How catchphrases and quotes from our favourite shows became a universal, neutral language.
Illustration by Ashley Goodall
This article originally appeared on VICE Australia
In high school, a friend invited me to stay with his family for the school holidays. He was from a big family, one of four kids, so it was intimidating to become the fifth wheel in this brood. And he had older sisters, who were sarcastic, smart and cool. Talking to girls was an extreme sport for teenage me. Stuck in the hot sticky back seat of a Tarago on the trip to the coast it felt like everything I said in conversation was lame, but things changed a few days in when, having failed at chit chat, I reverted to the only way of communicating I knew: Simpsons quotes.
And it worked! We bonded over our adoration of The Simpsons and spoke exclusively in the language of America’s favourite cartoon family. As I got older I learnt this wasn’t some secret code I’d unlocked. All my peers spoke this way, and it was a fantastic leveller. No matter your social status, if you could speak in TV it was a shortcut to getting to know someone. Pop culture has a history of crafting its own languages—shout out to anyone fluent in Klingon. But talking in quotes is one of the great equalisers, because it can break down barriers between people unlike anything else. More than that, it has become increasingly vital to the way we connect with each other.
How did we learn to talk this way? The prevalence of TV sitcoms in the 80s and 90s, including reruns of past hit shows, helped. Growing up in the late 80s and 90s meant I was in front of the TV a lot. If you were left alone at home, maybe a “latch key kid” due to working parents, there’s a good chance you watched too much television. When your parents weren’t around, the TV was a stand in. Community summarised it best:
Abed: It's really great to have someone to watch stuff with. My dad never wanted to watch anything, so I was kind of raised by TV.
Jeff: TV's the best dad there is!
As a kid you’re still figuring out who you are, and the best way to express yourself is with what you like. The first time you decorate your own bedroom, you choose your pop culture manifesto, and language works the same way. Growing up, quoting television was a way to express how you felt until you’d developed the emotional maturity to do it in your own words. TV, and especially family sitcoms, was such an educational tool for life that when Seinfeld came along Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David put a policy in place for each episode: no hugging, no learning.
Sitcoms honed the perfect formula of conflict and resolution within each episode. Because shows ran in excess of 20 episodes per season, no topic was off limits in the lifetime of any show that went beyond 100 episodes – the magic number that ensures a show will live on in re-runs forever. Happy Days went for so long it ran out of ideas and they had the Fonz jump over a shark on water-skis, which then became the definitive idiom for shows that have run out of inspiration. There’s an episode of Friends for every social situation, Saturday Night Live built an empire on catchphrases, and Arrested Development made us fantasise about having Ron Howard narrate our lives.
Somehow, this way of talking carried over into our adult lives and became ingrained in our culture. Maybe it’s because society's emotional maturity is still a work in progress? You can see the impact of talking in TV in everything: memes, gifs and screencaps. Politicians and political news pundits can’t go a full year without comparing the news to Game of Thrones. Twitter is full of accounts dedicated to posting “television without context”: isolated frames from an episode that can be whatever they want to be in the eye of the beholder.
We live in times where world events can leave us speechless, so naturally, speaking in TV can act as a placeholder until we can figure out what to say. We’ve mastered the art of expressing ourselves this way, and it’s an important channel for our feelings. While people may decry the decline of our ability to use words, citing some sort of societal intellectual downfall, really we’ve learnt to use TV as a buffer to give us room to think.
Talking in TV becomes an avatar for our emotions, and it’s important for people who find it challenging to break the ice with people or struggle with small talk. Humans bond over common ground, and the language of television is neutral territory.
Follow Cam on Twitter