If someone is described as meaner than Simon Cowell or a bigger lush than Snooki, you probably understand the reference. But will anyone get those same jokes in 30 years? Take a look at some common pop culture references from years gone by:
1. Mutt and Jeff
Mutt and Jeff were two comic strip characters created by Bud Fisher in 1907. Augustus Mutt was a tall, lanky ne’er-do-well who liked to bet on the ponies, while his pal Othello Jeff was short, rotund and shared Mutt's passion for “get rich quick” schemes. The strip became so popular that “Mutt and Jeff” entered the lexicon to describe any duo consisting of a tall person and a short person.
2. Euell Gibbons
Today we might describe natural food enthusiasts as “crunchy granola types,” but at one time it would have sufficed simply to compare them to Euell Gibbons. The health food fanatic gained fame after appearing in a series of TV commercials for Grape Nuts cereal. Lines like “Have you ever tasted a pine tree? Several parts are edible” made him ready fodder for talk show hosts and comedians in the 1970s.
3. Mortimer Snerd
In today’s parlance a clueless doofus is often described as “…and he was all like ‘duh’.” Years ago a typical “D’oh!”-boy was referred to as a regular Mortimer Snerd, referring to a not-so-bright dummy used by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen:
4. Rula Lenska
If anyone personified Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame, it was Rula Lenska. American audiences first became acquainted with her in a series of TV commercials for Alberto VO5 hair products. What made poor Rula an eventual punch line was the caption that appeared as she introduced herself – it said simply “famous actress.” Johnny Carson and other personalities were off and running after the first few ads were broadcast, comparing any name in the news to Rula “Who the Heck Is She?” Lenska. The folks at Alberto Culver got the message and changed the caption on future commercials to explain that Rula Lenska was an “English Television and Theater Star”.
5. Anita Bryant
As Miss Oklahoma, Anita Bryant finished as second runner-up in the 1959 Miss America pageant. Ten years later she became the spokeswoman for the Florida Citrus Commission and appeared in a series of TV commercials singing the praises of orange juice. Then in 1977 she led a highly publicized campaign to repeal a Dade County, Florida, ordinance that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation. Her statements equating homosexuals with child molesters resulted in a national backlash that, for many years, made “Anita Bryant” a common insult directed at any person displaying an intolerance for gay people.
Twiggy (born Leslie Hornsby) was just 16 years old when her career as a fashion model was launched. Dubbed “The Face of ‘66,” Twiggy was the darling of Swinging London and Carnaby Street. At 5’7” tall she weighed a mere 90 lbs. and her stick-like figure set a new fashion standard. It also became a common point of reference when describing body types; an overweight person could be tactfully described as “Well, she’s no Twiggy” while a too-thin person would “make Twiggy look fat!” Kids today may recognize her as a former judge on America's Next Top Model.
7. Phyllis Diller
Ever since punk rock and the New Wave fashions of the 1980s, it’s pretty hard to actually look outrageous anymore. But back in the 1960s and 70s, folks tended to dress a tad more conservatively, so comedienne Phyllis Diller was able to elicit laughs just by stepping onstage with her wild fright-wig hair and tacky outfits. Likewise, men used to get lots of mileage out of lines like “She looked just like Raquel Welch last night when I took her home, but then this morning I woke up with Phyllis Diller!”
8. Archie Bunker
Back before we used euphemistic terms like “red states” and “blue states”, we tended to tread a bit more lightly when it came to calling out someone on their political beliefs. Rather than outright referring to someone as a bigot, it was understood what was meant if you compared them to the central character of TV’s All in the Family. (And doing so thusly somewhat softened the critique, since Archie was considered to be something of a “loveable” bigot.)
9. Foster Brooks
Today’s TV alcoholics are different, and not as omnipresent as they once were (see Will and Grace's functional drunk Karen Walker, for example). But once upon a time it was not offensive nor politically incorrect to find humor in the pseudo-drunken antics of Foster Brooks, who based an entire career on the unsteady gait and slurred speech of the stereotypical over-imbiber. During that same era, anyone would catch your drift if you described someone as being “as excited as Foster Brooks during Happy Hour.”
10. Eddie Haskell
Not everyone remembers Leave It to Beaver from either its original run on TV or its various syndication stints, so there are some folks who can’t appreciate the delicious appropriateness of describing an unctuous slimy wise-guy as an “Eddie Haskell” type. Actor Ken Osmond was pitch-perfect when he delivered lines like: “Wally, if your dumb brother tags along, I'm gonna -- oh, good afternoon, Mrs. Cleaver. I was just telling Wallace how pleasant it would be for Theodore to accompany us to the movies.”
You may have at one time or another described someone as “wimpy” because they were cowardly, lazy, thrifty, and/or gluttonous. But that description was popularized by a character in the original Popeye comic strip named J. Wellington Wimpy. Wimpy had a weakness for hamburgers (in fact, there is a fast food burger chain in the UK called Wimpy’s) and his famous plea to the grill cook, "I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today,” eventually became a catchphrase for “spot me now, I’ll pay you later."
What are some references you've used that seem to baffle the next generation?