Frasier is as much a master of this trope as Ada Lovelace was a master of mathematics:
According to the producers, sitcoms generally run on "the 70% joke", where 70% of the TV-watching audience will get the joke and laugh, while Frasier often had "the 20% joke". It didn't seem to hurt them, though. Then it's parodied when Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce guest-starred on The Simpsons:
Cecil: But I suppose I should thank you. After all, it led me to my true calling. Bob: Cecil, no civilization in history has ever considered "chief hydrological engineer" a calling. Cecil:(clears throat meaningfully) Bob: Yes, yes, the Cappadocians. Fine.
Cappadocia was one of the only civilizations in Western history small enough to exist entirely within an arid region as it was too elevated for rivers to run through it.
Cecil: I have the '82 Chateau Latour and a rather indifferent Rausan-Segle. Bob: I've been in prison, Cecil. I'll be happy just as long it doesn't taste like orange drink fermented under a radiator. Cecil: That would be the Latour, then.
Chateau Rausan-Segle was not a successful winery until it was taken over by winemakers from Chateau Latour.
Monty Python's Flying Circus included many of these (hell, the group met in Cambridge University for goodness sakes!), mostly references to literature, history, philosophy, animals, science and art. They would also throw in obscure references to British cricket players, villages, TV stars, politicians,... Hell, the Cheese Shop sketch is just a bunch of cheese brands summarized together. In the words of Matt Stone, "They'll do that joke that they know only 20% of the audience is gonna get, so you know that 80% is not gonna be with you, but you know that 20% is gonna follow you to the grave."
In one episode, Toby tells the president, "Your favorite movie was on last night." They then spend a few minutes (mis)quoting and discussing it, and Toby eventually applies An Aesop from the movie to their current situation. But neither of them ever actually says the name of the movie. (It's The Lion in Winter.)
In another episode, Bartlet learns that his daughter Ellie, who seemed to be manipulating him by appearing to express confidence in him, was simply, honestly, expressing confidence in him. He just says, "My God, King Lear is a good play" (in that play, the daughter Lear thinks is the least loyal is the most).
The West Wing is simply crammed with this. The sheer number of subtle puns and jokes that would take a rather high level of knowledge about American history and politics to understand makes watching any given episode five times funnier for a political wonk than for a regular viewer. And the genius bonuses aren't limited to history and politics - there's a lot of literary, religious, scientific, sports-related, and pop-culture references slipped into the dialogue as well.
Leo goes on a long rant comparing Pro-Wrestling to politics (which happens a few times) and concludes with: "But at the end of the day you don't vote for them." To which Josh replies: "Except for in Minnesota."
In a much less genius of a bonus, over the course of several episodes NewsRadio had a running gag concerning every time a character goes to a movie theater, the same terrible movie is playing, though its name is never mentioned. Astute viewers will pick up that the crappy movie is John Travolta's Michael.
Lost contains constant references to philosophy, religion, literature, and science. Is the casual viewer really expected to understand the significance of someone named John Locke, or their using the alias Jeremy Bentham? Plus, the plot became increasingly complicated as the show has gone on, with innumerable callbacks to previous episodes, making it extremely hard for new viewers to understand what is going on.
When Hurley wonders what could be inside the hatch. Locke responds that he believes hope is inside, referencing Pandora's Box.
Another episode had John Locke asking Desmond David Hume how he knew something. Answer: "Experience."
Modern Doctor Who tends to have Genius Bonuses specifically for people who are long-time fans of the show. Episodes frequently contain tiny, easy-to-miss references to previous episodes, sometimes even to the old series.
In one scene, the Doctor rambles about his new face, insisting that he's seen it somewhere before and asking "why did I choose this face? Who frowned me this face?" Though this could easily be dismissed as typical post-regeneration rambling/confusion (8 had amnesia, 10 fell into a coma, and 11 looted Amelia's fridge), it's actually a reference to Caecilius, the Roman marble merchant whom the Tenth Doctor saved from Mt. Vesuvius. Caecilius was portrayed by Capaldi. It was later explained that the Doctor chose Caecilius's face to remind him who he is: even if it "violates the rules of time," he is the Doctor and he saves people.
The whole episode is sort of a loose sequel to "The Girl in the Fireplace." The writers drop hints throughout that the antagonists are similar (rogue repair droids cannibalizing humans for parts), and finally reveal that the antagonists are from the sister ship to the SS Madame de Pompadour, but if you haven't seen the "prequel" episode, all the hints and the final reveal will totally fly under your radar, just as they fly under the Doctor's. He never gets it.
A chalkboard in the background of "An Unearthly Child" episode 1 has the quadratic formula written on it.
"The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve" is based around this trope. Since it's the companion's Day in the Limelight and the Doctor is missing for most of the story, the story foregoes the usual Hollywood History settings to focus on a historical event that was and is fairly obscure to British audiences (the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew's Day). Viewers are presumably supposed to identify with Steven's lack of any idea what's going on and the retelling of the historical events is given much more attention than usual. If you're familiar with the history, you end up identifying with the Doctor instead and the whole sympathy of the plot changes.
"Dragonfire" had a sequence in which the Doctor distracts a guard by discussing semiotics with him. The real joke... the dialogue came verbatim from a semiotics text examining Doctor Who. And, the Doctor's line is semiotics-jargon for something like "The less relevant an in-joke is to the story, the greater its cultural significance". Particularly impressive for a story which came out way back in 1987, before such post-modern humor appeared everywhere.
The episode "Qpid" is a lot funnier to anyone who's seen The Adventures of Robin Hood, as it's basically a Whole Plot Reference, down to several shots and some of the background music cues. It also makes Vash's complete inversion of the Marian character all the more hilarious.
NextGen is rife with references to Japanese anime (the Nausicaans, the USS Yamato, etc.).
A much more subtle one for those who know their advanced chemistry, biochemistry, organic chemistry, or Latin comes up in "Time's Arrow", Pt. 1 (Season 5, Episode 26). Upon finding what appears to be his own head stuck in a cave from the 18th century, the android Data is asked if it could be his Evil Twin Lore. Data replies that Lore has a type "L" Techno Babble, while Data has a type "R." Logically, the head is Data's, and Data's fate is for his head to be in that cave somehow. Left is sinister in both stereochemistry and Latin, so we have here a subtle callout to the very old school trope, A Sinister Clue.
A lot of Blackadder. For instance, when Edmund tells the newly-solvent Prince Regent to "take out the plans for the beach house at Brighton" he's referring to the Royal Pavilion, which was indeed paid for and occupied by the Regent. In the same episode, Blackadder, explaining why purchasing a "tuppenny ha'penny" tract of land will cost a thousand pounds, lists a string of spurious expenses, including "window tax". While it seems to fit in with the other expenses, like "swamp insurance", the window tax was a real thing in Georgian Britain; an attempt at progressive taxation on the basis that rich people had bigger houses, and therefore more windows. (Which is why in some parts of Britain you can still see historic houses with bricked-up windows.)
Annotations circle the Internet. You have to have a wide knowledge of a lot of things to get many of the jokes on the show, a lot like The Simpsons.
Other references can be chalked up to over-obscuring the comedy, forcing the viewer to laugh not because they get the joke but that it's so random there's no way it can't be funny. A backstage motto of the writers was "The right people will get it." The right people could occasionally just be the writers though. One of the robots quipping "There goes Mike's keyboard!" was absolutely meaningless to everyone who was unaware that an ex-girlfriend of Mike's had taken his keyboard with her when she moved out.
The episode featuring The Rebel Set nicely worked in an obscure reference that was still funny if you didn't know the source: As the camera pans past a man in a suit with slicked back hair playing a vibraphone, Crow quips "...And looking very relaxed, Adolf Hitler on vibes". This is a direct quote from The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band's "The Intro And The Outro", but if you've never even heard of that group, it's just funny because of the actor's vague resemblance to Hitler.
The station's head of security is named Michael Garibaldi. The most famous real-life Garibaldi is probably Giuseppe Garibaldi, a major figure in the struggle for Italian unification and independence. Giuseppe's followers were dubbed Redshirts.
Ironically, Sheridan is probably the real Garibaldi Expy: a Crazy Awesome general who specializes in coming Back from the Brink and wins battles even when his side has already lost the war? Check, check and re-check. Plus the events described in Severed Dreams resemble the events of the siege of Montevideo.
The Seinfeld episode "The Betrayal" is based on Harold Pinter's Betrayal and is far funnier if you've seen the play first. In one episode Elaine's boyfriend takes Jerry's parents to the art museum and his father spends the rest of the episode obsessing about how Claude Monet must have been nearsighted to paint waterlilies like that. This parallels the Jewish scholar Max Nordau's theory of Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art), the belief that the oddities of 20th-century modern art reflected various disorders on the part of the artists, such as Impressionism being symptomatic of a diseased visual cortex. This idea was famously (and somewhat ironically, considering Nordau's background) co-opted by the Nazis as justification for their censorship of the art world.
Also, the equations on the whiteboard are always real and recognisable to physicists. They have a physics professor helping them out.
In fact, the equations on the boards change throughout each season in a logical manner as the characters work on and solve the problems depicted.
Sheldon comparing himself to Richard Feynman becomes a complete joke if you read up on the man. Feynman was endlessly sociable; life of many parties, he loved the company of women and was somewhat of a Casanova. He was married three times and had several children. He was an artist and musician. Most importantly, he had great respect for all branches of science. He insisted that divisions between sciences are only for convenience and no one is better or more important than any other. Now compare all that to Sheldon. There's also Feynman's Lectures series of books on maths and physics which are equally valuable for PhDs as they are for a layman. Compared to Sheldon, who cannot clearly convey any concept even to fellow physicists.
This is partially Lampshaded in the episode with Feynman’s van:
They also had a storyline about a birthday party thrown for a Habsburg. If you knew who the Habsburgs were, there's a chance you could know where things were going at the start of the episode when the name Hapsburg is first mentioned, but either way, the Habsburg in question is so ridiculously inbred to cause everyone to laugh on sight.
An episode of Supernatural: Sam and Dean meet an author who has been inexplicably writing sci-fi novels about characters named "Sam and Dean" whose monster-fighting adventures are exact retellings of their own story. When confronted, the author has a moment of realization when he admits that his still-unfinished new novel is kind of inspired by Kurt Vonnegut. Dean asks "Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut or Cat's Cradle Vonnegut?" and he replies "Kilgore Trout Vonnegut." The references are not elaborated upon, it's just assumed that the viewers understand what that means. Doubles as a Hidden Depths moment for Dean, since that kind of question would generally be in Sam's arena.
In "Trivia," Robert California, while discussing the various unpleasant aspects of living in Florida, remarks, "Alligators are dinosaurs, Dwight. You know that, right?" Dwight makes a pained face and replies, "Mmm... it's complicated."
When Jan announces that she's pregnant, Mike immediately asks in a panicked voice whether she's touched any of his Propecia. Hair growth medication such as Propecia and Rogain can cause birth defects.
In a deleted scene for “The Incentive,” Dwight decides to relax his ambitions and take some time to “stop and smell the flowers.” When he actually gets around to smelling flowers, he’s outraged by how overrated it actually is and wonders why anyone waste their time doing it. The flowers he smelled were Campsis, which are odorless.
The IT Crowd is so chock full of real technology in-jokes and references that people who work in IT would go Squee! in recognition at almost every scene.
The decor of their basement office was a clutter of old computers, classic videogame posters and other nerdy reference, with the occasional ThinkGeek t-shirt.
Glee: In an episode introducing two show choirs, one of them was from a ghetto school that had a member named Aphasia, while the other was from a deaf school. Heh.
It's not excessively intelligent, but one brilliant visual joke in the "Manny's First Day" episode of Black Books depends on the viewer recognizing a physical similarity to Beethoven.
While sneaking into the Initiative during the fourth season, the Scooby Gang are surrounded by enemy soldiers. Buffy quickly grabs their leader as a hostage with a crossbow to his head:
Buffy: "Stay back, or I'll pull a William Burroughs on your leader here."
Xander: "You'll bore him to death with free prose?"
Buffy: "Was I the only one awake in English class that day?"
The exchange is funny even if you know nothing about William S. Burroughs, a famous author from the 50's who's probably best known for writing the book Naked Lunch. However, Buffy's original threat only makes sense if you know that William Burroughs drunkenly shot his own wife to death.
In "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered " there's an example that's either this or Critical Research Failure on the writers' part. Amy casts her love spell by invoking "Diana, goddess of love and the hunt". Anyone who's savvy on their Roman mythology knows the spell is going to backfire because Diana was NOT the goddess of love, Venus was. It's probably why the spell had the opposite effect and enchanted every woman except the intended target (Cordelia).
While to the vast majority of the show's audience the Greek letters Willow writes on Tara's back in "Restless" will be undecipherable, the inscription is an invocation to Aphrodite, which is responded to by the goddess's promise to make whoever the poet desires love her back in return "if she does not love, soon she shall love - even unwilling". The particular verse has special meaning for the pair - Sappho and Aphrodite as representative of their being lesbian and witches respectively, but also on another level because Willow in the future will indeed use magic to sustain her love with Tara.
The human/demon cyborg hybrid created by the Initiative named Adam. One could be forgiven for thinking the name is a reference to the first man in the Bible, given that the human/demon cyborg hybrid was meant to be the first of its kind, until you start to research another story with a creature created from bits and pieces of dead people by a mad scientist playing God and realise that said creature was also named Adam (or at least refers to himself as Adam when speaking to Victor Frankenstein as an allusion to the Adam of the Bible).
In "Bargaining, Part 1", Anya corrects Xander when he worries that Buffy will come back as a zombie and eat their brains. Anyone savvy on their mythology knows that zombies eating brains is Newer Than They Think and only popularised by The Return of the Living Dead (made in 1986). Even before that, the zombie as we know it today is influenced more by Night of the Living Dead (1968). What Anya corrects Xander on is that the original Afro-Caribbean legends had zombies being resurrected and controlled by a specific person.
Dollhouse. Oh, so many... The biggest (and most obvious) is the name of the Dollhouse's parent corporation: Rossum, which comes from Karel Capek's play R.U.R.. The basic premise of the play is very similar to that of the Dollhouse- a company that produces humanoid slaves.
"The Target" features a psychopathic (and possibly cannibalistic) hunter calling himself "Richard Connell". Richard Connell wrote a short story called The Most Dangerous Game, in which the protagonist is hunted by a psychopath, as sport, and winds up killing him in a plot deliberately echoed by the episode.
Wondered why the D.C. House uses Active codes from Greco-Roman mythology? Thank Bennett Halverson. The cabinet in her office contains a small statue of Romulus and Remus, suckled by a wolf.
In the The Storyteller episode "The Soldier And Death", the soldier plays cards against a troupe of devils in an abandoned castle. The game they play isn't specified, but based on the fact they're using three cards in a hand it appears to be three-card brag (a predecessor of modern-day poker) that would fit in with the medieval setting of the show.
The Vampire Diaries has one that most in the target audience will probably get: During an emotional scene between Damon and Elena, there's some piano music playing in the background. This could simply be because there's a funeral going on, or it could be background music. Someone who knows the song, however, may remember the lyrics.
You tore me to pieces...You tore me to pieces...
And in a sort of combination of this trope and Funny Background Event, the Salvatores' house is full of famous paintings that a viewer with both keen eyesight and a knowledge of art will spot. This includes a Manet that shows up in almost every living room scene.
Similarly the paintings in Klaus's bedroom are reproductions of actual paintings that have been stolen from various museums throughout the years.
During one episode of 3rd Rock from the Sun Dick comments that Easter Island was a practical joke that got out of hand. Many listeners will simply associate this joke with the massive stone heads and laugh, but a person who has read about the ecological and societal collapse resulting from overuse of natural resources due to moai construction will understand the "got out of hand" differently.
The two-parter "The Fisher King" has the team trying to find a kidnapped girl. We're shown her locked in a basement bedroom, coughing hard and apparently ill, having been taken some time ago by a kidnapper who acts as though he cares for her. At this point viewers who've read John Fowles' The Collector may have spotted that this plot is somewhat familiar; and then the clues the kidnapper sent to the FBI turn out to be centred around... John Fowles' The Collector. It's never mentioned in the episode what the novel's about.note It should be noted that The Collector has been a favorite book of several serial killers in real life, despite the moral of the story being don't be a serial killer.
The fifth season episode Slave of Dutyrefers not only to the action of the episode but is also an alternate title for Pirates of Penzance, which is referenced a few times in that episode and a couple of first season episodes. The high school production of the play was when Hotch met Haley (who got murdered in the previous episode).
The UnSub in "I Love You, Tommy Brown" defends her relationship with a teenage boy who was a student of hers by arguing that Henry VIII's first wife was twenty years older than himnote Not quite; Catherine of Aragon was only six years older than Henry VIII, and that Romeo and Juliet were teenagers as well. Now that might sound all very intelligent and cultured, but think about how both those relationships turned out...
Stargate SG-1 features a cat called Schrodinger. That is, until said alien mentioned that yes, they know about that superstition and disproved it a while back. Cue Carter becoming very surprised at how such a basic theorem of physics can be false (note that Schrödinger's original point was how ridiculous the Copenhagen interpretation could be). The most amusing part is that it took only three episodes for humans to reach a high enough level of understanding about the universe to be able to prove that "superstition" false on their own. This is because the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is only one possible way of understanding the weirdness that happens on the quantum level of reality. One of the other possible ways? The many-worlds interpretation. Visit a parallel universe, and you prove the Copenhagen interpretation (and the concept of Schrödinger's cat) incorrect. And a parallel universe is visited exactly three episodes later.
Stargate Atlantis introduces a character named Janus in an episode featuring time travel into the distant past and stasis. In myth Janus was the god of memory and sleep; seems more than a little suitable.
Knowledge of myth, history, physics, and military strategy, while rarely unexplained, can occasionally make moments in Stargate more fun.
Lexx might be extremely perverted, but it also has some very obscure jokes. One is the Higgs Boson apparently can't be measured without causing a planet to implode into a stranglet. Another involves a big crunch and the corresponding theory for the effect on time it has.
Max Headroom, a show ripe with social commentary, features a trailer for the wacky show "Lumpy's Proletariat". Aimed at the lower classes, no less.
On The Wire, Brother Mouzone is a Cultured Badass who tasks his assistant with collecting his issues of Harper's while researching hits. The Bonus is that the actor and character are a dead ringer for the original composite sketch of the man who allegedly murdered The Notorious B.I.G..
JAG sometimes uses military acronyms without explaining what they mean, and occasionally refers to federal case law without explaining in detail what they mean.
Better Off Ted loves working this into background gags. For example, Rose, Ted's daughter and moral compass, attends Eugene Debs Elementary.
In Community, an evil German man says, "I wish there were a word to describe the pleasure I feel in seeing misfortune!" In fact, the German word "schadenfreude" has this exact definition. It's sometimes used as a loanword in English. Made even funnier if you know how German works: Even if there hadn't been such a word, he could have simply made up a compound word with that meaning on the spot.
The final episode of Firefly has a tense game of cat-and-mouse between the crew of Serenity and the incredibly creepy bounty hunter Jubal Early. It's a testament to the strength of the writing that the episode is compelling to those without a degree in philosophy; as the dialogue contains so many references to existentialist thought, it's borderline-impenetrable to the average viewer.
In the Warehouse 13 episode "Secret Santa", Claudia offhandedly asks how many piano tuners there could be in the Philadelphia area. This is a reference to the archetypical example of a Fermi problem, a form of estimation based on multiplying other estimates. The classic Fermi problem is 'How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?'.note Sample approach: How many people in Chicago? How many people per household? What percentage of households have a piano? How often does a piano get tuned? How long does it take to tune a piano, including travel time? How many hours per year does a piano tuner work?
In Kamen Rider Gaim, the Overlords (leaders of the Inves) have their own language, much like past Kamen Rider antagonists. However, the Overlord language was included in the show's closed captioning script, which lead to one especially clever fan to discovering that it's actually a fairly simple substitution cipher for Japanese, allowing it to be translated and offering early insight into some major plot points. Fansub group Æsir devised their own version of the cipher so English-speaking fans could work it out for themselves.
Dexter may be a multi-tiered play on words. "Dexter" is the Latin word for "right" but also took on the implication of "normal" or "good" in European nations many years ago, when there was wide-spread superstition that left-handed people were witches. "Dexter" is the opposite of "sinister" which is the Latin word for "left". Word of God from the book series' author confirmed that the name "Dexter" was picked because it was the opposite of "sinister".
In a Season 3 episode of Happy Days, Richie and Ralph are watching a NFL game between the Chicago Bears and Chicago Cardinals. When the Bears quarterback makes a bad pass, Richie called for the backup to come in. Ralph dismissed this, as the Bears backup quarterback was "washed up. He's old. He's 30. He's got no future." Richie's response was "George Blanda has two or three good years left." The actual joke was that the episode was set in 1956. At the time of its broadcast (1975), Blanda was still an active NFL player (He'd play the last of his record 26 seasons the following year)
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air has an episode where Will is trying to impress a college girl who Uncle Phil has invited to dinner. During dinner she mentions that her favorite play of Shakespeare's is Henry V. Will quips that he finds that interesting, since sequels usually aren't very good. Not only is Henry V really a sequel, it's also a prequel, and the last written play of an eight-play sequence.
"What Happened To Frederick" features an Enthralling Siren guarding the water of Lake Nostos. If you analyse the themes of the episode, the use of a Siren is rather apt. 'Siren Song' is an expression to describe something that seems attractive but will ultimately lead to ruin - in this case the Siren's seduction of Charming will lead to him being drowned if he gives in. In the Storybrooke portions, the proverbial Siren Song is him lying to Kathryn about why they're breaking up rather than confessing his affair with Mary Margaret. The Irony is underlined by Charming resisting the Siren Song in the Enchanted Forest, but giving into it in Storybrooke.
Hades is shown to be a Sharp Dressed Man and his Underworld lair is full of treasure. Hades's Roman equivalent Pluto was also the god of wealth. And having dominion over the Underworld, he literally had all the precious metals and stones that could be found underground.
Gotham: when Cobblepot goes to meet with Gordon in Arkham, he tells Barbara his name is Peter Humboldt. A fitting alias, since there's a real animal called the Humboldt penguin (it lives in South America and is also known as the Chilean or Peruvian penguin).