Tete-a-tete Archives

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Tete-a-tete: Pop culture references lead to unexpected connections

Making connections is all about having the right references. A quote, a bit of trivia, recognition of an obscure allusion on a vanity plate – such things can lead to lifelong friendships, or at least an enjoyable conversation based on mutual understanding.

To be clear, I’m not talking about networking or business references. I’m talking about pop culture references and their astounding capacity to create camaraderie between total strangers.

A friend of mine recently told me about her experience setting up an account that required a verification code in addition to a password. The representative on the phone explained that the code had to be numeric and suggested she choose something easy to remember.

A child of the ‘80s, my friend promptly replied, “Eight, six, seven, five, three, zero, nine.”

The representative hesitated, then asked if she was sure she wanted to choose such a long string of numbers. Wouldn’t that be difficult to remember? She assured him she’d be fine.

The next time she called for information on that account, however, she had completely forgotten what numbers she’d chosen for her code. She spoke to a different representative this time, who stifled a laugh before reading the hint my friend had chosen to remind her of the code: “Jenny.”

My friend had no problem remembering the code after that, and she and the representative both shared a good laugh. This routine business transaction became more personal and enjoyable because they were both familiar with a specific pop culture reference – Tommy Tutone’s 1981 hit, “867-5309/Jenny.”

Sometimes these references are visual. It could be something obvious, like a person wearing a T-shirt with Captain America on it because they’re a fan of the “The Avengers” film franchise, or it could be on the subtler side, like a person wearing a red and gold striped scarf because they enjoy the Harry Potter books.

It can also be so obscure that only those who are truly in the know will pick up on it. Should you see someone carrying a towel around with them on May 25th, you can pretty much assume they’re a fan of Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and celebrating Towel Day. As Adams explains in his book, a towel is the most important item an interstellar hitchhiker can have due to its many and varied uses.

If you’re a fellow fan, you can confidently approach towel-carrying individuals on this day and compliment them on being a frood who knows where their towel is. Chances are you’ll get hearty thanks and share and enjoy some “Hitchhiker”-related witticisms. If they give you a puzzled look, however, they’re probably just on their way to the gym or the beach.

There’s a lot of joy in connecting with people in real life via pop culture references, but the ultimate payoff is when you realize that the creator of something you enjoy is also a fan of something else you enjoy.

I’ve enjoyed watching “NCIS,” a long-running police procedural, for years now, and I was thrilled when season 14 recently became available on Netflix. I was even more thrilled when I watched the episode “Being Bad,” about five high school students from different backgrounds who meet in detention and, years later, follow through on their pledge to form a burglary ring, and realized it was an homage to the ‘80s classic, “The Breakfast Club.”

I can safely say I’ve seen “The Breakfast Club at least 25 times, and that’s the low estimate. It was one of several movies I used to put on for background noise while cleaning or doing other mindless tasks in high school and college. And boy did that pay off with this episode of “NCIS.”

I quickly picked up on which characters in the episode represented the characters in the movie (the brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess, the criminal and the teacher who supervised their detention) and which lines in the episode were actually quotes from the movie. I noticed that the episode’s criminal character was wearing a red flannel shirt and had cigarette burns on his arms, just like his movie counterpart, and that the princess character gave him one of her diamond earrings – a significant turning point in the movie but not so much in the episode.

Please forgive the spoiler (and the seeming lack of humanity), but I was so excited when the episode’s brain character committed suicide with a flare gun. That was exactly what the brain character in the movie had been planning to do after realizing he had failed shop class. He brought the flare gun to school with him and it went off in his locker, which is how he ended up in detention with the other characters.

I was impressed to see so much attention to detail and it made the whole viewing experience that much more fun. It was clear that the creative team for “NCIS” wasn’t just making casual references – they were thoroughly familiar with “The Breakfast Club” and admired the movie enough to do it justice.

Pop culture references help us connect with others in unexpected ways, brightening up business transactions and giving us excuses to strike up conversations with total strangers. They also remind us that those who create the entertainment that shapes our culture today are often inspired by the same things we enjoy.

Which reminds me – if you read this column backward, it says, “Paul is dead.”

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published Aug. 3, 2017


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