STOP ME BEFORE I SUBREFERENCE AGAIN
The above line came at the end of an old Dennis Miller routine (back when he was funny, before he transformed into Howard Beale after Ned Beatty gives him the corporate cosmology speech in Network). However, it’s perfectly appropriate for any discussion of St. Elsewhere, which, throughout its six seasons, piled allusion upon reference upon inside joke, some inserted so subtly that they were easy to miss. Others were so blatant that they couldn’t be ignored. Either way, they served as a treat for the attentive viewer—and an outlet for the show’s writers who have admitted that sometimes, boredom can set in. “At a certain point in a TV show, the writers are writing for themselves to a large degree,” Gibson said. “If you’re just writing for the audience, you can get a little lost, a little bored.” The puns and references extended to the titles and weren’t limited to television—movies, books, poetry and theater also came into play. Television though remained at the top of heap. “We played around with the history of television and were very aware of ourselves as a TV show and all of us growing up as TV children,” Gibson said.
Stephen Furst, who first appeared three times in the second season as med student Elliot Axelrod before becoming a regular and a resident in the third season, loved that all the male residents’ fathers came from The Steve Allen Show. Granted, they missed or were unable to take advantage of the ultimate opportunity of having Don Knotts, Mr. Morrison in the old “Man on the Street” sketches, be Jack’s dad, but Tom Poston’s character in those bits never remembered his name anyway and his height made him appear more likely to have spawned David Morse’s character than Knotts anyway. Louis “Hi ho Steverino” Nye took on the role of Axelrod’s father, a veterinarian who brought a dog to St. Eligius, seeking chemotherapy. Bill “My name José Jiménez” Dana showed up as Fiscus’ dad (and Lainie Kazan turned up as his mother). Finally, Ehrlich, who always believed he was an orphan and raised by his daffy, usually drunk Aunt Charisse (Louise Lasser, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman herself), turns out to be the son of spies Lech and Olga Oseranski, played by none other than Steve Allen and his wife Jayne Meadows.
A cursory search of first season references, television and otherwise, in addition to the late Mr. Nielsen previously mentioned, uncovered obvious or subtle callouts to works as diverse as Star Trek, An Affair to Remember, The Twilight Zone, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Ben Casey, Dr. Kildare, T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, The Odd Couple, Leonard Nimoy’s In Search Of, Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night and a Geritol ad airing during the 1982-83 season. Of all the first season references, my personal favorite remains part of a phone conversation we overhear Dr. Beale having with someone we assume must be one of his patients as Dr. Westphall enters his office. “Mrs. Stephens, I don't think your daughter-in-law is a witch,” Beale tells the caller. “Masius and Fontana had a super reverence for these old TV shows,” Gibson said. Sometimes, the referential nature went so deep as to become allegorical, requiring research to discover all its layers, as in the sixth season episode directed by Morse, “A Coupla White Dummies Sitting Around Talking.” Written by D. Keith Mano from a story by Gibson and John Tinker, one of the storylines concerns Ehrlich being abducted by a maker of puppets and marionettes named Knox, played by Alan Young, best known as Mister Ed’s best buddy Wilbur. St. Eligius's Dr. Craig developed and installed an artificial heart called the Craig 9000, but Knox claims to be the true inventor of the device. The Knox character was based on a famous ventriloquist of the 1950s and ‘60s named Paul Winchell, known best for his dummy Jerry Mahoney. Winchell later became a recognizable voiceover artist, providing the voice for Tigger in Winnie the Pooh. One not so well known fact is that Winchell himself also liked to invent tthings: among the devices he developed and patented was an artificial heart, in 1963. The episode itself has one of St. Elsewhere’s most unusual endings: doll versions of Ehrlich and Craig discuss the events of the episode and end the show by singing You’ve Gotta Have Heart. “I still have that doll in storage,” Begley said.
For what may be the crowning achievement of the show’s penchant for references, look no further than “The Last One.” In fact, since that’s one of the only three episodes not from Season One that I've been able to revisit—thanks to having saved the video of the original airing for more than 24 years and transferring it to DVD myself (suck on that Fox Home Entertainment, and Rupert, I have the final Newhart as well, you stingy bastard)—I’m still discovering references in 2012 that I didn’t catch in 1988. For space reasons, we had to leave out a few references in the following montage: Craig’s “yeah yeah yeah” response to Ellen touting The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame as one of the pluses for moving to Cleveland, as well as the cranky surgeon telling Rosenthal to “slide back to the Valley of the Dolls” in reference to her recent drug addiction. It’s always hard to catch the jokes over the P.A. system, so the Code Blue that gets called in Room 222, the series James L. Brooks created prior to The Mary Tyler Moore Show that featured early appearances by both Begley and Laneuville, didn’t make the cut either. It’s still stuffed full.
We’re probably lucky that I don’t have access to all 137 episodes, because going over all the references within them might very well crash the Internet. The show's creators squeezed in one last M*A*S*H reference in their final episode—and they alluded many times to that long-running comedy which ended the season they premiered, but I’m saving that discussion for Part 3. They also had done some Mary Tyler Moore winks before, but none on the epic scale of the finale. When Oliver Clark played the hysterical recurring role of John Doe No. 6, he watched The Mary Tyler Moore Show one day and became convinced that he was Mary Richards. Guest starring on the fourth season episode “Close Encounters” (which was followed by the episode “Watch the Skies,” the working title of Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film—even offscreen the writer were firing off references) happened to be Betty White, playing a military official and old friend of Westphall’s checking on an astronaut patient's condition. When John Doe No. 6 sees her in the hall, he immediately exclaims, “Sue Ann? Sue Ann Nivens?” to which she replies, “Sorry. You must have me confused with someone else.”
I wouldn’t want to try to catch all the hat tips to the musical 1776, in which Daniels starred on Broadway and in the film version as John Adams who, much like Mark Craig, was obnoxious and disliked, you know that sir. (The movie marks its 40th anniversary on the 17th of this month.) One I’d forgotten but that I found online occurs in the fifth season, when John Astin plays the husband of Dr. Paulette Kiem (France Nuyen), who becomes chief of surgery after Craig injures his hand. Kiem says something to her spouse in another language, and it can’t help but bring the Gomez out of Astin as he declares lustily, “Paulette—you spoke French.” That same year, they even paid homage to their MTM quality TV cousin Hill Street Blues when Lucy, promoted to head nurse while Helen was in drug rehab, ends a staff meeting with, “And hey, remember, let's be caring out there.” Not all of the pages—such as the ones frequently heard for Paltrow’s young children Gwyneth and Jake—were sweet and kind. New York Times TV critic John J. O’Connor wrote a harsh assessment of what he found to be the series’ strange evolution “into a pattern of grim-faced titillations and questionable cuteness, salvaged from mediocrity by one of the best repertory acting companies in a weekly series. Far from being innovative, St. Elsewhere has become a middling example of nighttime soap opera, complete with rapists, drug addicts and ‘hunk’ actors spending as much time as possible with their shirts off.” What good is an intercom system if you can’t use it? O’Connor, who apparently kept watching despite his disgust, found that someone bearing his name kept taking a turn for the worse in the emergency room, something he wrote about in a preview of the finale: “This reviewer found some of the changes silly, which no doubt accounted for the periodic bulletins at St. Eligius that a Mr. O'Connor was fading fast in the emergency ward. This, of course, left me loving St. Elsewhere all over again, bed sores and all.”