There’s nothing more satisfying than watching people on television watch people on television. In theory, the sight of people getting tangled up in fictional television shows should bore the polyester pantsuit off of me, but in practice, it’s awesome. Maybe it plays into my secret fantasy that movie and TV characters are, at heart, just as easily pulled into their own imaginative universes as the rest of us – we sweaty, broke, and regrettably real gibronies propped up on the couch.
12. Invitation to Love (Twin Peaks)
The remote town of Twin Peaks (chief exports: lumber and evil) had few distractions, which may explain why everyone was glued to the set for Invitation to Love, the soap opera featuring the sweaty but heroic Chet, twin sisters Jade and Emerald, and a whole lot of Machiavellian scheming. The show-within-a-show ran throughout the first season of Twin Peaks but vanished for the second season—yet another mystery in a show that ate mysteries for breakfast.
11. Mock Trial with J. Reinhold (Arrested Development)
What is the gestation period of a terrible joke—that period between the moment of its conception and its appearance on television? In this case, the joke being What if Judge Reinhold played an actual judge? In this case, about 26 years, from his first television appearances to his stint as the star of Mock Trial with J. Reinhold, featuring William Hung & The Hung Jury. Remember William Hung? Apparently he turned into a complete diva during his month or two of fame.
10. Exposé (Lost)
Everybody knows that the worst thing about Lost was the ending. But before that hideous hydra-headed beast of suck ate Lost alive, something else ignited fan hatred even more: the completely irrelevant characters of Nikki and Paulo. Eventually the writer’s room decided to kill the two off in the most gruesome manner possible, but not before devoting an entire episode to their backstories. As it turned out, Nikki played a crime-fighting stripper on Exposé, a cheesy Charlie’s Angels-style show featuring Billie Dee Williams. According to Hurley, Exposé was the most awesome show ever. Razzle Dazzle!
9. Stanley Spadowski’s Clubhouse (UHF)
Weird Al Jankovic’s 1989 comedy UHF featured plenty of television shows, including the ultra-controversial Town Talk with George and Wheel of Fish. But nothing approached the screaming genius of Stanley Spadowski’s Clubhouse, a candy-coloured Grand Guignol for kids. Featuring a pre-Seinfeld, pre-embarrassment Michael Richards looking like a deformed Jonathan Richman.
8. The Adventures of Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy (Spongebob Squarepants)
Every universe needs a weird version of ’60s-era Batman. Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy were the Batman and Robin that the world of Spongebob Squarepants deserved.
7. Pigs in Space (The Muppet Show)
Tune in for next week’s episode, where we’ll hear Miss Piggy say…
6. The Itchy and Scratchy Show (The Simpsons)
Technically, Itchy and Scratchy wasn’t a show-within-a-show; it first appeared as a cartoon segment on The Krusty the Klown Show, so it’s sort of like a fiction turducken. The funny thing about The Itchy and Scratchy Show is that, on some level, it wasn’t supposed to be particularly funny. Indeed, the pointless hyper-violence of the characters is intended to satirize the public’s appetite for grotesque spectacle (of course, it was also used to satirize the public’s appetite for programmatic moralizing and prudish overreaction to grotesque spectacle). Eventually, Itchy and Scratchy became toys for the show’s many writers to pick up and play with. In the series’ later years, whole episodes of The Simpsons could go by without a single joke hitting its mark, But Itchy and Scratchy’s violent antics were always good for a horrified laugh.
5. The Terrence and Phillip Show (South Park)
Thank God for Canada. Without that frozen hockey rink of a nation, Trey Parker and Matt Stone would never have envisioned a children’s show so disgusting that it could only be enjoyed by the children of South Park. Terrence and Phillip distill every kid’s obsessions into a cardboard cutout animated extravaganza of farting and swearing. And then there’s the pure joy of the “Uncle F*cker” song, which you can watch right now. Not safe for work, unless you’re employed at some kind of uncle f*cking factory.
4. The Truman Show (The Truman Show)
Some shows are so enveloping, so demanding of the audience’s attention, that they wrap around the characters’ worlds and envelop them completely. Such is the case with The Truman Show, a movie about a man who is the unwitting star of a television show about his own life. The Truman Show eventually became a story about a man’s quest to escape his own story, but it never shows us what lies beyond the bounds of the studio set—possibly because real life is so unbelievably dull that Truman probably shot himself inside of a year after he walked through that door.
3. Inspector Spacetime (Community)
If the Dan Harmon-era Community is remembered for anything (aside from being awesome), it will be for the third season introduction of Inspector Spacetime, a spot-on parody of vintage Doctor Who. The cheap sets, ridiculous tin monsters, and awful catchphrases (“Come along, Reggie, we don’t have much… space”) felt like a lost set of Who episodes from an alternate 1978. The show-within-a-show was so endearing that the man who played the Inspector immediately announced that he was making a Spacetime web series—until Sony shut him down. Then Sony shut Dan Harmon down. Then they cancelled Christmas forever.
2. Jerry (Seinfeld)
Nothing laid bare the skill and sophistication of Seinfeld like Jerry, the unbelievably bad sitcom that George and Jerry pitched as “the show about nothing. Jerry was everything that Seinfeld was not—a ridiculous premise, stilted dialogue, and that weird air of cheer that pervaded pre-Seinfeld sitcoms. Jerry is the worst possible (and most typical) outcome of what Seinfeld could have become: a stiff, unfunny zombie of a show with a rictus-like grin instead of a genuine smile.
1. The Howard Beale Show (Network)
In Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky’s ultra-bleak satire, network anchor Howard Beale loses his job. Then he loses his shit and starts ranting on the air. “I’m mad as hell,” he screams, “and I’m not going to take this anymore!” So what else can a network do but give him his own show, where he can rant to his heart’s content? To the camera’s indifferent eye, it’s all content. Beale’s rant has since become a touchstone, showing up in spots ranging from Judd Hirsch’s opening monologue from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip to Stanley Spadowski’s “life is like a mop” speech from UHF (see above). Network was ghastly comedy in 1976; today its excesses just look like reality show rough cuts.
What shows-within-shows can you name? Tell us in the comments. Do it.