The Westphall Theory of a Unified TV Universe, Explained

iStock
iStock

When NBC’s hour-long hospital drama St. Elsewhere signed off after six seasons on May 25, 1988, more than a few viewers were saddened. Not necessarily because the series—which had earned 13 Emmy Awards during its run—was ending, but because producers opted for a highly unconventional finale. In the closing moments of the episode, a boy named Tommy Westphall (Chad Allen), the son of medical director Dr. Donald Westphall, was seen peering into a snow globe. Inside the globe was a tiny mock-up of St. Eligius, the medical center that was featured in the series. Behind him stood his father, who was sporting a construction worker’s wardrobe.

The implication was that Tommy—a character on the autism spectrum—had imagined the entire show, a fiction-within-the-fiction conceit that had angered viewers during the infamous “dream season” arc on Dallas five years earlier. (On that series, Bobby Ewing was brought back to life after his "death" turned out to be just a bad dream.)

“I expect a very mixed reaction,” Bruce Paltrow, one of the show's executive producers, told the Chicago Tribune in 1988. “I think some people will think it's extraordinary and existential and quintessential St. Elsewhere. I think other people will find it puzzling, odd, maybe unfulfilling in some way.”

More than puzzling, some people found it to be an actual puzzle. If the universe of St. Elsewhere was a figment of Tommy Westphall’s elaborate imagination, then wouldn’t other television characters who appeared in the show’s continuity exist only within Tommy's mind, as well? The doctors had visited the bar on Cheers in one St. Elsewhere episode; Cheers spawned Frasier, a character who appeared on Wings; John Munch, the detective from Homicide, had mingled with the St. Eligius crew, and he has appeared on shows ranging from The X-Files to The Wire, effectively making him the Patient Zero of what's become known as The Tommy Westphall Universe theory.

As of this writing, 441 shows can be tied to St. Elsewhere with varying degrees of separation, ranging from I Love Lucy to The Flash. If the theory holds, then a large chunk of television is the direct result of one child’s formidable imagination.

Chad Allen in 'St. Elsewhere'

St Elsewhere Full Episodes, YouTube

Erasing the fiction of an entire medium is not what Tom Fontana had planned. One of the producers on St. Elsewhere, he was openly hostile toward any idea of a reunion special down the line and insisted that the series finale should be definitive.

Fontana’s favored conclusion was a literal apocalypse, where the staff of St. Eligius would be standing by in the year 2013 while a toxic gas cloud passed over, the result of a corporate war between foreign factions. When NBC refused to finance their ambitious plan, the idea for the snow globe was hatched. (Quizzed by IndieWire in 2012 as to who exactly came up with the idea, neither Fontana nor co-writers Channing Gibson or John Tinker could remember.)

Fontana did, however, recall that half of the viewer mail retrieved after the finale was positive, while the other half made loose reference to a desire to “burn [the studio lot] to the ground."

Fontana went on to create Homicide: Life on the Street and HBO’s groundbreaking prison drama Oz. Those two impressive achievements would have likely relegated the bizarre ending of St. Elsewhere to a trivial mention in Fontana’s biography, if not for the curiosity of a playwright named Keith Gow.

Gow, a resident of Melbourne, Australia, spent time in pubs and online wondering what Tommy’s scene meant for every show connected to St. Elsewhere's characters. "The discussion began on alt.tv.homicide, a newsgroup that discussed Homicide: Life on the Street," Gow tells Mental Floss. "[Fontana] was fond of putting in references to previous shows he worked on, including bringing characters from St. Elsewhere into Homicide."

Along with U.S.-based fan Ash Crowe, Gow began to develop a chart linking the series to other shows on television. Over time, it began to look something like the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game.

Here’s how St. Elsewhere links to Doctor Who [PDF], hypothetically rendering the TARDIS a figment of Tommy’s imagination:

Donald Westphall and two other doctors visited Sam Malone’s bar from Cheers;

Cheers introduced Frasier Crane, of Frasier;

John Hemingway of The John Larroquette Show once called into Frasier’s talk show;

The John Larroquette Show once mentioned Yoyodyne, a manufacturing client of law firm Wolfram and Hart;

Wolfram and Hart had another client, Weyland-Yutani, that made a weapons display screen for Firefly;

A Weyland-Yutani ship is seen in the BBC series Red Dwarf, which also depicted The Doctor’s TARDIS.

The Westphall grid
A sampling of the Westphall grid.
Courtesy of Keith Gow

These strings go on across multiple decades of television, with I Love Lucy being the earliest example. Often, characters crossing over on the same network can ignite a connection, with shared brands or locations providing the connective tissue for others. The fictional Morley cigarettes are particularly pervasive, as is Hudson University, an institution of higher learning mentioned on The Cosby Show, Law & Order, and Murder, She Wrote.

"I prefer character connections, myself," Gow says. "That really solidifies things. And most of the connections on the grid are characters, even though something like Morley cigarettes (a fictional brand) has a lot of individual connections, they just add to the connective tissue in certain ways. The fictional brand or company thing is also Fontana's fault. The corporation that bought St. Elsewhere in its final season owned the prison hospital in his series Oz."

Over time and with the help of reader contributions, The Tommy Westphall Universe grew to include shows as diverse as ALF, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Knight Rider, Melrose Place, Seinfeld, and dozens of others, much of it helped along by the character of Munch appearing in more than 10 series, and those series making reference to other characters and brands.

As Gow and Crowe assembled their chart, comics writer Dwayne McDuffie (Static Shock) wrote a blog entry for Slush.com in 2002 that made a similar observation. "St. Elsewhere also shared characters with The White Shadow and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” McDuffie wrote. “Garry Shandling crossed over with The Andy Griffith Show (no, really!). So Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., Mayberry R.F.D., and Make Room for Daddy/The Danny Thomas Show are gone. Make Room For Daddy takes out I Love Lucy.”

All of it, McDuffie said, proved his own Grand Unification Theory that everyone and everything seen on TV—except for the few minutes viewers spent with Tommy Westphall in May 1988—is just a daydream.

St. Eligius in a snow globe

St Elsewhere Full Episodes, YouTube

As one of the co-authors of the scene that ignited the entire premise, Fontana said he was “stunned” to discover the aftershocks and that the theory “basically means that Tommy Westphall is the mind of God.”

Fontana was being facetious (we think), but not everyone was as enthused with the premise. Observers of the theory take issue with the idea out of what they deem is a misunderstanding of an author’s intent. While the doctors of St. Elsewhere visited the Cheers bar, the creators of Cheers offered no consent to have their series thought of as imaginary. There’s also nothing standing in the way of the belief that perhaps the Tommy Westphall end sequence was itself a dream, negating the snow globe conceit. And what about the real people who have appeared on the included shows, like Alex Trebek on Cheers? If Cheers is not “real,” then is Trebek?

But the notion isn't necessarily dependent on Tommy imagining anything: The connections still exist, whether they're considered a dream within fiction or just an interconnected television universe. "The theory doesn't really depend on Tommy Westphall, but he's a good hook," Gow says.

Gow and Crowe, who still periodically update the grid, assert that episodes with real people playing themselves—like Trebek did on Cheers—are exempt, as are cartoons and feature films. That would surely lead to spreadsheets the size of walls: Weyland-Yutani is the company behind the machinations of the Alien franchise.

New Jersey's Anthony Bourdain Food Trail Has Opened

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Before Anthony Bourdain was a world-famous chef, author, or food and travel documentarian, he was just another kid growing up in New Jersey. Earlier this year, Food & Wine reported that Bourdain's home state would honor the late television personality with a food trail tracing his favorite restaurants. And that trail is now open.

Bourdain was born in New York City in 1956, and spent most of childhood living in Leonia, New Jersey. He often revisited the Garden State in his books and television shows, highlighting the state's classic diners and delis and the seafood shacks of the Jersey shore.

Immediately following Bourdain's tragic death on June 8, 2018, New Jersey assemblyman Paul Moriarty proposed an official food trail featuring some of his favorite eateries. The trail draws from the New Jersey episode from season 5 of the CNN series Parts Unknown. In it, Bourdain traveled to several towns throughout the state, including Camden, Atlantic City, and Asbury Park, and sampled fare like cheesesteaks, salt water taffy, oysters, and deep-fried hot dogs.

The food trail was approved following a unanimous vote in January, and the trail was officially inaugurated last week. Among the stops included on the trail:

  1. Frank's Deli // Asbury Park
  1. Knife and Fork Inn // Atlantic City
  1. Dock's Oyster House // Atlantic City
  1. Tony's Baltimore Grill // Atlantic City
  1. James' Salt Water Taffy // Atlantic City
  1. Lucille's Country Cooking // Barnegat
  1. Tony & Ruth Steaks // Camden
  1. Donkey's Place // Camden
  2. Hiram's Roadstand // Fort Lee

10 Sweet Facts About Napoleon Dynamite

© 2004 Twentieth Century Fox
© 2004 Twentieth Century Fox

ChapStick, llamas, and tater tots are just a few things that appear in Napoleon Dynamite, a cult film shot for a mere $400,000 that went on to gross $44.5 million. In 2002, Brigham Young University film student Jared Hess filmed a black-and-white short, Peluca, with his classmate Jon Heder. The film got accepted into the Slamdance Film Festival, which gave Hess the courage to adapt it into a feature. Hess used his real-life upbringing in Preston, Idaho—he had six brothers and his mom owned llamas—to form the basis of the movie, about a nerdy teenager named Napoleon (Heder) who encourages his friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez) to run for class president.

In 2004, the indie film screened at Sundance, and was quickly purchased by Fox Searchlight and Paramount, then released less than six months later. Today, the film remains so popular that in 2016 Pedro and Napoleon reunited for a cheesy tots Burger King commercial. To celebrated the film's 15th anniversary, here are some facts about the ever-quotable comedy.

1. Deb is based on Jerusha Hess.

Jared Hess’s wife Jerusha co-wrote the film and based Deb on her own life. “Her mom made her a dress when she was going to a middle school dance and she said, ‘I hadn’t really developed yet, so my mom overcompensated and made some very large, fluffy shoulders,’” Jared told Rolling Stone. “Some guy dancing with her patted the sleeves and actually said, ‘I like your sleeves … they’re real big.'"

Tina Majorino, who played the fictional Deb, hadn’t done a comedy before, because people thought of her as a dramatic actress. "The fact that Jared would even let me come in and read really appealed to me," she told Rolling Stone. "Even if I didn’t get the role, I just wanted to see what it was like to audition for a comedy, as I’d never done it before."

2. Napoleon's famous dance scene was the result of having extra film stock.

At the end of shooting Peluca, Hess had a minute of film stock left and knew Heder liked to dance. Heder had on moon boots—something Hess used to wear—so they traveled to the end of a dirt road. They turned on the car radio and Jamiroquai’s “Canned Heat” was playing. “I just told him to start dancing and realized: This is how we’ve got to end the film,” Hess told Rolling Stone. “You don’t anticipate those kinds of things. They’re just part of the creative process.”

Heder told HuffPost he found inspiration in Michael Jackson and dancing in front of a mirror, for the end-of-the-movie skit. But when it came time to film the dance for the feature, Heder felt "pressure" to deliver. “I was like, ‘Oh, crap!’ This isn’t just a silly little scene,” he told PDX Monthly. “This is the moment where everything comes, and he’s making the sacrifice for his friend. That’s the whole theme of the movie. Everything leads up to this. Napoleon’s been this loser. This has to be the moment where he lands a victory.” Instead of hiring a choreographer, the filmmakers told him to “just figure it out.” They filmed the scene three times with three different songs, including Jamiroquai’s “Little L” and “Canned Heat.”

3. Napoleon Dynamitefans still flock to Preston, Idaho to tour the movie's locations.

In a 2016 interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, The Preston Citizen’s circulation manager, Rhonda Gregerson, said “every summer at least 50 groups of fans walk into the office wanting to know more about the film.” She said people come from all over the world to see Preston High School, Pedro’s house, and other filming locations as a layover before heading to Yellowstone National Park. “If you talk to a lot of people in Preston, you’ll find a lot of people who have become a bit sick of it,” Gregerson said. “I still think it’s great that there’s still so much interest in the town this long after the movie.”

Besides the filming locations, the town used to host a Napoleon Dynamite festival. In 2005, the fest drew about 6000 people and featured a tater tot eating contest, a moon boot dancing contest, boondoggle keychains for sale, and a tetherball tournament. The fest was last held in 2008.

4. Idaho adopted a resolution commending the filmmakers.

'Napoleon Dynamite' filmmakers Jerusha and Jared Hess
Jerusha and Jared Hess
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

In 2005, the Idaho legislature wrote a resolution praising Jared and Jerusha Hess and the city of Preston. HCR029 appreciates the use of tater tots for “promoting Idaho’s most famous export.” It extols bicycling and skateboarding to promote “better air quality,” and it says Kip and LaFawnduh’s relationship “is a tribute to e-commerce and Idaho’s technology-driven industry.” The resolution goes on to say those who “vote Nay on this concurrent resolution are Freakin’ Idiots.” Napoleon would be proud.

5. Napoleon was a different kind of nerd.

Sure, he was awkward, but Napoleon wasn’t as intelligent as other film nerds. “He’s not a genius,” Heder told HuffPost. “Maybe he’s getting good grades, but he’s not excelling; he’s just socially awkward. He doesn’t know how much of an outcast he is, and that’s what gives him that confidence. He’s trying to be cool sometimes, but mostly he just goes for it and does it.”

6. The title sequence featured several different sets of hands..

Eight months before the theatrical release, Fox Searchlight had Hess film a title sequence that made it clear that the film took place in 2004, not in the ’80s or ’90s. Napoleon’s student ID reveals the events occur during the 2004-2005 school year. Heder’s hands move the objects in and out of the frame, but Fox didn’t like his hangnails. “They flew out a hand model a couple weeks later, who had great hands, but was five or six shades darker than Jon Heder,” Hess told Art of the Title. “If you look, there are like three different dudes’ hands—our producer’s are in there, too.”

7. Napoleon Dynamite messed up Netflix's algorithms.

Beginning in 2006, Cinematch—Netflix’s recommendation algorithm software—held a contest called The Netflix Prize. Anyone who could make Cinematch’s predictions at least 10 percent more accurate would win $1 million. Computer scientist Len Bertoni had trouble predicting whether people would like Napoleon Dynamite. Bertoni told The New York Times the film is “polarizing,” and the Netflix ratings are either one or five stars. If he could accurately predict whether people liked the movie, Bertoni said, then he’d come much closer to winning the prize. That didn’t happen for him.

The contest finally ended in 2009 when Netflix awarded the grand prize to BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos, who developed a 10.06 percent improvement over Cinematch’s score.

8. Napoleon accidentally got a bad perm.


© 2004 Twentieth Century Fox

Heder got his hair permed the night before shooting began—but something went wrong. Heder called Jared and said, “‘Yeah, I got the perm but it’s a little bit different than it was before,’” Hess told Rolling Stone. “He showed up the night before shooting and he looked like Shirley Temple! The curls were huge!” They didn’t have much time to fix the goof, so Hess enlisted Jerusha and her cousin to re-perm it. It worked, but Jon wasn’t allowed to wash his hair for the next three weeks. “So he had this stinky ‘do in the Idaho heat for three weeks,” Jared said. “We were shooting near dairy farms and there were tons of flies; they were all flying in and out of his hair.”

9. LaFawnduh's real-life family starred in the film.

Shondrella Avery played LaFawnduh, the African American girlfriend of Kip, Napoleon’s older brother (played by Aaron Ruell). Before filming, Hess phoned Avery and said, “‘You remember that there were no black people in Preston, Idaho, right? Do you think your family might want to be in the movie?’ And that’s how it happened,” Avery told Los Angeles Weekly. Her actual family shows up at the end when LaFawnduh and Kip get married.

10. A short-lived animated series acted as a sequel.

In 2012, Fox aired six episodes of Napoleon Dynamite the animated series before they canceled it. All of the original actors returned to supply voices to their characters. The only difference between the film and the series is Kip is not married. Heder told Rolling Stone the episodes are as close to a sequel as fans will get. “If you sit down and watch those back to back, you’ve got yourself a sequel,” he said. “Because you’ve got all the same characters and all the same actors.”

This story has been updated for 2019.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER