Pop Cultural Osmosis Failure

    Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

    Soujirou: Oh, back then, Bison was dressed up as Mike Tyson. Pretty cool.
    Konata: Who's Mike Tyson?
    (later that day)
    Soujirou: Today, I felt the generation gap in a deep and very personal way.

    Lucky Star Manga vol. 6

    This is a subversion of Pop Cultural Osmosis. When used in-universe, it's usually as a means of showing the difference between people from two different groups (usually generations) in which a character from Group A makes a pop culture reference (or mentions a famous person or movie or work) and one of four things happens:

    1. "Who's X?"—The person from Group B doesn't get it at all because of a failure of Pop Cultural Osmosis. This seems to be the most common.
    2. "Oh, X! He was in Y, right!"—The person from Group B gets it wrong because of a failure of Pop Cultural Osmosis (and he's guessing).
    3. "Wait, Y was based on a real X?"—The person from Group B gets it wrong because of a clash of Pop Cultural Osmosis, and he's referencing something that referenced the original, referenced a reference of the original, etc.
    4. "Impressive, you know X... oh, you don't"—The person from Group B gets it wrong because of a clash of Pop Cultural Osmosis, when person A is referencing something more recent (the reverse of 3).

    This can happen because the person from Group B:

    A) is a bumpkin or is otherwise cut off from modern pop culture;
    B) is an outsider of the clique or subculture or is an immigrant or foreigner;
    C) is old-fashioned and not knowledgeable of current popular culture;
    D) is young and the bit of pop culture is (relatively) old;
    E) is amusingly displaced from the time of origin;
    F) simply is not familiar with a genre or a work;
    G) the work itself is thought to be so popular that all who know it think it will be passed on through Pop Cultural Osmosis—with the result that it isn't, and Pop Culture Isolation sets in.

    Note that A-F can go both ways (for example, someone too old to know Britney Spears or The Backstreet Boys may have fond memories of I Love Lucy or Herman's Hermits), and G is the natural conclusion of Pop Cultural Osmosis, when even All There Is to Know About "The Crying Game" is forgotten (along with The Crying Game itself) except for the trope name itself, rendered a Non-Indicative Name.

    This, by the way, is the reason character-named tropes are often renamed. For example, if you're not familiar with original Sherlock Holmes tales, you won't know who Inspector Lestrade is; if not well-read in 19th-century French literature (or Broadway musicals), Inspector Javert may be unknown to you.

    With the advent of cable television, the internet, and more things to do in less time, this is becoming more and more Truth in Television. Most everyone in the US watched I Love Lucy because it was one of three television choices; not everyone watches American Idol because it's one of a thousand television choices.

    One of the many, many reasons for Not Self-Explanatory.

    Compare Seinfeld Is Unfunny, Adaptation Displacement, Forgotten Trope, It's Been Done, Fleeting Demographic Rule, Recognition Failure, Lampshaded the Obscure Reference, and Reindeer Aren't Real. Applying this to sports gives you Gretzky Has the Ball.

    Contrast It Was His Sled, All There Is to Know About "The Crying Game", and especially Pop Cultural Osmosis.

    Examples of Pop Cultural Osmosis Failure include:

    "Who's X?"

    (previously called "Type 1")

    Comic Books



    Little Rock: Who’s Bill Murray?
    Tallahassee: Alright, I’ve never hit a kid before. I mean that’s like asking who Gandhi is.
    Little Rock: Who’s Gandhi?

      • Also done in reverse with a hilarious scene where Little Rock is trying to explain the concept of Hannah Montana to Tallahassee, which crosses into Real Life, as that scene was, in fact, the two actors just talking as they left the camera running.
    • The Running Man: "Who's Mr. Spock?"
    • In Sister Act 2, Delores wants to hear her students sing, so she singles them out and has them sing "Mary Had a Little Lamb". One girl doesn't know it. Yet oddly enough, she does know the theme from The Love Boat. (Not really that odd—nursery rhymes come from your parents, theme songs come from TV. This is truth in television for a lot of first and second generation immigrants.)
    • Live Free or Die Hard: Generational differences are a major theme in this belated sequel, and so variations of this come up frequently. For instance, Justin Long's character fails to understand what "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival is—to him, it's noise. (The writers and McClane are hit with Isn't It Ironic? here, but oh well...)
    • Armageddon: Owen Wilson's character says he hates when someone says Jethro Tull is the name of the lead singer. The psychiatrist asks back "Who is Jethro Tull?"
    • This exchange from Notting Hill:

    William: Is this your first film?
    Actress: Well... actually, it's my 22nd!
    William: Any favorites among the 22?
    Actress: Working with Leonardo.
    William: DaVinci?
    Actress: DiCaprio.
    William: Of course. And is... is he your favorite Italian director?

    • In How Do You Know, George tells Lisa how his mother left his father after watching Kramer vs. Kramer, but she's never seen the movie, and doesn't get why his story was supposed to make her see him in a different light.
    • Occurs in Jolly Roger: Massacre at Cutter's Cove when a character brings up Dirty Harry ("Dirty who?")
    • Dirty Harry also causes puzzlement in Red Heat.

    Ridzik: Captain Danko, congratulations. You are now the proud owner of the most powerful handgun in the world.
    Danko: Soviet Podbyrin, 9.2 milimeter, is world's most powerful handgun.
    Ridzik: Oh, come on, everybody knows the .44 Magnum is the big boy on the block. Why do you think Dirty Harry uses it?
    Danko: Who is Dirty Harry?


    Bryan Mills: Who's Beyoncé? (Beat) Just kidding.



    • This is both the title and the subject of Robert Cormier's Bunny Berigan -- Wasn't He a Musican or Something?, much to the dismay of the Berigan fanboy who serves as the protagonist.

    Live-Action TV

    • In a Scrubs episode, the Janitor tells Eliot that he changed the address in his personel file to "1 Cemetery Lane" because Dr. Kelso keeps calling him "Lurch". Eliot just looks at him in polite incomprehension.
    • Community:

    Shirley: You remind me of Sam and Diane... I hated Sam and Diane.
    Anne: Who's Jack and Diane?
    Shirley: (furious) Okay, I get it! You're young!

      • Another example is when they are suggesting Abed change his personality:

    Abed: You're gonna Can't Buy Me Love me. You know, transform me from Zero to Hero, Geek to Chic?
    Troy: Ohhhhh, he wants us to Love Don't Cost a Thing him.
    Shirley: Ohhh!
    Troy: Can't Buy Me Love was the remake for white audiences.
    Shirley: That's so uncomfortable when they do that, I can't believe they didn't insult anyone.

    • Temperance "Bones" Brennan's Catch Phrase for virtually any Pop Culture reference: "I don't know what that means." (She notably did know who Stewie was when it came up.) She is sliding from "Who's X?" to "X was in Y, right?", albeit slowly. In one episode, she tries to console Sweets (who's just broken up with his girlfriend) by offering to take him to the "bowling rink"....
    • Lost
      • Sawyer constantly uses pop-culture references in his sarcastic quips and derisive nicknames. This backfires when he calls another character "Bobby", and specifies that he's referring to The Brady Bunch, only to get the response "What the hell is The Brady Bunch?" This exchange implies that the character grew up on the island and has little knowledge of the outside world.
      • Sawyer himself fell victim to this in a Season 6 episode where Hurley mentioned Anakin, prompting a response of "Who the hell is Anakin?". Kinda weird considering Sawyer has made Star Wars references before.
    • Sam on Quantum Leap occasionally fails to get Al's pop-culture references, such as in "Glitter Rock," when he doesn't know who Pete Townshend is, leading to a Who's on First? exchange. This is mostly due to time-travel-related memory loss, although (as in this example) it might occasionally occur just because Sam is a huge nerd.
    • The scene in Angel where the green-skinned demon Host of Caritas reveals that his actual name is Lorne:

    Lorne: Though I generally don't go by that because -- Green. (points to his face)
    Cordelia: Huh?
    Angel: (smiles) Right. Lorne Greene. (Cordelia and Wesley stare at him) Bonanza? Fifteen years on the air not mean anything to anyone here? Okay, now I feel old.

    • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
      • Giles is unaware of Spider-Man or Jimmy Olsen. Spider-Man came out in America in 1962, when Giles would have been about 8, if we go by Anthony Head's age. Giles has likely heard of Spider-Man and Superman, but doesn't know any details about them. He never gave any indication that he read comic books/watched American cartoons as a kid, so there's no reason to suppose he's lying just to maintain his image as Stuffy British Man. (There's definitely reason to suppose he's lying about never having done magic prior to becoming Buffy's Watcher...)
    • Criminal Minds
      • Apparently, Reid's never heard of the sitting in a tree song. He's also completely unaware of Twilight.
      • And then there's this:

    Rossi: This from someone whose favorite album is The Beatles' White Album.
    Hotch: Just because Manson liked it doesn't mean that it has to be ruined for the rest of us.
    Reid: That's why I stick to Beethoven. No chance of negative associations.
    JJ: ... really? You've never heard of a movie called A Clockwork Orange?

      • Hilariously subverted by Rossi, who knows Niko Bellic is a character from Grand Theft Auto.
    • Corner Gas
      • When Emma delivers wise words to her son Brent, he tells her, "You're like Yoda." Emma replies, "I don't know what that means."
      • And Emma again, explaining that Brent's father is a "Trekkie" (i.e., he's a fan of Neil Diamond).
    • Happens all the time in The Big Bang Theory with Penny not getting the geeky references.
      • And in an episode, Penny sees failure while asking some regular pop culture questions to Sheldon and Leonard ("Singer who sang 'Oops!... I Did It Again'?"). Best summed up by:

    Penny: Tweety Bird tawt he taw a what?
    Sheldon: Romulan?

      • Sheldon will often not get references of popular subjects he deems to be beneath him.

    Sheldon: I know everything about the universe.
    Penny: What is Radiohead?
    Sheldon: (pause) I know everything important about the universe.

    • In the All in The Family episode "Archie and the Computer", Mike complains about the increasing role of computers in society:

    Mike: Pretty soon, we're not gonna be names, just numbers! It's Nineteen Eighty-Four!
    Archie: Eh, shut up, you don't even know what year is!

    • In the Doctor Who episode "The Empty Child", Rose jokingly refers to the Doctor as "Mr. Spock". Jack, who's from the future, doesn't get the reference and assumes it's actually the Doctor's name.
    • Happens a lot in Star Trek due to the various alien races interacting with a mostly human main cast. The largest examples are Data's various failures in Star Trek the Next Generation and Kira being frustrated several times by Sisko's references to baseball and never having heard of Captain Kirk in Star Trek Deep Space Nine.
    • Stargate SG-1
      • In the episode "Bad Guys", Cameron compares someone to John McClane. Daniel doesn't understand. Teal'c, who is not even from Earth, explains, Die Hard.
      • Vala also regularly complains about her teammates using Tau'ri pop culture references, which she never get.
    • In one episode of How I Met Your Mother, Robin mentioned several Canadian celebrities in a row, none of which her friends knew about.

    Barney: What's the opposite of name dropping?

    • In the Seinfeld episode "The Stranded" Elaine quotes the line "Maybe the dingo ate your baby?" from A Cry in the Dark. The woman she's saying it to doesn't get the reference.


    • In the Weezer song "El Scorcho", the singer sees this as another attractive trait of the girl he's wooing: "I asked you to go to the Green Day concert. You said you'd never heard of them. How cool is that?"
    • Asking "Who sang Teenage Wasteland?" can lead to a Who's on First? scenario.

    Professional Wrestling

    • Vince McMahon apparently doesn't watch TV very often. He didn't understand that Scott Hall's Razor Ramon gimmick was a homage to Scarface and thought he made it up himself. He also didn't understand that Paul Birchill's pirate gimmick was a homage to Pirates of the Caribbean.

    Puppet Shows

    Video Games

    • In Final Fantasy XIII, Vanille doesn't know who the Primarch of Cocoon is. Sazh has to explain, after wondering aloud if she fell asleep during History or something.

    Web Comics


    Kat: Welllll, he's not perfect! I mean, he thinks The Prodigy's Fat of the Land is better than Music for the Jilted Generation.
    (Antimony thinks about this for a panel)
    Antimony: I have no idea what you just said.

    • The comic El Goonish Shive had this happen with Grace when confronted with a Santa look-alike. Of course, this is someone who was cut off enough from society to ask the question "World War Two?! How many have we had!?"

    "Have you considered Mount Doom? I'm sure we could rustle up some sacrificial hobbits..."
    "I... What?"


    Web Original

    Western Animation


    Omi: (taunting the villain) Defeating you will be a piece of pie.
    Clay: Cake, you mean a piece of cake.
    Omi: Cake? This is no time for food.

      • In one instance, Omi miswords one of his attempted references so badly that none of the other characters can figure out what he was actually trying to say.
    • Brian of Family Guy at one point takes Frank Sinatra, Jr. out club hopping, where his attempts to flirt with one vapid young woman fall completely flat because she doesn't recognize any of the names Sinatra keeps dropping. Brian has to stop an increasingly frustrated Sinatra from backhanding the girl.
    • American Dad: This probably keeps Stan and Steve from bonding well. Notably, during a father-son road trip when Stan needed to complete restoring his DeLorean, but have never heard of Back to The Future which Steve always reference.
    • In The Simpsons 2011 episode; when Cheech and Chong are making a reunion tour—ironic considering The Simpsons ran throughout the 90s, but Comic Book Time may apply:

    Bart: Who the hell are Cheech and Chong?
    Homer: Cheech and Chong were the Beavis and Butthead of their day!
    Bart: Who are Beavis and Butthead?

    • In Bob's Burgers episode "Nightmare on Ocean Adventure" Linda asked Louise what she was for halloween. Louise answered "dragon with a girl tattoo." Linda: "Ooh you flipped the script!" Louise: "What do you mean?"

    Real Life

    • Truth in Television: A teacher didn't think a kids choir needed to have the lyrics or music to the song "One Tin Soldier" since those kids should have heard it a million times and learned it through Pop Cultural Osmosis. They hadn't, resulting in a very awkward moment on performance day.
    • As described on our very own page for Gargoyles, in the entry for Belligerent Sexual Tension: "When describing Brooklyn and Katana's relationship in "Timedancer", [creator] Greg Weisman mentioned Sam and Diane. No-one got it. Then he mentioned Beatrice and Benedick. That one people got, which should tell you a lot about the kind of fans this show has."
    • On This Very Wiki, the page for Washington DC is illustrated with a montage of photos of... a bunch of statues and buildings. As of August 2019, no names for any of that stuff are given for those of us who don't live in the USA.

    "X was in Y, right?"

    (previously called "Type 2")



    A.J.: Have you ever heard of Evel Knievel?
    Lev: No, I never saw Star Wars.

    • Live Free or Die Hard: When John McClane finally gets to "Warlord"'s place, his reluctant ally tries to pass him off as another of the culture, which fails fast. Notable is when McClane fails to recognize a cutout of Boba Fett and tries to cover it by saying he's only familiar with Star Wars. (McClane's smirk seems to suggest he's just screwing with "The Warlord" with that one.)
    • In Waxwork, one of the young people asks if the Phantom of the Opera figure's mask is the original from the movie, and the owner is surprised that someone made a movie about the Phantom. It's implied that the owner is not merely pop-culture clueless, but that he knows the Phantom actually existed in the movie's Verse and is amazed Hollywood would resort to filming his tale.


    • Fountains of Wayne's "I'll Do the Driving" includes an example, although the subject of the song makes the mangled reference without any prompting:

    We're out, the jukebox plays "Jumping Jack Flash"
    She says "I love Johnny Cash, the man in red"
    I turn my head and pretend not to hear what she said


    Western Animation


    Chef: Have you ever heard of the Emancipation Proclamation?
    General: I don't listen to hip-hop.


    "Wait, Y was based on a real X?"

    (previously called "Type 3")


    • KFC's "Colonel" mascot character is based (loosely, in the 21st century) on Colonel Harland Sanders, the man who founded the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant chain. Back when KFC was called Kentucky Fried Chicken, Colonel Sanders' portrait was printed on the buckets.


    pretty much in that order.

    Web Original

    • In Linkara and Spoony's crossover review of "Warrior #1", Spoony mocks the Ultimate Warrior's disjointed speech patterns by quoting Col. Campbell's infamous line from Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty near verbatim (only adding a "Hoak Hogan" to keep with the theme). Months afterward, TGWTG fans who apparently never played MGS2 would often spout "I need scissors! 61!" when talking about the Ultimate Warrior, as if believing the line only came from that review.

    "You know X... oh, you don't"

    (previously called "Type 4")

    Comic Books


    John Konstantin: I'm still touched by listening to "Fly Me to the Moon".
    Other guy: The classic song by Frank Sinatra?
    John Konstantin: No, the ending of Evangelion.

    The trope is actually used twice here, since the song was written by Bart Howard, first recorded by Kaye Ballard in 1954 and only recorded by Frank Sinatra 10 years later.

    Web Comics


    Web Original

    Real Life

    • Pop Cultural Osmosis Failure marches on: the question "Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?" has been replaced almost everywhere with "Paul McCartney was in a band?" ... except where it's been re-replaced with "Who's Paul McCartney?" Any of these are often heard as jokes, and occasionally heard as serious questions.