The episode: “Hercules Against the Moon Men,” ep. 410
The riff: Mumbled by Crow as an old, weathered man scribbles with his quill on a sheet of parchment.
The explanation: Aristophanes is one of the founding fathers of ancient Greek theater, specifically in the genre of comedy. His surviving works essentially define the Greek style of “old comedy” and give the most complete portrait we have of daily life in ancient Athens. They were typically politically charged and full of satire, singling out individuals such as the philosopher Socrates. Through his plays, Aristophanes wielded considerable political clout of his own.
Novelty factor: I’ve never actually seen a play by Aristophanes, but I know a handful of them and I’ve read about the playwright before.
You just got told by Aristophanes.
The episode: “The Horrors of Spider Island,” ep. 1011
The riff: Called out invitingly by Mike as our high pants-wearing “hero” stumbles through the brush toward a large spider-like monster that is lying in wait.
The explanation: Mike is paraphrasing a famous English poem by Mary Howitt called “The Spider and the Fly” that was first published in 1829. It’s about a spider trying to trick a fly to enter its web through seduction and flattery, telling the fly how wonderful it all is. The poem was often taught to children as a lesson about guarding against fraudulent and dangerous tricksters. You can read the full text here.
Novelty factor: I don’t remember ever having learned this one in school, which is too bad.
The episode: “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” ep. 809
The riff: Blurted out by Tom as the high school bell rings and our main character (the titular teen werewolf) is overcome by the sound.
The explanation: This is a straightforward reference to a well-known poem by Edgar Allen Poe called “The Bells.” It’s a short poem focusing heavily on the onomatopoeia sounds of bells, whether “jingling” or “tingling” or “moaning” or “groaning.” The tone of the poem slowly becomes darker throughout, which isn’t all that surprising given that this is Poe.
Novelty factor: I am quite familiar with this particular poem. I still remember learning it for the first time in seventh grade English class. It has a very hypnotic rhythm when read aloud because of all the repetition.
The episode: “Kitten with a Whip,” ep. 615
The riff: Snarked by Crow as a group of young whippersnappers impose on a middle-aged guy and barge their way into his house.
The explanation: “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” is the title of a short story by “Gatsby” scribe F. Scott Fitzgerald, first published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1920. It’s the story of a young girl learning to be more of a “modern woman” to attract the men of the time, and as such I believe Crow is comparing these kids to her hip new friends. He might also be referring to the 1976 TV adaptation of the story that was shown on PBS.
Novelty factor: It’s probably pretty safe to say that few people my age have read any Fitzgerald besides “The Great Gatsby” in school, and as such I had never heard of this before.
The episode: “Secret Agent Super Dragon,” ep. 504
The riff: Growled by Joel to finish a sentence by a wimpy-looking tough who says “Yes, you must!”
The explanation: Joel is referencing a catchphrase and exercise that appears to have first been invented by children’s book author Judy Blume in her well-known 1970 young adult novel “Are You There God? It’s me, Margaret.” The story is about a young girl entering puberty and dealing with her changing world, including envy of other girls in school who have developed faster. The exercise is the sort of fraudulent thing that kids pass around as a rumor on the playground, that by exercising the pec muscles and saying “I must increase my bust,” one could develop larger breasts. It has since become attributed to many other sources, and even songs, although Blume says it definitely doesn’t work.
Novelty factor: I had no idea. I really thought it was going to be in parody of some kind of infomercial series that would be using the phrase as a mantra.
The episode: “Uncle Jim’s Dairy Farm,” the short before “Bloodlust,” ep. 607
The riff: Spoken by Tom in a grave tone as a kid playing with others in a barn tries to climb a rope but doesn’t do too hot at it.
The explanation: Tom is referring to a 1973 novel called “Summer of My German Soldier” by Bette Greene. The book is about a young Jewish girl living in Arkansas during World War II. She comes into contact with an escaped German POW (Did we really bring them to America? It seems like a lot of unnecessary effort.) and the two fall in love. <— He’s not a Nazi, clearly. The book was additionally made into a TV movie in 1978.
Novelty factor: Had no idea, but I assumed it was probably a film from the way Tom said it.
The episode: “Here Comes the Circus,” the short in front of “The Day the Earth Froze,” ep. 422
The riff: Chimed in by Tom Servo as a woman climbs on top of a man’s shoulders as part of the circuses tumbling routine.
The explanation: “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat and Other Clinical Tales” was a groundbreaking 1985 book by psychologist Oliver Sacks. It collects some of the oddest stories and occurrences of his career in abnormal psychology, such as the title character, who suffered from visual agnosia. Many of the stories have been adapted or sampled in films such as “Memento.”
Novelty factor: I was made to read this book in a high school psychology course and found it very interesting. I’ve also noted how its stories have been used in the media–I remember recognizing when a first-season episode of “House” used one of the bits from the book about an old woman re-experiencing syphilis that had come out of dormancy after 50 years. All in all, it’s an interesting book.