The episode: “Snow Thrills,” the short in front of “It Conquered the World,” ep. 311
The riff: Chirped by Tom Servo during the movie’s opening credits.
The explanation: “Our Gang” was the official name for the series of shorts that became better known as “The Little Rascals.” It was somewhat notable at its 1922 inception for portraying children in a more realistic way than in the past. Compare “Our Gang” episodes to children’s appearances in adult comedies of the time and you’ll see what I mean–they actually have their own motivations and concerns, and act more like small adults than overgrown babies. Hal Roach, the producer, was a prolific producer of comedies, including those of Laurel and Hardy.
Novelty factor: Despite its age, I recognized this one, having studied this sort of thing in some of my earlier film courses.
The episode: “The Thing that Couldn’t Die,” ep. 805
The riff: Asked aloud by Crow after one of the movie’s heroines says “Maybe Gordon would like to go.”
The explanation: Gorton’s of Gloucester is a popular frozen seafood chain, known for fish sticks and other forms of frozen, breaded fish. It’s typically just known as “Gorton’s,” with the slogan “Trust the Gorton’s fisherman!” Although I don’t think I would trust him enough to try “prepared fish balls.”
Novelty factor: I’m quite familiar with Gorton’s, as I imagine most people probably are, but never in my life have I heard “of Gloucester” attached to the name. I can’t even find many references to it online.
The episode: “Racket Girls,” ep. 616
The riff: Delivered in a deadpan voice by Crow after a crooked businessman walks into a room and greets one of his flunkies, “Hey, Joe.”
The explanation: They’re referring to the classic American roots song that became a rock standard in the 1960s, recorded by many groups. The best known version is the one by Jimi Hendrix, but actual authorship of the original is still unknown. Many laid claim to it, but the copyright belonged to small-time country singer Billy Roberts. The song itself, about a murderer on the run, was pretty clearly inspired by even older American roots songs and murder ballads–“Little Sadie” in particular.
Novelty factor: I love that song, so it was immediate recognition. I am interested by the countless covers and lack of a full history on the tune. Enjoy my favorite version, featuring ridiculous mandolin-playing by Tim O’Brien.
The episode: “Are You Ready for Marriage?” the short in front of “Racket Girls,” ep. 616
The riff: Said by Mike in a girly voice as a young woman disengages from her man at the end of a date.
The explanation: I’m pretty sure this is a reference to Vitalis Hair Tonic. It’s an old-school product that was supposed to be an alternative to physical pomades that had a more gooey consistency. It was apparently marketed as something for upscale folks who didn’t want to look like “greasy kids.” It touted it could do this through “the greaseless grooming discovery V7.” I have no idea what V7 is. Presumably, it still left your hands feeling like they needed washing, though.
Novelty factor: As it turns out, vintage hair tonics fall somewhat outside my area of riff expertise. So listen to someone who knows more on the subject than me–Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr!
The episode: “The Castle of Fu Manchu,” ep. 323
The riff: Offered as an explanation by Dr. Forrester for the week’s invention exchange, a bomb that transforms the holder into the actor Joe Besser.
The explanation: A weirdly specific riff, no? Joe Besser was a character actor who was known for his comedy playing one specific type of whiny, effeminate character. As TV’s Frank puts it, “that lovable buffoon who was a lisping manchild long before it became fashionable.” On the Abbot and Costello Show, his character was named Stinky, an “impish, bratty man” who acted like a large child. Besser was also briefly one of the members of The Three Stooges after the passing of Shemp Howard, making them “Moe, Larry and Joe.” He wasn’t popular in this role, and was soon replaced by “Curly Joe.”
Novelty factor: I’ve always wondered where some of these catchphrases come from, such as “I’ll harm you!” Now I know. Did he also originate “I’ll give you such a pinch!“?
The episode: “The Deadly Mantis,” ep. 804
The riff: Exclaimed by Crow as some military men investigate a strange three-pronged furrow in the snow that we, the audience, know was made by the claws of a giant, deadly mantis.
The explanation: This is a bit of an obscure musical joke, if I understand it correctly. First, I’ll explain that Django Reinhardt was a pioneering virtuoso jazz guitarist active mostly in Paris in the 1930s. His “Hot Club of France” jazz group is one of the most imitated in history, and he brought many elements of folk music and especially gypsy music into jazz for the first time. The provenance of this riff, though, refers to Reinhardt’s hand, which was crippled in a fire as a teenager. To the end of his life, he only had full control of three fingers, which made his solos all the more amazing and groundbreaking. So basically, the SOL crew is saying a three-fingered hand made this mark in the snow, if I don’t miss my guess.
Novelty factor: This is one I actually knew off the bat, as a folk music geek. Django Reinhardt’s music was a direct inspiration on some of my favorite artists in the world of progressive bluegrass, such as David Grisman.
His fingers look okay to me, but I’m not a doctor.
The episode: “A Day at the Fair,” the short before “Code Name: Diamond Head,” ep. 608
The riff: Called out in an old-timey radio voice by Mike as a shot of an old, black car is shown.
The explanation: I believe this is a general joke about the prevalence of the “death car”-type attraction that one might see at numerous county fairs. The major example is “Bonny and Clyde’s death car,” the historic car the two was gunned down in. The bullet-riddled car toured the country as a tourist attraction, prompting many imitators and fakes. It really is the perfect type of county fair hokum, in the tradition of P.T. Barnum’s fake historical curiosities. The “Hitler death car” concept seems to have taken on a life of its own beyond this riff–I remember a scene in The Simpsons where Bart wrecks the supposed Hitler death car, and you can find artistic interpretations online as well.
Novelty factor: Between The Simpsons episode and general knowledge of Bonny and Clyde, I got what they were going for. Weirdly, I found The Simpsons clip in German. Enjoy.