Mean Girls: "You could try Sears!" Me: "Haha... is that bad!?"
Have you, a non-American, ever been watching a TV show or a movie and a character has referenced something or someone that's gone straight over your head? Well I have – more than a few times! Here are some examples:
Universal Pictures / Via Tumblr
1. Do you remember when Joey met his "identical hand twin" in Friends? Well it turns out that the theme song he comes up with for their TV show is actually based on a pretty popular American folk song!
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Here I was thinking it was just a jaunty song that everyone found particularly entertaining, but the song Joey sings is actually a parody of "This Land Is Your Land", a 1944 record by American folk singer Woody Guthrie!
2. After Annie meets the picture-perfect Helen in Bridesmaids, she spends her entire car trip home making fun of her, including how snobby she is. Here, Annie mimics Helen throwing shade at how she is from Milwaukee.
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After talking to actual Americans I have learned that Milwaukee has a rep for boring an especially boring place – like, their main tourist attraction is a motor cycle museum. So yeah... sorry Annie.
3. In a classic scene from You've Got Mail, Joe asks about a journalist Kathleen is seeing who uses the handle NY152; Joe then reads him to filth and likens him to a Clark Bar.
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Having seen what a Clark Bar looks like – long, flat, and mottled – I'd much rather be compared to Clark Gable.
4. Remember this iconic line in Mean Girls? Regina goes to try on a Spring Fling dress she's held back and finds it no longer fits her, so the shop assistant suggests she try the department store Sears, which is allegedly kind of... tacky.
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If this didn't have the cadence of a clapback, I'd probably think it was friendly advice. "What a lovely and helpful woman", I'd say!
5. In Disney's Hercules, Pain and Panic suggest calling a telephone number in Roman numerals. The number would be familiar to Americans, but in the UK it would be IX-IX-IX, or 999!
Buena Vista Pictures Distribution / Via Buzzfeed
I'm not sure which came first – me learning how to read Roman numerals or me realising Americans have a different emergency number.
6. In Never Have I Ever, Devi suspects her classmate Jonah is gay and accidentally mentions it out loud. He confirms this by referring to himself as a "baby Buttigieg".
Netflix / Via Buzzfeed
Apart from sounding cute, this line refers to Pete Buttigieg, a former Mayor of South Bend, Indiana who was briefly in the running for the Democratic nomination in the 2020 presidential election. Buttigieg is the first openly gay major presidential candidate in American history.
7. When Abbi and Ilana visit Trey's place in Broad City for a party, they complain that he lives near somewhere called Port Authority, which apparently is hell on Earth.
Comedy Central / Via Buzzfeed
In an episode called "Hashtag FOMO", Abbi and Ilana end up in what is easily one of the least cool places in NYC, Port Authority. It's the busiest bus terminal in the world, and New Yorkers say it is always overcrowded, smells terrible, has no WiFi, and the buses NEVER RUN ON TIME.
8. At the beginning of the final season of Schitt's Creek, we dive straight into Patrick and Alexis making fun of a hungover Stevie who spent the night before drinking two alcoholic drinks at the same time i.e. "double-fisting".
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To me, a Brit, this just sounded positively filthy! I was only able to work out through contextual clues that they meant drinking.
9. This guy... who appears in SO MANY things!
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I'm told he's the official mascot for Kool-Aid, an American drink mix. He would regularly appear in commercials and, as Family Guy fans know, he would often smash through walls holding a pitcher and yelling his catchphrase: "Oh yeah!"
10. There's a joke in The Simpsons where Krusty is mocked for being such a bad gambler that he bet against the Harlem Globetrotters. I assumed these guys must rule the NBA and completely missed the joke.
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I was today years old when I found out that the Globetrotters aren't a real team, they do skits and trickshots for exhibition shows, and that was the gag.
11. Is it just me or is the "DMV" always described in American media as some sort of hellhole? Apparently, the Department of Motor Vehicles – where you renew your license and other such stuff – is just terrible, as seen here in Zootopia!
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / Via data.whicdn.com
This government agency is frequently parodied for being a bureaucratic black hole. Allegedly, it takes hours to get in and out, the buildings are run-down, and the staff don't seem especially happy to be there.
12. Perhaps, like me, you've heard this "tricks are for kids" line in lots of different things, from Kill Bill to RuPaul's Drag Race. Well if you also thought it was just a fun little epithet you'd be wrong, it's a reference to an American ad for breakfast cereal!
Miramax Films, Logo TV / Via Tumblr
Trix has run more or less the same commercial since the '50s in which their rabbit mascot attempts to eat a bowl of the cereal but is discovered every time by children. They then deliver the iconic signature line: "Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids!"
13. There are hundreds of subtle references in Gilmore Girls but this particular moment, in which Kirk is trying to drill up enthusiasm for an egg hunt in the town square a la Howard Dean, was particularly obscure for non-Americans.
The WB / Via Buzzfeed
Kirk is mimicking the former Governor of Vermont Howard Dean, who ran for president back in 2004. During the Iowa Caucus, he delivered a rousing speech where he sort of screamed at the end at it highkey doomed his campaign for some reason. Nowadays, he probably would've been memed into the Oval Office.
14. When Derrick Barry read the late, great Chi Chi DeVayne during season eight of RuPaul's Drag Race, she mentioned a store that I assumed was a bargain clothing retailer, but it's actually not!
Logo TV / Via Buzzfeed
Michaels is actually an arts and crafts superstore, which make sense as Chi Chi often referred to herself as a "resourceful" queen, and famously entered the workroom during her season in a bin-bag dress!
15. I have no idea what this line from Troy in Community is supposed to mean.
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From what I gather AT&T are a "terrible" company, so basically it's an analogy to being the worst of something.
16. Towards the end of Bruce Almighty, Debbie tells Bruce that her typical evening involves watching Conan. I did not put that together, and spent the rest of the movie wondering who Conan was.
Universal Pictures / Via Buzzfeed
My most plausible conclusion at the time: Conan was another child of Debbie's who we’d never seen before. "Conan" is actually shorthand for Late Night with Conan O'Brien, a popular late-night talk show that ran on NBC from 1993 until 2009.
17. The 555 area code you often see in American TV shows and films isn't a real code. It was left unassigned so that the US media could use it and no one watching would ever be able to dial a number on screen and reach a real person.
18. Remember when Emily and Richard were fighting in season five of Gilmore Girls and Emily had this to say about Reno, Nevada:
The WB / Via Buzzfeed
I've never been to Reno but by the sounds of it, it's got a reputation for being run-down and lousy with crime. The city hasn't seen much regeneration in the last few decades, and it's also been described as dirty, with a lack of things to do, and a terrible public transport infrastructure – or at least, so sayeth Tripadvisor!
19. Another candy bar joke wasted on me comes from A Cinderella Story. Shelby sees David on his own without his Musketeer buddies and doesn't recognise his costume until he tells her he's a Three Musketeer, which is apparently the name of an American chocolate bar.
Warner Bros. Pictures / Via Buzzfeed
She's right though, he really doesn't look like the candy bar – least of all a three-part, chocolate-covered nougat candy!
20. The Pottery Barn episode of Friends is one of my absolute favourites, but for all I knew Pottery Barn wasn't even a real store!
NBC / Via Buzzfeed
It was only years later that I was in an American mall and I saw one IRL! Pottery Barn is a posh American homeware store which sells premium home furnishings and accessories. This episode is rumoured to have been bankrolled by a substantial product placement deal, but Pottery Barn has previously stated that the infamous apothecary table was actually donated.
21. Remember when Peter, Lois, and Meg were at a college fair in Family Guy and they dropped a really good Oral Roberts joke on us?
Fox / Via reposti.com
I loved this gag but honestly, I had no idea what was going on, which is often the case with Family Guy. Turns out Oral Roberts is an actual Christian liberal arts university in Tulsa, Oklahoma named after famous evangelist Oral Roberts. I can confirm that after a troubling Google search Anal Roberts is, by contrast, not a real college.
22. And finally, pretty much all of Portlandia.
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Even though I love it, a heck of a lot of Portlandia goes over my head. The people of Oregon apparently have a reputation for being super woke and obsessed with everything organic, gender-neutral, and recycled. A lot of the very specific stereotype humour is wasted on a Brit, but don't let that put you off because once you're used to it, this show is HILARIOUS no matter where you're from!