(For an explanation of this year-by-year cultural exploration, check out this introductory blog post)
In high school my best friends and I had so many inside jokes we would need to cycle through them about every two months. Back when making mixed CDs for people was more common, I would name the CD whatever the joke du jour was. It is fun when a friend discovers one of these CDs years later and asks me, “Why do I have a CD called ‘This Ham Juice Burns’?” I explain the joke (if I can remember it), then I like to ask what songs are on the CD so I can contextualize when the CD was created, as the tunes were typically what I obsessively listened to at the time.
One inside joke is so inside, it remains a mystery to those of us involved. My friend Jamie and I know that at some point shortly after college we saw a movie in which one grown man told another grown man to “Shhhhhh Shhhhh” while slowly gliding his index finger down the other man’s lip. We know we found it funny, we know it stuck in our memory, we just don’t know what movie it is from. In my head, whoever brings us the answer to this decade long question could easily be the next Messiah, or at least my first husband. That is how important this silly inside joke is to me.
I tried to look up the origin of in jokes, but there is no real concrete starting point. We as a society have enjoyed knowing something others don’t for centuries. It is why suspense movies are so popular. As famed director Alfred Hitchcock pointed out, suspense isn’t about surprising the audience, it is about putting the audience in the know, while the character they are watching remains unaware. People like figuring things out before they’re supposed to. There is a fascination with solving the mystery rather than have it explained to you. This might explain why when I was young I set my sights on being that kid that found the next cool thing; the undiscovered band, the cult classic.
I actually started to adopt the cult movie classics long before I even realized that was what I was doing. Growing up, I didn’t know many of the kids in our subdivision. We went to a Montessori school, so outside of the Catholic ones we saw at church, I never really interacted with them, with one exception.
Debbie Koseniak lived kitty-corner to our house and we would spend a lot of time playing in each other’s yards, living rooms, and finished basements (living in Nevada now, oh how I miss a good finished basement). Debbie’s family room had the upper hand over ours since we weren’t allowed to pay video games and she had both a Nintendo and HBO. We spent a lot of time over there watching cartoons and movies, and the one we watched the most was the 1985 board game-based marvel, Clue.
Clue was the first movie I started quoting out of context of the movie itself. When I would run over to Debbie’s house, I would ring the bell, she would answer, and I would sing “I…Am…Your singing telegram!” then collapse in a heap as if I’d been shot, just like the movie
BuzzFeed did an incredible oral history on the film about a year ago, detailing how the project went from board game to studio project to box office flop to cult classic. The gist is that in the early 80s, many premium cable channels needed to fill out odd hours of the day with cheap programming. With a PG rating and a humor that appealed to adults, Clue fit the bill perfectly. As a result, young kids like myself began to watch it over and over again, committing our favorite lines to memory, sharing them with peers. Those who knew the movie were in on the joke, while those on the outside were just left perplexed.
To this day, I am still prone to Tweet “Flames…on the side of my face”, quoting Madeline Khan’s famous speech (the only improvised moment in the whole movie) and those who know me well know I am having a terribly frustrating day.
Clue is not the only murder mystery of 1985 worth talking about though. The long-running Murder, She Wrote wrapped its first season in the spring of 1985, and I don’t think anyone expected it to continue on for 12 years, finally concluding in 1996. Along the way, the show’s star, Angela Lansbury, earned an Emmy nomination for Best Actress every single season the show was on the air. She is 90 years old and still kicking, probably because of her positively spectacular workout routine. Her character, Jessica Fletcher, made jogging cool years before it was in, she had a home remedy for any health problem you may encounter and, while she tends to bring in a wave of death and destruction wherever she goes, she is always a model house guest.
Oftentimes when people complain to me about older television, they suggest it is formulaic and repetitive. I can understand that, when it comes to Murder, She Wrote, yes there is always a murder at the heart of the episode, but beyond that the rest was completely up in the air. Here are a few things Ms. Fletcher did over the course of the run of the show:
Inherited a professional football team, taught in a women’s prison and then saving said prison from an inmate riot, tried to find her niece’s missing husband at a traveling circus, helped Russian ballerinas defect to America, Wrote a children’s book and adapted it into a puppet show, visited an Amish community, solved a murder on a plane, designed a house of horrors for an amusement park, got Magnum PI off the hook for a murder, and solved a mystery of why she was being haunted by a ghost witch.
If you don’t find this show to be immensely feminist and transgressive, I think your standards might be too high. The mystery at the heart of the plot is fun to solve and all, but the real surprises are where Jessica might pop up this week and which soon-to-be celebrity would play the accused, the victim, the murderer, or one of her seemingly endless nieces. The show had to be inventive and creative out of necessity once their star got up
into her 70s, and the results are a kooky show about a lovely lady in Maine who has inexplicably witnessed like 250 murders, but still manages to make Cabot Cove feel like home. (Shameless plug, but my very talented cousin Joel wrote a delightful song about Cabot Cove I have to share):
One of the reasons I am so quick to plug Joel whenever I can
is because, as a lifelong lover of musicals, I get so excited that my cousin is
so adept at musical theater composition. As kids, he would direct plays we
would appear in. They were made up stories that pretty much wholesale took the
plot of other stories and tinkered with them slightly, resulting in living room
productions like “The Gizard of Oz”.
My mom was the one who got me hooked on musicals in the
first place, but while she tended towards the classics like Oklahoma and Meet
Me in St Louis, I started to dabble at a relatively young age in more edgy and contemporary
musical theater. My first foray into musical theater songs though were ones I
didn’t even realize belonged to a show.
I don’t really know if little girls have music boxes
anymore, but as I child I adored them and collected several. The little diddys
the spinning ballerinas in the boxes danced to varied, but would almost always
be one of three things: The Music Box Dancer, Memory from Cats, and On My Own,
which was added to the musical Les Miserables when it began its
English-speaking run in London in 1985.
When I was five or six, I thought these songs were the most beautiful songs on Earth. The more I attended dance competitions, the better I got to know them, as nearly every preteen girl had latched on to On My Own and wanted to do a passionate dance to a song that understand how it felt to have the guy in fourth grade you had a crush on not pay attention to you. It was only as a teenager that I learned the true origin of the song was for a character that was doomed to a life of suffering with no parents, no love, just herself. In context, the song makes the personal experiences I associated with it as a child pretty petty, but the tune nonetheless serves an important purpose. As a song in a very adult-themed show that any child can relate to, it gets young musical theater fans like myself in the pipeline. You start with Wizard of Oz, then move on to Cats and On My Own before you eventually get shown Grease and you realize musicals could be a lot more than you really thought they would be.
Just how expansive is the musical genre? It remains a mystery to me now, even after watching any musical I can get my hands on, as all the new ones keep pushing the boundaries further and further. That is okay though. Figuring out the answer is the fun part anyways.