innocent dog from intestinal distress. – Alec Bojalad
The Five Stages of Grief (And Probably Don’t Eat Puffer Fish)
Learned from: The Simpsons
I was probably too young to learn this valuable lesson about loss as a primary school kid in the nineties (shut up – ed), but The Simpsons used to be on every night at 6pm while we ate our tea, so it’s what we watched. The series two episode “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish” was enough to put me right off my spaghetti hoops, though, as Homer goes to a posh sushi restaurant and eats fugu (puffer fish, a Japanese delicacy) only to discover it’s fatally poisonous if prepared incorrectly, and the chef’s lackadaisical knife technique of “poison… poison… tastyfish!” doesn’t exactly fill us with confidence.
At hospital, Doctor Hibbert breaks the news that Homer has less than 24 hours to live, and tells him to expect to go through the five stages of grief. Homer does so in an amusingly speedrun fashion that makes it easy to remember this famous psychiatric model: denial (“No way, because I’m not dying!”), anger (“Why you little…!”), fear (“What comes after fear… WHAT COMES AFTER FEAR?”), bargaining (“Doc, you gotta get me outta this, I’ll make it worth your while!”) and acceptance (“Well, we all gotta go some time.”) The rest of the episode is chaotic but also deeply poignant, and while it’s fairly obvious Homer doesn’t actually die in the second of this famously long-running (34 series and counting) show, I can still remember the profound relief I felt when I first saw the surprise ending to the episode. And I’ve still never eaten puffer fish. Laura Vickers-Green
Peeing on a Jellyfish Sting Kills the Pain
Learned From: Friends
In 1998, Friends was at peak importance in my life; I was eleven years old and aside from some significant boyband swooning there was not much else going on for me. In a cruel twist of fate, just at the pinnacle of my Friends obsession, UK satellite channel Sky One (which I did not have in my house) bought the rights to show Friends months before Channel 4 (which I did have in my house). Luckily for me there was a girl in my school year who recorded the show and brought it in so we could stealthily watch it at lunchtime in the Religious Studies classroom at my school.
In Friends’ season four opener, the gang are all at a beach house with Ross’s girlfriend Bonnie. Chandler, Monica and Joey are enjoying some time at the beach when Monica is stung by a jellyfish. To help with the pain, Joey tells her “you’re gonna have to pee on it” and Chandler concurs that there is “ammonia in that that kills the pain”. There’s some awkward aftermath and it all ends in a hilarious reveal of what really happened at the beach (“And if I have to, I’d pee on any one of you!”).
Eleven-year-old me was happy to believe anything that was said in Friends, and so was 37-year-old me too (until I did the research for this article and found out it wasn’t true). Although the Discovery Channel is cited twice in this episode as the source of this information, peeing on a jellyfish sting could make the sting worse; you should actually treat them with vinegar. So there’s a useful lesson for us all here; however much we believe our television teacher, not everything TV tells us is true. Elizabeth Donoghue
A Flawless French Accent
Learned from: ‘Allo ‘Allo!
In the UK in the early 1990s, a French café opened a short distance from my school. Our French teacher was buzzing. This place served Orangina in exotic glass bottles, baguettes (unheard of), and croque monsieurs (cheese and ham toasties for intellectuals). Madame got us each to scrounge up 50p, armed us with the required vocabulary to ask for un Coca-Cola s’il vous plait, and walked us there crocodile file. It was happening. Year Seven were about to speak us some French.
And Year Seven did speak us some French… to the very English, very confused man behind the counter who didn’t know his shift was going to be interrupted by 30 kids screaming BONJOUR and trying to roll their Rs. Les Deux Magots it was not.
The point being that, one overnight school trip to Normandy aside, I was 17 before I met my first actual French person, which made my A Level in the subject a bit of a challenge. If I hadn’t picked up the he-haw-he-haw-he-haw exaggerated accent of Rene and Edith from 1980s BBC comedy ‘Allo ‘Allo!, set in German-occupied Paris during the Second World War, then I probably wouldn’t have passed my oral. – Louisa Mellor
What the End of a Shoelace is Called
Learned from: Phineas and Ferb
Most people probably live their whole lives without knowing, or caring, what the tip of a shoelace is called. And yet, Phineas and Ferb has ensured that an entire generation will “never forget the aglet.” In the episode aptly named “Tip of the Day,” Phineas and Ferb start a movement with the sole purpose of bringing awareness to the aglet after their family is stumped by the daily crossword puzzle. Thanks to the catchy song that accompanies their campaign, word catches fast, and before long the entire tri-state area knows that the tip of the shoelace is called the aglet.
Is this useful information? Not really! Unless I do a Slumdog Millionaire and use this to answer the winning question, or need a random fun fact to pull out at a party, this isn’t the kind of thing that makes or breaks a person’s existence. But that’s honestly the point of this episode of Phineas and Ferb – it can be fun and worthwhile to learn something new, even if it’s just a random fact about a shoelace. – Brynna Arens
How to Use Your Finger as a Screwdriver
Learned from: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero
Like a lot of 80s kids, I was a devotee of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, the syndicated cartoon/toy commercial about an American paramilitary organization. The true lesson of G.I. Joe was, of course, that American military intervention makes the world safe for democracy. Unfortuantely, the lesson didn’t take and I’ve since grown into a milquetoast lefty peacenik.
But there was one important lesson I still carry with me to this day, and it came from the most unlikely of Joes, Sergeant Slaughter. For those of you who missed the 80s, Sgt. Slaughter was a WWF wrestler (real name: Robert Remus), whose gimmick was that of a former Marine and Vietnam vet. Like Chicago Bears star Refrigerator Perry, Slaughter was a real person who became a member of the Joes, joining the cartoon in its second season as a drill sergeant.
In one episode, whose title I’ve long forgotten, Sarge finds himself trapped in a cell by the evil terrorists Cobra. Spying an air duct above him, the ever-resourceful Sarge uses his fingernail to remove the screws and loosen the duct covers, allowing himself to escape. While I have never used this information to free myself from terrorists, it has been useful when I lock myself in a room (which has happened more than once). – Joe George
Americans Love Embalming Corpses
Learned from: Six Feet Under
I was in my 20s when I learned that embalming isn’t just for mummies. Thanks to Alan Ball’s incredible HBO series focusing on the Fisher family funeral home in Six Feet Under, I got a detailed and unexpected understanding of the undertaking business stateside, and it really felt like those mfs were up for embalming anything.
In the UK, embalming isn’t a very popular treatment option for your body after you kick the bucket. Your next of kin or your loved ones might be offered the chance to see you one last time at the funeral parlor before you’re flopped into your coffin and carted off for cremation or burial, but open casket funerals aren’t usually a thing. Over in the US, the deceased are regularly pumped full of special fluids to forestall decomposition, giving people an extended chance to look upon the corpse and pay their respects face to face. The array of products and paint they use to make it look like the dead person is still alive are a whole other ball game. – Kirsten Howard
How Much Beef Is in a Side of Beef
Learned from: I Love Lucy
I am old enough to remember when Nick at Nite in the U.S. was used in the ‘90s to play old black and white sitcoms from the ‘50s and ‘60s—as opposed to today when it now plays sitcoms from the ‘90s. To quote Lucy McGillicuddy, “Yeeeeee.” Ah yes, Lucy McGillicuddy Ricardo, a comic creation by Lucille Ball that was so brilliant, she can often get past the dated social mores and gender politics of the ‘50s. And in the show’s best episodes, she remains downright hysterical. One of my favorites growing up was “The Freezer.”
If you don’t recall, that’s the one where Lucy wants to buy a walk-in freezer (Ricky doesn’t approve, because he’s a smug ass, as usual) and then decides to buy “a side of beef” from Ethel’s uncle, who is a butcher, to christen the thing. Alas, poor Lucy doesn’t know how much beef is in a “side of beef.” Come to think of it, neither did I at the age of four! That’s how, after ordering two sides, she winds up with 700 pounds of steak—so much beef it’s a wonder they couldn’t reassemble the whole cow right then and there. The episode ends with Lucy unsuccessfully trying to hide all those spare ribs, getting locked in and frozen in her own freezer, and in the closing moments discovering that despite it being summer, ol’ Fred kindly lit the furnace for her to warm up—the furnace where she hid all the other excess meat. “Grab a bottle of ketchup,” she tells the fellas, “[we have] the biggest barbecue in the world!”
It still gets a chuckle, and a reminder to know your measurements. – David Crow
CPR to the beat of Saturday Night Fever
Learned from: The Office
You can pay to take an accredited first aid course to learn everything you need to know about how to perform CPR…or you can watch The Office. I know which one I’d choose. After all, the sitcom teaches you all the basics for free, while also tackling a major moral conundrum: is saving someone with no arms or legs even the right thing to do?
Plus, those who aren’t great at counting learn this nifty tricky: you can perform the chest compressions at the correct 100 beats per minute by pumping to the beat of “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees. Of course, that would also require you to know the difference between the Saturday Night Fever anthem and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” Perform CPR to the latter and your patient ain’t surviving. – John Saavedra