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5 Classic Sitcom References British People Don't Get (But Laugh at Anyway)


5 Classic Sitcom References British People Don’t Get (But Laugh at Anyway)

The Simpsons. South Park. Futurama. Family Guy. The list of beloved American animated sitcoms stretches on (and on and on if we’re talking about The Simpsons). And they’re shows that have proven valuable exports for the networks that created them. A truly great comedy should always be understandable in another time and place, but are they always? Speaking as a British fan of these shows, I have to admit that I’m occasionally left rather perplexed at what exactly is being referenced and whether it’s even funny.

Some shows are denser with this stuff than others, and believe me, this list just scratches the surface. Who the heck is Mary Worth? What are Marge and Homer singing at the piano in that one episode? Why is it so terrible that Sherri and Terri are so hungry “they could eat at Arby’s”? Explaining a joke probably means it isn’t funny in the first place, but here’s a little outside perspective on those awkward moments:

“One of these days Alice…”

Seen in:
Family Guy, Futurama

“One of these days Alice, Pow! Right in the Kisser” and the equally sinister catchphrase “Bang, zoom, straight to the Moon!” come from Jackie Gleason’s character Ralph Kramden in the fifties sitcom The Honeymooners. And whilst animated shows are fairly good at explaining what on earth they’re going on about, this one flies over a lot of heads in the UK. One example is in the Family Guy episode “North by North Quahog”, when Ralph is shown actually following through on the threat. In the US, a viewer understands that a point is being made about how sinister it is for society to have accepted a threat of domestic violence as a catchphrase. In the UK, it almost seems like Family Guy is guilty of getting laughs from the very thing that it’s actually condemning.

By far my favourite reference (and one that you can enjoy regardless of whether you really get where it comes from) comes from Futurama. In the second episode, Fry and the crew visit a theme park on the moon which offers up an inaccurate depiction of 20th Century life. There, an animatronic Jackie Gleason is misinterpreted as the first man who dreamed of space travel, saying in an inspired tone “One of these days, Alice. Bang. Zoom. Straight to the moon.”

Why British people don’t get it:
For the first half of the fifties, UK television was solely the responsibility of the BBC, who weren’t especially interested in featuring content from abroad. Even after ITV joined in the later half of the decade, the emphasis was still on home-grown programming. It’s not that I can prove that The Honeymooners never aired in the UK, but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence for the fact. At any rate, it’s never a point of discussion on British TV.

Schoolhouse Rock!

Seen in:
The Simpsons, Family Guy

Schoolhouse Rock! was a series of short animated films airing on Saturday mornings with an educational theme. In The Simpsons episode “The Day the Violence Died”, we’re treated to a pretty straight-down-the-middle parody of a Schoolhouse Rock segment originally entitled “I’m Just a Bill” but here called “I’m an Amendment to Be”. In Family Guy, exactly the same segment is parodied in “Mr. Griffin Goes to Washington”, when a sanitation engineer stabs the bill.

Why British people don’t get it:
It goes without saying that a series of educational shorts that included American civil topics was hardly considered essential viewing for kids in the UK. Mind you, I can’t actually think of a direct British equivalent, and these sections still play out intelligibly. There’s probably just some nostalgic pain that we’re not being subjected to.

The Three Stooges

Seen in:
The Simpsons, Futurama

In the classic Simpsons episode “Homer the Heretic”, Homer dumbly says “Moe is their leader” whilst watching a Three Stooges movie. But the reality is that this is probably new information to most British watchers of the show. Lost on us also are Bart’s numerous impressions of Curley, Moe and Shemp in early episodes, as well as well as his plans to resurrect the Stooges (“I guess they’d want to be with their families”). And this barely scratches the surface of how many times this comedy team comes up.

Unsurprisingly, Futurama has been liberally sprinkling references to The Three Stooges throughout its run. The most recognisable to American audiences is probably the whooping noise that Dr. Zoidberg makes when running away—this belonged originally to Curley. And then there are Mom’s sons (Walt, Larry and Igner), who are very clearly meant to be a reference to the Stooges, complete with frequent slaps around the face.

Why British people don’t get it:
My frame of reference on this one is possibly skewed by my (relative) youth, but I’m all but certain that we’ve simply not been exposed to The Three Stooges, at least since their original pre-war popularity. Wikipedia claims, “their films have never left the television airwaves since first appearing in 1958”, which is simply not true in the UK, which seems to have room only for the occasional Laurel & Hardy showing alongside its homespun teams and duos. American readers are invited to look at this list of “Comedian’s Comedians”, a list by British comedians of who they think are the best of all time: none of the stooges appear, and you’d expect them to show up on an equivalent American list…

Ayn Rand

Seen in:
The Simpsons, Futurama

References to objectivist novelist Ayn Rand largely brush by viewers inoffensively: Maggie is sent to a daycare centre called “The Ayn Rand School for Tots” in The Simpsons episode “A Streetcar Named Marge”. Those in the know will recognise posters saying “Helping is Futile” and “A is A”, referencing key aspects of Rand’s philosophy, but if you haven’t studied her work they just pass you by. Later, in Futurama (“I Second That Emotion”), the crew visit a library in the sewers composed entirely of “Ayn Rand and Crumpled Porn” (i.e. books that would most likely be flushed down the toilet to dispose of them).

A more extensive parody is seen in the later Simpsons episode “Four Great Women and a Manicure”, in which Maggie’s creativity is condemned and conformity is championed at her day-care centre. Maggie speaks her first sentence (voiced by Jodie Foster), with a Randian philosophy at the heart of it.

Why British people don’t get it:
Ayn Rand is a novelist that a great deal of people in the United States who have studied until college age will have had to endure. In the UK? She’s never been on any curriculum I’ve ever seen. Honestly, even despite my adoration of “A Streetcar Named Marge” I hadn’t heard of Rand until Irrational Games released Bioshock and everyone started comparing it with Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. It’s hardly surprising that she’s not on the British curriculum: she’s not really the perfect ideological fit for mainstream British society that she is for America, considering she championed capitalism and rejected altruism.

The Sanford and Son Theme

Heard in:
The Simpsons, Futurama, Family Guy (also: Scrubs)

The distinctive Quincy Jones tune that opens American sitcom Sanford and Son is well known in the UK, but most people won’t actually be able to tell you where it’s from. Perhaps most famously, ex-sanitation commissioner Ray Paterson walks onstage to the tune to gloat in The Simpsons episode “Trash of the Titans” (in imitation of an incident at a Redd Foxx gig – Redd Fox played Sanford). Other notable instances include Fry watching the show in a 20th Century apartment in an early episode of Futurama (“Esther You Ugly!”) and a performance of the tune between Turk and J.D. in non-animated sitcom Scrubs.

Why British people don’t get it:
The reasoning behind this one is pretty simple. Sanford and Son was a remake for the American market of Steptoe and Son, which was about a “rag and bone” man and his son (basically, people who earnt a living by selling people’s unwanted goods. So yeah, you can see why it was changed for the American audience). Sanford and Son may have aired in the UK, but it never attained popularity and you can’t even buy it on the UK-DVD format (Region 2).

Steph Wood is a content writer and blog writer for and accident claim specialist based in the UK.

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