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The Westphall Theory of a Unified TV Universe, Explained

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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.

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20 Things You Might Not Know About Mr. Show
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You never need an excuse to look back at Mr. Show with Bob and David, but given that today is co-creator Bob Odenkirk's 55th birthday, now seems to be as good a time as any.

1. BOB ODENKIRK AND DAVID CROSS’S FIRST MEETING DID NOT GO VERY WELL.

Following four years of writing on Saturday Night Live, Odenkirk was in Los Angeles in 1992 as a writer for the Chris Elliott Fox cult classic Get a Life. David Cross was a comedian in L.A. after performing for years in Boston. One boring afternoon, Cross asked friend and fellow stand-up Janeane Garofalo if she knew anybody that played basketball. The two went to Odenkirk’s house, and Garofalo introduced David to Bob and then asked if he wanted to play basketball. He said no.

2. ODENKIRK AND CROSS FIRST WORKED TOGETHER ON THE BEN STILLER SHOW.

Despite their inauspicious beginning, the two ended up having numerous fruitful collaborations, starting with their work on The Ben Stiller Show. Odenkirk was a writer/performer on the short-lived but Emmy award-winning sketch show with Garofalo, Stiller, and Andy Dick. Cross was brought in in the middle of the show’s 13-episode run as a writer.

3. THE CO-STARS FIRST PERFORMED ON STAGE TOGETHER AS "THE THREE GOOFBALLZ."

Odenkirk and Cross performed sketch comedy together at the Diamond Club in Los Angeles, with a third improviser that, the joke went, would either be deceased or out elsewhere getting high.

4. "THE THREE GOOFBALLZ' WAS ALMOST THE TITLE OF MR. SHOW

Odenkirk also pitched the title Grand National Championships, but David Cross was never a fan of it.

5. JACK BLACK, SARAH SILVERMAN, AND OTHER FUTURE STARS APPEARED ON THE SHOW BEFORE THEY WERE FAMOUS.

Black was in four episodes of Mr. Show, starring in the classic Jesus Christ Superstar parody “Jeepers Creepers.” Silverman was a performer in 10 episodes. Mary Lynn Rajskub, best known as Chloe on 24, was a featured actress in the first two years. Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants, was a series regular for a majority of the run. Scott Adsit, a.k.a. 30 Rock’s Pete Hornberger, was in six episodes.

6. PATTON OSWALT WARMED UP THE MR. SHOW CROWD.

In addition to performing stand-up before tapings and keeping the studio audience interested in between scenes, Oswalt played Famous Mortimer in the episode “Operation: Hell on Earth” (but was credited as “Patton Oswald.”)

7. HOMELESS PEOPLE WERE NOT KIND TO THE ORIGINAL SETS.

Because the pilot episode was shot at a “down and dirty,” small Central Hollywood club, the sets had to be placed outside, where homeless people defecated on them.

8. YOU MIGHT ALSO RECOGNIZE SOME OF THE WRITING STAFF.

Dino Stamatopoulos was already on the original writing staff of Late Night with Conan O’Brien and had written for David Letterman before writing for Cross and Odenkirk. He would later create three shows and play Starburns on Community. Writer/performer Scott Aukerman co-created and executive produces Between Two Ferns, and created and stars on Comedy Bang! Bang!. Writer/performer Paul F. Tompkins hosted VH-1’s Best Week Ever! and currently hosts the satirical debate show No, You Shut Up!, where he moderates discussions by a panel full of puppets. Bob Odenkirk’s brother Bill has written ten episodes of The Simpsons.

9. THE DIRECTORS OF LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE LEARNED HOW TO DIRECT COMEDY FROM MR. SHOW.

Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton were known for directing music videos like The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” and Jane’s Addiction’s “Been Caught Stealing,” and decided to direct two Mr. Show episodes to expand their filming vocabulary. The husband and wife team were behind the camera for the classic sketch “Monk Academy.”

10. ONE SKETCH WAS INFLUENCED BY LOUIS C.K.

One of the first sketches in the show’s history involved Odenkirk playing a priest forced to do rather unpleasant and un-priestly things. The idea sprang from a conversation David Cross had with fellow young Boston comic Louis C.K., where Louis talked about annoying people that try to claim a prize on a bet that their friends never agreed to in the first place.

11. HBO ONLY CENSORED THE SHOW ONCE.

Throughout four years and 30 episodes, the lone note Odenkirk and Cross got from HBO was to get rid of a line where one character tells another to have sex with a baby. Odenkirk admitted that being told to edit it out “wasn’t too much to ask.”

12. THEY ONLY RECEIVED ONE VIEWER COMPLAINT.

The only angry letter that Odenkirk and Cross were ever made aware of was from a military veteran who was offended by the sketch in “Who Let You In?” where Cross’s performance artist character attempts to defecate on the American flag. The two stars actually called the viewer and discovered that he didn’t watch the entire sketch, and therefore never realized that Cross’ character was never able to actually go through with it.

13. ONE SKETCH WAS CUT FROM THE SHOW SIX TIMES AND NEVER MADE IT TO AIR.

A sketch called “Party Car,” a joke on old, low-quality shows filled with '70s celebrities was cut from half a dozen scripts and never filmed. It would have featured Nipsey Russell, Zsa Zsa Gabor, (or reasonable facsimiles), and a baby in a balloon-filled car.

14. BOB ODENKIRK GOT IN TROUBLE FOR USING A PICTURE OF HIS DEAD GRANDFATHER.

Because the sketch “Old Man In House” needed a photo of an old man, and the elderly gentleman was not the butt of the joke, Odenkirk thought it would be fine. Instead, some Odenkirks were “very upset.”

15. CROSS WAS PAYING OFF HIS STUDENT LOAN DEBTS THROUGHOUT MOST OF THE SERIES.

David Cross and Amber Tamblyn
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Despite executive producing and co-creating a series on television, Cross had trouble paying off his student loan debts from his time at Emerson College. Figuring that the person calling from the bill collection agency wouldn’t believe that he couldn’t pay if he knew his job status, Cross pretended that he worked at Mr. Show as a messenger.

16. ONE PERSON WAS GIVEN A "SPECIAL THANKS" IN THE CLOSING CREDITS OF EVERY EPISODE AS A JOKE.

As Cross once explained, Rick Dees was thanked in the credits of the pilot episode, even though he was “certainly nobody we would ever thank, or be in a position to thank.” Some personalities that were thanked for no discernable reason were Greg Maddux, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, Gabe Kaplan, and Howard Zinn.

17. HBO CHANGED THE TIME SLOT FOR ITS FINAL SEASON, AND IT WAS "DEMORALIZING."

After airing Fridays at midnight for the first three seasons, HBO moved the show to Mondays at the same time, confusing some loyal viewers, and the ratings decreased as a result. Bob Odenkirk told a reporter that, after 30 episodes, HBO was still treating the cast and crew as “second-class citizens,” and that they were “demoralized” by the slot shift.

18. BOB AND DAVID TOLD A STUDIO AUDIENCE THAT THEY HAD JUST WITNESSED THE FINAL EPISODE, AND THEY WEREN'T JOKING.

“Patriotism, Pepper, and Professionalism,” the 40th and final episode of Mr. Show, was taped on November 21, 1998. After the final sketch was filmed, Odenkirk and Cross made their announcement, although the show’s cancellation wasn’t made official for another few months.

19. THERE WAS A MR. SHOW MOVIE THAT WENT STRAIGHT TO VIDEO.

Run Ronnie Run focused on David Cross’s redneck criminal character Ronnie Dobbs. It was filmed in 2001, but never made it to theaters. Bob Odenkirk admitted that the movie wasn’t perfect, but he blamed the poor quality on director Troy Miller, for not allowing himself and Cross to edit the movie.

20. THE TWO HAVE REUNITED A FEW OTHER TIMES.

David Cross and Bob Odenkirk star in 'W/ Bob and David'
Saeed Adyani/Netflix

In 2002, Bob, David, and Mr. Show writer/performers Brian Posehn, John Ennis, and Stephanie Courtney (Flo in the Progressive commercials) toured the country to perform some of the show’s sketches and material from their unproduced screenplay Mr. Show: Hooray For America! The next year, Odenkirk guest starred as Dr. Phil Gunty on a season one episode of Arrested Development, alongside Cross’ character Tobias Fünke.

In 2012, Odenkirk, Cross, and Posehn went on a six-city tour to promote their book filled with more unproduced material. Bob and David appeared briefly together the next year on an episode of Aukerman’s Comedy Bang! Bang! In 2015, 20 years after Mr. Show's debut, Netflix premiered W/ Bob and David, a five-episode sketch comedy show created by and starring the duo.

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30 Memorable Quotes from Carrie Fisher
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Just days after suffering a heart attack aboard a flight en route to Los Angeles, beloved actress, author, and screenwriter Carrie Fisher passed away at the age of 60 on December 27, 2016. Though she’ll always be most closely associated with her role as Princess Leia in Star Wars, Fisher’s life was like something out of its own Hollywood movie. Born in Beverly Hills on this day in 1956, Fisher was born into show business royalty as the daughter of singer Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds.

In addition to her work in front of the camera, Fisher built up an impressive resume behind the scenes, too, most notably as a writer; in addition to several memoirs and semi-autobiographical novels, including Wishful Drinking, Surrender the Pink, Delusions of Grandma, The Best Awful, Postcards from the Edge, and The Princess Diarist (which was released last month), she was also an in-demand script doctor who counted Sister Act, Hook, Lethal Weapon 3, and The Wedding Singer among her credits.

Though she struggled with alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illness, Fisher always maintained a sense of humor—as evidenced by the 30 memorable quotes below.

ON GROWING UP IN HOLLYWOOD

“I am truly a product of Hollywood in-breeding. When two celebrities mate, someone like me is the result.”

“I was born into big celebrity. It could only diminish.”

“At a certain point in my early twenties, my mother started to become worried about my obviously ever-increasing drug ingestion. So she ended up doing what any concerned parent would do. She called Cary Grant.”

“I was street smart, but unfortunately the street was Rodeo Drive.”

“If anything, my mother taught me how to sur-thrive. That's my word for it.”

ON AGING

“As you get older, the pickings get slimmer, but the people don't.”

ON INSTANT GRATIFICATION

“Instant gratification takes too long.”

ON THE LEGACY OF STAR WARS

“People are still asking me if I knew Star Wars was going to be that big of a hit. Yes, we all knew. The only one who didn't know was George.”

“Leia follows me like a vague smell.”

“I signed my likeness away. Every time I look in the mirror, I have to send Lucas a couple of bucks.”

“People see me and they squeal like tropical birds or seals stranded on the beach.”

“You're not really famous until you’re a Pez dispenser.”

ON THE FLEETING NATURE OF SUCCESS

“There is no point at which you can say, 'Well, I'm successful now. I might as well take a nap.'”

ON DEALING WITH MENTAL ILLNESS

“I'm very sane about how crazy I am.”

ON RESENTMENT

“Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die."

ON LOVE

“Someone has to stand still for you to love them. My choices are always on the run.”

“I've got to stop getting obsessed with human beings and fall in love with a chair. Chairs have everything human beings have to offer, and less, which is obviously what I need. Less emotional feedback, less warmth, less approval, less patience, and less response. The less the merrier. Chairs it is. I must furnish my heart with feelings for furniture.”

“I don’t hate hardly ever, and when I love, I love for miles and miles. A love so big it should either be outlawed or it should have a capital and its own currency.”

ON EMOTIONS

“The only thing worse than being hurt is everyone knowing that you're hurt.”

ON RELATIONSHIPS

“I envy people who have the capacity to sit with another human being and find them endlessly interesting, I would rather watch TV. Of course this becomes eventually known to the other person.”

ON HOLLYWOOD

“Acting engenders and harbors qualities that are best left way behind in adolescence.”

“You can't find any true closeness in Hollywood, because everybody does the fake closeness so well.”

“It's a man's world and show business is a man's meal, with women generously sprinkled through it like overqualified spice.”

ON FEAR

“Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.”

ON LIFE

“I don’t want life to imitate art. I want life to be art.”

“No motive is pure. No one is good or bad-but a hearty mix of both. And sometimes life actually gives to you by taking away.”

“If my life wasn't funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.”

“I shot through my twenties like a luminous thread through a dark needle, blazing toward my destination: Nowhere.”

“My life is like a lone, forgotten Q-Tip in the second-to-last drawer.”

ON DEATH

“You know what's funny about death? I mean other than absolutely nothing at all? You'd think we could remember finding out we weren't immortal. Sometimes I see children sobbing at airports and I think, 'Aww. They've just been told.'”

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