50 of the Greatest Literary Moments on TV

By
Share:

It’s probably safe to say that media tends to refer to itself, in one way or another — and referring to literature, as opposed to other forms of pop culture, is one way to make just about anything a little more highbrow. Television, notoriously full of references and allusions, might be the worst/best culprit, and the most fun to hunt through for literary moments — after all, nothing’s more fun than seeing books on the boob tube. After the jump, you’ll find 50 of the greatest and most memorable literary allusions, shout-outs, cameos, and references on television, as well as real-life author appearances and whole episodes, or even whole seasons, based on books. NB: I’ve shied away from one-to-one adaptations, like Sherlock, because that’s a whole other list. Click through to check out some great bookish small-screen moments, and add any that are missing here (there are certainly hundreds) to the list in the comments.

The Infinite Jest episode of Parks and Recreation

Remember the time when Parks and Recreation showrunner Michael Schur (who also directed that Eschaton-themed video for The Decemberists) tweeted that there’d be “like 18” Infinite Jest references in the next episode of Parks and the Internet went wild? Oh yes you do.

The Colbert Report Get More: Daily Show Full Episodes,Indecision Political Humor,The Colbert Report on Facebook

Maurice Sendak on Colbert

In this, one of the greatest author interviews I’ve ever seen, Sendak is grandfatherly and grumpy, pulls no punches and still manages to be sweet and heartbreaking. Oh, and completely hilarious.

“The One Where Monica and Richard Are Just Friends” (aka “The One Where Joey Reads Little Women“)

And it’s just adorable.

That time Norman Mailer was on Gilmore Girls

Sure, Gilmore Girls might boast the most literary references to ever be dropped in a single show, but in-the-flesh Norman Mailer (as Norman Mailer, who spends the episode pissing off Sookie by taking up a table in the inn and ordering only iced tea) is definitely at the top of the list. They could only get him to appear on the show by offering his son Stephen a role, and also by promising him that he wouldn’t have to memorize any lines. And, as he told New York Magazine: “I almost never watch sitcoms; I really have a prejudice against them. But for some reason I find Gilmore Girls kind of agreeable. The character Lorelai reminds me very much of my second-oldest daughter, Danielle — both of them are like beautiful hummingbirds, constantly talking and adjusting what they say, quick to the breeze. I told her to watch, and she said, ‘I watch it all the time: So does my daughter.’ So now I’ll be famous with my granddaughter.”

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” on The Twilight Zone

This list will generally steer clear of straight adaptations (there’s no getting out of that Game of Thrones-sized rabbit hole), but it’s impossible not to make an exception for this classic episode of The Twilight Zone, based on the equally classic short story by Ambrose Bierce. The episode was actually produced as a French short film entitled La Rivière du Hibou, directed by Robert Enrico, and won Best Short Subject at Cannes in 1962, as well as the Academy Award for Live Action Short Film the next year. It’s also perfectly dire.

Mr. Bookman meets Seinfeld

Philip Baker Hall, as the NYPL’s Library Detective, shakes down Jerry Seinfeld for an overdue copy of The Tropic of Cancer. Seinfeld can hardly keep from laughing the whole time.

John Cheever and John Updike on the Dick Cavett Show

Two great writers and friends in conversation on television, a treat to watch.

Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal on the Dick Cavett Show

Two great writers fighting like snooty children on television, also totally a treat to watch.

“The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs”

In this Season 14 episode of South Park, the boys are assigned The Catcher in the Rye, and are appalled… by how inoffensive it is, despite the fact that Mr. Garrison sold it to them as a dangerous, oft-banned book. Having been tricked into reading, they decide to take revenge by writing the most offensive book they can muster, and then they blame it on Butters. Who then becomes a literary celebrity because everyone reads the book as an allegory. Obviously.

Castle’s poker buddies

It’s a running gag on Castle that the eponymous author/detective plays poker every once in a while with his literary friends James Patterson, Stephen J. Cannell, Michael Connelly, and Dennis Lehane, who appear on the show themselves. How cute! NB: After Cannell died in 2010, Castle started bringing a fictional writer to play, but left a seat open in his old friend’s honor.

Christopher Hitchens on Fox

No matter what you think of Christopher Hitchens or Jerry Falwell, there’s no denying that this interview after the latter “controversial” figure’s death is a sight to behold. Basically, Hitchens reiterates that Falwell was a bad man and he’s not sorry that he’s dead, and Sean Hannity calls him a jerk, and this continues for some time. More dug-in, blasé, brilliant authors on Fox News, please.

Sons of Anarchy = Hamlet

According to show creator Kurt Sutter, Sons of Anarchy is in fact loosely based on Shakespeare’s famous tragedy. Not surprising, considering all the death and drama and betrayal going on over there. Plus, turns out the characters pretty much line up one to one. Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.

Bonus: Stephen King has a role as a “cleaner” in Season 3, for extra literariness.

Alison DiLaurentis as Vivian Darkbloom

Much like Gilmore Girls, Pretty Little Liars gets points for being a show for teenage girls that also drops boatloads of literary references, and all those points win it a spot on this list. My personal favorite nod? That the show’s mysterious Alison uses the same name for her alter ego as Vladimir Nabokov does in Lolita (it’s an anagram). Keeping it classy, PLL.

“The Second Coming” on The Sopranos

In which the titular Yeats poem (among other things) depresses A.J. so much that he tries to kill himself, resulting in one of the show’s most terrifying sequences (which is saying something). As Meghan O’Rourke puts it in her excellent dissection of the show’s use of the poem: “‘The Second Coming’ underscores one of the most powerful themes of the show: Tony’s habit of misreading the world around him — a tendency he and Carmela (who shares it) have passed on to their children. I think we are meant to feel the dissonance between the poem’s vision and A.J.’s transformation by it. On the deepest level, this poem has very little to do with A.J. and Tony Soprano. In the lines ‘the best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity,’ Yeats was originally mourning the collapse of the aristocracy (‘the best’) in the West and the arrival of mobs of revolutionaries (‘the worst’ with their ‘passionate intensity’). Indeed, Yeats might be horrified by A.J.’s appropriation of the poem as an expression of a slacker’s anomie: Neither A.J. nor Tony — nor anyone on the show, really — could be read as ‘the best’ by any stretch of the mind.”

The Young Man and the Beach

Another absurdist stroke of brilliance from Arrested Development: the time Maeby tricks a reader into doing her high school book report on Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, only to have the studio director greenlight the project — with some edits.

“Time’s Arrow”

In which the crew of the Enterprise encounters strange creatures via adventures with a time portal: Jack London and Mark Twain, the latter of whom travels with them into the 24th century. And that Martin Amis reference does not go unnoticed, either.

Black Books

Can I just say all of Black Books? This insane British sitcom stars Dylan Moran as Bernard Black, the extremely foul-tempered proprietor of the eponymous bookstore. Really the only things he enjoys are drinking, smoking, and reading, which is a trinity I can get behind. Also includes the admonition, “Don’t you dare use the word ‘party’ as a verb in this shop!” Swoon.

“The Unicorn and the Wasp”

Also known as the episode in which the Doctor and Donna crash a party and find Agatha Christie to be in attendance. And then she helps them fight a guy who turns into a giant alien wasp. Hence, Death in the Clouds??? It’s all ludicrous, but jolly good fun.

“The Show Must Go Off”

Derek Jacobi won an Emmy in 2001 for being the worst, most over-the-top Hamlet ever on this episode of Frasier. In real life, he is an excellent Shakespearean actor. I think that probably gave him some extra verve.

Key & Peele’s “Rap Battle Hype Man”

Steinbeck, y’all.

30 Rock does Macbeth

But not Macbeth Macbeth. As Liz puts it in “The Shower Principle,” they’re staging “a timely satire of Macbeth where Mayor McCheese and his wife, an ambitious pickle, murder King Ronald.” Lots of fun poked at the curse of the Scottish play.

“Beauty and the Beasts”

There are a number of literary references in Buffy (that time she kicks butt in English class by reading the teacher’s thoughts about Othello comes to, er, mind), but this episode is not only obviously an homage to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but also begins and ends with Buffy reading from Jack London’s Call of the Wild. And even the title is a literary allusion. Beastly all around.

Willow + Tara + Sappho

One more Buffy moment, if you’ll indulge it. In “Restless,” the singular dream-sequence episode that ends Season 4, Willow paints Tara’s back with what looks like jibberish. In fact, it is a poem by Sappho, famed lesbian poet of ancient Greece, in the original Greek. The translation:

Deathless Aphrodite on your lavish throne, Enchantress, daughter of Zeus: I beg you, queen, Do not overpower my soul with heartaches and hard troubles,

But come here, if ever at another time Having heard my voice you paid me attention And leaving the golden house of your father you came to me,

Yoking your horse and chariot: gorgeous swift Sparrows carried you over the coal-black earth, Thickly whirling their feathers through the midst of heaven’s ether.

Swiftly they arrived, and you, O blessed one, Smiling with your immortal face, you asked for What I suffered, and why again I call you And what in my maddened soul I desire most To happen to me: what dearest one shall I now Persuade to lead you back to her — who, O Sappho, wronged you this time?

For even if she flees, swiftly she will pursue; And if she does not receive my gifts, she will give; And if she does not love me, swiftly she will love, Even against her will. So come to my aid now, Release me from my grievous cares, fulfill as much As my heart yearns to be fulfilled: come, be my fellow-fighter.

David Foster Wallace on Charlie Rose in 1997

One of the most brilliant writers of the modern age on Blue Velvet, literary celebrity, postmodernism, tennis, Mr. Holland’s Opus, teaching, and writing a masterpiece.

“The Bard”

Another Twilight Zone episode, though in a much different spirit than “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” In “The Bard,” a TV writer summons the dark forces to bring Shakespeare to Hollywood so he can write scripts for him. Hijinks, Shakespeare quoting (and then citing) his own plays, and lots of language play ensue. Fun fact: this episode also features a young Burt Reynolds as one Rocky Rhodes, an obnoxious actor.

Mad Men, in general

Mad Men is filled with book-reading (just check out the NYPL’s Mad Men reading list) and has been hailed in more than one place as “the most literary show on television.” But more particularly, there’s the whole theory that the end of the show (or at least Season 6) is loosely based on Dante, considering it is Don Draper’s descent into hell. At the start of Season 6, Don reads from Dante’s Inferno: “Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.” The episode is called “The Doorway.” IT MAKES SENSE.

Archer disses Orwell in “Space Race”

Another show with lots of literary references (particularly to The Lord of the Rings). But this one might be most hilarious:

Astronaut: And I’m telling you that I didn’t sign up for Animal Farm…in space! Archer: Wait, there are animals? Lana: No, Animal Farm. Cyril: How do you not get that? Archer: No, I know what an animal farm is. Cyril: Not an animal farm. Archer: Maybe we can stampede a flock of goats down the hall. Lana: ANIMAL FARM IS A BOOK! Archer: No, it’s not, Lana. It’s an allegorical novella about Stalinism by George Orwell, and spoiler alert: it sucks.

Toni Morrison explains race to Colbert

And takes credit for Obamacare — excuse me, Tonicare. She also agrees with everyone who thinks she’s a kick-ass writer.

Ron Swanson on Moby-Dick

Ron talks about this book on several occasions. One of the best is in the Season 6 episode “Fluoride”: “Metaphors? I hate metaphors. That’s why my favorite book is Moby-Dick. No frou-frou symbolism, just a good simple tale about a man who hates an animal.”

True Detective

Yep, the whole thing. True Detective takes much from one book: The King in Yellow, an 1895 short story collection by Robert W. Chambers that was influential for an entire squadron of weird fiction writers. Read an excellent unpacking of the references at io9.

Stephen King Asks a Black Dude

On Chappelle’s Show.

The time Blanche decides she wants to be a writer

Golden Girls is full of literary moments (peep this epic complete list), but this is one of my favorites. Blanche becomes a writer, and then, quickly, gets frustrated: “Well, now I know why Hemingway killed himself.” Indeed.

Walt Whitman on Breaking Bad

Like other entries on this list, this is more precisely a series of moments than a single one. It starts with Gale reciting “When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” He gives Walt a copy of Leaves of Grass that becomes a plot device and major thematic symbol in later seasons, inscribed, importantly, “To my other favorite W.W. It’s an honour working with you. Fondly G.B.”

Alice, Lost in Lost-Land

Again, Lost is famously full of pointedly placed books and literary references, but the nods to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland seem among the most poignant. For starters, there’s the Season 1 episode “White Rabbit,” in which Jack follows the ghost of his father, and those white rabbit posters that haunt the set. “To say there is only one [most influential book] is unfair,” writer/producer Damon Lindelof told the LA Times , “but we keep coming back to Alice in Wonderland thematically. That was a book that both Carlton and I remember very specifically as children. It was a gateway drug to sci-fi and fantasy in many ways.”

Supernatural gets meta

Supernatural, a hodgepodge of legend and myth and story and dogma and other things that go bump in the night, has allusions to spare. But one of the show’s most excellent revelations is in “The Monster at the End of this Book,” when Sam and Dean discover that there is a series of fantasy novels called, yes, Supernatural, starring two brothers named, yes, Sam and Dean, and that the books not only recount all of their adventures with uncannily specific details but also have very enthusiastic fans. The whole thing is deeply meta and highly entertaining.

Northern Exposure goes to college

Another hyper-literary show, in which you can always expect Chris to be reading a good book on the air to an indifferent town. Then there’s “Up River,” which is basically a retelling of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, with Fleischman as Kurtz. But best of all is the episode “The Graduate,” in which Chris defends his master’s thesis, a reading of Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s classic “Casey at the Bat” through a deconstructionist lens. Much highbrow discussion about brevity and lingerie and Melville and colonialism and the objective correlative ensues. Not too shabby for a CBS dramedy.

Stephen Colbert picks a novel, makes it a bestseller

Colbert was one of the most outspoken celebrities against Amazon during the storied Amazon-Hachette wars (not surprising, since his books are published by Hachette). “We will not lick their monopoly boot,” he said on one show, and then held up Edan Lepucki’s debut novel California, which had had only a small printing and modest expectations, instructing his viewers to buy it — from their local independent bookstore, or at Powell’s. Well, the book became a bestseller, and a #1 bestseller at Powell’s, and a movie may be in the works. Hooray for Colbert Nation.

Landry lays down the literature

In Season 3 of Friday Night Lights, Landry finally confronts Tyra about how she constantly takes advantage of his enormous crush on her. Via LITERATURE:

Landry: Have you ever read the book The Giving Tree?

Tyra: Yeah, when I was like five.

Landry: It’s about this tree who loves this boy more than anything, right? And the boy just takes and takes and takes until there’s absolutely nothing left but a stump. And I’m like the tree and you’re the boy – just take and take and take, and there’s absolutely nothing left, Tyra. That’s exactly what I feel like. Just a stump. Because this is not a friendship. You’re selfish. It’s not a friendship.

Snap. In close second: “Odysseus was a pimp!” Some more literary references from FNL here.

The Brontë Sisters as Psychobitches

Lots of literary ladies appear on the therapist’s couch in the UK sketch show Psychobitches, but the miniature Brontës arguing about which of them is more desperate to lose her virginity? One of the crassest and funniest representations of any literary figures ever. My word.

Michael McClure reading poetry to lions

In this 1966 episode of U.S.A. Poetry, Beat poet Michael McClure reads his poem “Tantra 49″ (which ends in 42 roars) to the lions at the San Francisco Zoo. It’s a little twee, but also kind of amazing — and it seems like the lions think so too.

Pynchon Speaks

But where, you may be asking, are all the moments from the most reference-soaked show on television? Here, dear reader, here, and I’m sorry to have kept you waiting. This list will now conclude with my favorite ten literary moments to have occurred on The Simpsons, starting with Thomas Pynchon’s first appearance on the show, in “Diatribe of a Mad Housewife,” in which he offers a blurb for Marge’s book: “Here’s your quote: Thomas Pynchon loved this book, almost as much as he loves cameras!” It’s notable that this is Pynchon’s real voice, one of the few times he has allowed himself to be broadcast.

Pynchon Eats

Okay, so this next one is Pynchon too — in “All’s Fair in Oven War,” he makes a bunch of puns with food and his own book titles. But more interesting really is the lore behind this appearance — reportedly, his script originally included the phrase, “No wonder Homer is such a fat-ass,” but Pynchon refused to say such a thing, even as a cartoon. He wrote producer Matt Selman, explaining his reasoning, simply that “Homer is my role model and I can’t speak ill of him.” Aww.

Lisa goes to Breadloaf

In “Moe’N’a Lisa,” Lisa helps Moe become a poet. He’s invited to Wordloaf (you may know it as Breadloaf) by Tom Wolfe, where many literary hijinks ensure, including numerous tiffs between Jonathan Franzen and Michael Chabon:

Moderator: “My question is, who are your biggest influences?” Chabon: “I’d have to say my good friend Jonathan Franzen. I thought his novel The Corrections needed none.” Franzen: “Well, in turn, I’d have to say my biggest influence is… Albert Camus.” Chabon: “You were supposed to say me. I blurbed you!” Franzen: “Yeah, and it looks real sweet on my dust jacket.”

Also:

Chabon: “You can’t make this stuff up.” Franzen: “Maybe you can’t.” Chabon: “That’s it, Franzen! I think your nose needs some corrections!”

Truer words.

Treehouse of Horrors: “The Raven”

A classic. Bart the raven!

“Tales from the Public Domain”

This episode comes in three parts: the first casts Homer as Odysseus, the second casts Lisa as Joan of Arc, and the third (and greatest), entitled “Do the Bard, Man,” casts Bart as Hamlet. Rosencarl and Guildenlenny commit mutual high-five destruction. Bart sums it all up: “How could a play with so much violence in it be so boring?”

“A Totally Fun Thing That Bart Will Never Do Again”

This entire episode, in which the Simpson family goes on a luxury cruise, is based on David Foster Wallace’s 1997 essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” It also features music from Animal Collective and Hot Chip. Also also, Steve Coogan guest stars.

“Das Bus”

Another whole episode devoted to a literary work, this time William Golding’s classic The Lord of the Flies. The children get stranded on a desert island, but when all the snack food gets eaten, they turn against Milhouse. The episode ends with a hilarious voice-over (James Earl Jones cameo!): “So the children learned how to function as a society, and eventually they were rescued by, oh, let’s say… Moe.”

Over-reading?

Lisa: “Ms. Tan, I loved The Joy Luck Club. It really showed me how the mother-daughter bond can triumph over adversity.” Amy Tan: “No, that’s not what I meant at all, you couldn’t have gotten it more wrong.” Lisa: “But…” Amy Tan: “Please, just sit down. I’m embarrassed for both of us.”

Lisa Ginsberg

In “Bart vs. Thanksgiving,” Lisa takes out her angst by writing her own “Howl of the Unappreciated,” which begins “I saw the best meals of my generation destroyed by spiky-haired demons…” Also note her reading material.

Bros love Basho

And Robert Pinsky.