by D.W. Lundberg

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


Source Code stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a military operative trying to uncover a potential terrorist threat from on board a Chicago commuter train. The catch is, he's part of a highfalutin' government experiment that plugs his consciousness into the body of a passenger for only 8 minutes at a time, and he's been tasked with reliving those minutes, over and over again, until he can discover the bomber's identity.

If the plot sounds familiar, you're right: it's Groundhog Day (though significantly less funny) mixed with a healthy dose of TV's Quantum Leap (look! When he looks in the mirror the face he sees is not his own but someone else's!), updated for our terror-fueled times. But if you think you're one step ahead of the movie, guess again: Source Code, in between its time-hopping hijinks, also features some downtime between Gyllenhaal's character and his estranged father, a voice-only cameo by none other than... Scott Bakula, star of TV's Quantum Leap. (Bakula even gets to utter his immortal phrase from that series – "Oh, Boy!" – at a crucial moment during their conversation.)

This is what you call an "in"-joke – a laugh geared towards viewers privy to insider information. Personally, I love it when movies pull a stunt like this. It means the filmmakers are self-aware, lets them off the hook for potentially plundering our collective memories of other movies (or cult TV shows). By cleverly slipping an actor like Bakula into their fold, the makers of Source Code are essentially telling us, "Yes, we know you've seen this somewhere before – but we'll cop to that instead of trying to pass off the idea as our own. Now relax and enjoy the show!" We tend to know more about the way Hollywood actually works than most studio execs are willing to give us credit for, so it's refreshing to see someone acknowledge as much.

This got me all nostalgic, of course, for other titles that have pulled the same trick – slyly tipped their hat to ideas taken from previous source material. Some of these in-jokes are subtle, others not so much, and by no means is this list comprehensive:


Title: Back To The Future (1985, Robert Zemeckis)

In-Joke: Almost immediately upon his arrival in Hill Valley, circa 1955, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is given a less-than-congenial welcome from farm owner Otis Peabody and family. (Peabody even blows away his own mailbox with a shotgun blast aimed at Marty's escaping, time-traveling DeLorean.) The end credits later reveal that Otis's son is named Sherman.

Why It's "In": Both Otis and son are named after characters from The Rocky And Bullwinkle Show (1959-1964), which featured a recurring segment titled Peabody's Improbable History about a talking dog (Mister Peabody) and his pet boy (Sherman) who travel back in time to interact with historical figures. Kudos to Robert Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale for weaving such a wink-wink reference into their already intricate screenplay.

Title: Batman Forever (1995, Joel Schumacher)

In-Joke: While investigating the mysterious island hideout of Two-Face and The Riddler, crime-fighter-in-training Robin (Chris O’Donnell) exclaims, "Holy rusted metal, Batman!" – much to his partner's dismay. "Huh?" Batman (Val Kilmer) asks, confused. "The ground, it's all metal," explains Robin. "It's full of holes. You know, holey."

Why It's "In": It's a deliberate throwback to Twentieth Century Fox's Batman television series from the 1960s, a catchphrase regularly spoken by Boy Wonder Robin (Burt Ward) in response to a clue of particular fascination. The line as it exists in the movie is still a groaner, but at least the screenwriters had sense enough to pay homage to the characters' camp roots.

Title: Enchanted (2007, Kevin Lima)

In-Joke: It's a line that comes midway through the opening animated sequence, as Prince Edward (James Marsden) and Giselle (Amy Adams) meet for the first time. Giselle: "Oh, it's you." Prince Edward: "Yes, it's me. And you are?" "Giselle." "Oh, Giselle! We shall be married in the morning!"

Why It's "In": In a movie loaded with puns poking fun at Disney's rich animated history, this one is my favorite. Too cheesy, you say? Think back, for a second, to Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella... in which our title character meets the man of her dreams, falls in love, and marries him all within the span of 24 hours. Sometimes, the characters don't even know each other's names, for crying out loud. (This is courtship?) In-joke runners up include real-world Giselle enlisting the help of pigeons and cockroaches for the "Happy Working Song," or Patrick Dempsey's exasperated comments during "That's How You Know."

Title: On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969, Peter Hunt)

In-Joke: Mi-6 agent James Bond (George Lazenby) has just rescued the mysterious Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg) from drowning herself in the ocean when he's suddenly besieged by a pair of vicious, gun-wielding thugs. As he fights them off, the Countess ungratefully adds insult to injury by driving off in Bond's silver Aston Martin. Bond can only watch after her, astonished. "This never happened to the other fellow," he muses.

Why It's "In": Australian actor (and former model) Lazenby became the first unlucky replacement for Sean Connery as agent 007, and the first act of OHMSS does him no favors, as if constantly apologizing for the switch-over (the poor guy doesn't even get his name above the title). That "other fellow" line is a none-too-subtle reference to the suave, esteemed Connery, who decided to vacate the series with only five movies under his belt.

Title: Shakespeare In Love (1998, John Madden)

In-Joke: In this Oscar-winning comedy, we get our first glimpse of prolific author William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) as he practices scrawling his signature, over and over again, on crumpled pieces of paper.

Why It's "In": A debate rages today as to whether Shakespeare actually wrote his plays himself, or if the name is simply a pseudonym for another author (or authors) who wished to remain anonymous. This is called "The Shakespeare Authorship Question," the clearest evidence of which shows that the supposedly-literate Bard never spelled or signed his name exactly same way. A Shakespeare scholar himself, screenwriter Tom Stoppard was no doubt aware of the controversy, and his way of settling the matter so quickly (like so many of us who've practiced perfecting our own signatures) is like an oh-so witty slap in the face to conspiracy buffs everywhere.

Title: Toy Story (1995, John Lasseter)

In-Joke: Accidentally abandoned by their owner in a gas station parking lot, toy rivals Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) agonize over their desperate situation. Buzz – who believes he's an actual spaceman, not a toy – inadvertently reveals that the fate of the universe hangs irrevocably in the balance: "Right now, poised at the edge of the galaxy, Emperor Zurg has been secretly building a weapon with the destructive capacity to annihilate an entire planet! I alone have information that reveals this weapon's only weakness. And you, my friend, are responsible for delaying my rendezvous with Star Command!"

Why It's "In": You remember the line from 1999's Toy Story sequel when arch-enemy Zurg reveals to Buzz that "I am your father!" But the seeds for that obvious Star Wars reference were actually planted earlier in the original Story, as a nod to Princess Leia's stolen schematics for the dreaded Death Star. (Buzz's Death Star reference also prompts my favorite line in the entire movie, as Woody explodes: "YOU! ARE! A! TOYYYYY!")


As always, I hope I've merely opened a door to other examples I haven't even thought of. Please feel free to share some of your own favorite in- jokes in the comments below!


  1. What about Maverick? When Mel Gibson and Danny Glover share a glance and say, "Nah..."? You should elaborate on that one for us because I know you would do it better than I could. In fact, while reading through the many examples, I thought for sure I was going to see that one.

  2. Dang Jonny stole mine. Yeah it's not quite the same thing but it's similar where a film will acknowledged that these actors have worked together before as a famous duo. And for those who didn't get it with just the look of reconnection, they added the Lethal Weapon music for good measure. That part made me bust up. (my moms a huge Mel Gibson fan, from before he went extra crazy) So I've seen just about all his films. Wondering if you know of other films that do the same thing. trying to remember some but can't at the moment. Curious to see what you come up with Darin.

  3. p.s. Also I didn't catch the one in Shakespeare in love before, thanks for sharing. Thats kind of awesome!! That makes me think of that new movie coming out called Anonymous, that deals with this whole Shakespeare is a fake concept. Have you seen the trailers? It looks goos what do you think of it?

  4. Sorry to comment again but there is an on going joke in Star Wars where a character in each movie says "I've got a bad feeling about this." Does that count?

  5. There’s a moment toward the beginning of the first X-FILES movie where Scully (Gillian Anderson) insists that she saw a “definite moment of panic” on the face of her partner, Mulder (David Duchovny), after a practical joke. “You've never seen me panic,” Mulder replies, then adds, “When I panic, I make this face” – and his face doesn’t change. This is a clever dig at critics who complained about Duchovny’s limited acting range on the television series, and darned if he didn’t take that in stride. I loved the joke but didn’t think it fit in with my other examples, which specifically recall past movies and literary sources. The AIRPLANE!/ NAKED GUN/SCARY MOVIE series are riddled with in-jokes too, but those are too obvious. Can anyone out there think of any different examples?