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The 5 Geekiest Cleveland Appearances in Pop Culture

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Now that LeBron James has come home, Cleveland’s star is rising among jocks, with Kevin Love joining him and making the Cavaliers a team to watch in the upcoming NBA season.

This is great news for sports-loving Clevelanders, but not so great for the nerdier residents of the Mistake By The Lake. For the past few years, Cleveland nerds had been able to hold it over Cleveland jocks that, while LeBron wasn’t here anymore, Captain America was, thanks to the tax incentive that helped our fair city stand in for New York, Berlin, and Washington, D.C. in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films.

As an underdog city, Cleveland has always held a special place in nerd culture. But if you want to be a real Cleveland nerd, brush up on these five examples where Cleveland has popped up that most people aren't aware of:

1. Howard the Duck

People who think the worst thing George Lucas ever did was The Phantom Menace or The Star Wars Holiday Special only think that because they’ve never seen 1986's Howard the Duck. With its deeply creepy protagonist, bizarre shifts in tone, and gross sexual humor, this flick is a crown jewel of bad cinema.

The best part is that Howard the Duck is based on a long-running Marvel comic book series and it broke the fourth wall and mocked comic book conventions long before Deadpool ever did it. Even though it was universally hated by critics, Howard the Duck was the highest-grossing film based on a Marvel Comics property until Blade in 1998, showing just how bad things used to be for comics adaptations.

And where else would an anthropomorphic duck from another dimension land when he arrived on Earth but in Cleveland, Ohio? It is, after all, the ideal setting for a self-aware, self-deprecating, intentionally terrible concept for a “superhero” to live.

Fun fact: When Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman in 1934, he originally hailed from their home city of Cleveland. However, when they finally got accepted by a publisher in 1938, National Comics insisted on changing Superman’s city to the fictional “Metropolis” to give him a broader appeal. Now the comics character Cleveland is irrevocably associated with is Howard the Duck. How the mighty have fallen.

2. American Splendor

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The more your works include superheroes in spandex and capes, the geekier you are, with only one exception: Comic books, where it’s reversed.

Thanks to the many successful film adaptations, superhero comics are more mainstream than ever. But the true hardcore fans of comics—or, as we prefer to call them, “sequential art”—are the ones who laud the medium for its capacity to tell small, human stories about working stiffs like you and me who can’t shoot laser blasts out of any part of their bodies.

One of the leading lights of the underground comics scene was Harvey Pekar, whose autobiographical American Splendor series was a grim, painful look at life as a VA file clerk in the Rust Belt.

No one embodies the whole “Cleveland: You’ve Gotta Be Tough” masochistic machismo more than Pekar, whose “Life is a war of attrition” motto made him Cleveland’s “poet laureate.”

The film adaptation of American Splendor, released in 2003, is a must-see gem starring Paul Giamatti, and remains neck-and-neck with The Avengers for the title of “Best Comic Book Movie Filmed in Cleveland.”

3. Calvin & Hobbes

It’s a bit of local lore that Bill Watterson, the J.D. Salinger of newspaper comics, grew up in Cleveland suburb Chagrin Falls, and still lives in the area to this day.

Watterson has been open about Calvin & Hobbes being based on his own childhood, and even though few clues are given, all the detailed natural landscapes Calvin barrels through on his wagon will look extremely familiar to anyone who’s walked through the woods in Northeast Ohio.

The clincher is this classic panel showing a King-Kong-sized Calvin destroying a very faithful reproduction of historic downtown Chagrin Falls. The building he has picked up and is about to throw is Chagrin Falls’ perennial tourist attraction, the Popcorn Shop.

4. The second Hellmouth in 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'

References to Cleveland as a less-than-stellar place are old hat in in pop culture—quoth the great sage Yakov Smirnoff: "Now, I make fun of Cleveland because everybody makes fun of Cleveland. I mean, every country has one city that people make fun of. In Russia, we used to make fun of Cleveland.”

The one that sticks out in my mind most, though, is Joss Whedon repeatedly dissing Cleveland by mentioning it as the location of the second Hellmouth in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Not only does it poke fun at the convenient Hollywood logic behind the first Hellmouth, the one Buffy is assigned to patrol, being under the incredibly telegenic idyllic LA suburb of Sunnydale, but it also serves as a kind of understated joke. No one outright talks about what’s going on with that other Hellmouth in Cleveland, but clearly there is no vampire slayer protecting Clevelanders from their city being above a dimensional gateway to Hell, and nobody in Cleveland seems to notice.

My favorite time this was referenced? The Season 3 episode “The Wish,” where we see an alternate universe where Buffy went to Cleveland instead of Sunnydale, causing Sunnydale to become a grim dystopia ruled by vampires (implying that that’s what Cleveland is like in our world). When alternate-universe Buffy arrives in Sunnydale, this version of her is, unlike the lovable Slayer we know, a brutal, merciless killing machine incapable of friendship or trust. Cleveland will do that to you.

5. The Ghost Whisperer

Melinda Gordon, as played by Jennifer Love Hewitt on TV's The Ghost Whisperer from 2005 to 2010, may have lived in the fictional town of Grandview, New York, but she was based on the real-life Mary Ann Winkowski, who lives in North Royalton, Ohio—right next door to my hometown of Broadview Heights.

A paid consultant for the show, Winkowski has been a local Ohio celebrity and exorcist-for-hire for decades. There haven't been any climactic battles between good and evil in her life, but Winkowski has monetized her special talents by giving self-help classes on how to de-haunt your own house, offered to dispel the curse on the Cleveland Indians for a fee (they haven’t taken her up on it yet), and, the crowning touch, has published a cookbook containing all the best recipes passed to her by departed spirits.

If the show was a very New York-take on what a ghost whisperer’s life would be like, Winkowski’s career is Cleveland to the core.

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The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
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For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before being called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior in 1980 to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song, “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

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20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

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The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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