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Once upon a time there was a trope. This trope was a Stock Phrase and a very old one. In fact, according to Webster's, it goes back at least to 1380. It began almost every Fairy Tale there ever was.
It was a very popular trope. In French it was il était une fois and in German it was es war einmal, which literally meant "It was once." Sometimes it was translated as "Once there was" or "A long time ago," but most often, this trope was simply translated as "Once upon a time." Other languages have translated it directly. Russian fairy tales often start "Zhyl-byl...", that is, "Once there lived...". In Ireland it was " There was this man...."
which comes from the Irish language " Bhí fear ann fadó...." (There was a man a long time ago...)
Now, stories that began with "Once Upon a Time" often ended with "...and they all lived Happily Ever After." But Once never got to the end of the stories — he always stayed at the beginning. And that is where he will always be.
Now, are you sitting comfortably? Then let's begin. Once upon a time... note there was a boy who decided to stay up late and read TV Tropes. Even though his parents had warned him that doing this was a bad thing, still he was compelled to do so. So, the lights of the screen illuminating his face, he carefully surfed the site, reading trope descriptions and examples, going over works pages and forum threads, until finally he looked at the clock and realized it was well past the reasonable amount of time one would surf the web. And then the boy knew his parents were right — that by surfing TV Tropes, he had ruined his life in such a way that he could now never go sleep. He was cursed to forever surf TV Tropes, haunting the YKTTW, quietly drifting from page to page like a ghost in the machine; until one day, he met someone who had been similarly trapped. She was named Trope-tan. Together, they decided that perhaps this wasn't such a lonely place to be stuck. And so they lived and troped Happily Ever After.
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Princess Tutu: The narrator begins each episode with the japanese equivalent of this, むかしむかし（昔々） or "mukashi mukashi". It's rather purposeful, since the show deals in Fairy Tale tropes.
Revolutionary Girl Utena uses the same phrase in narrating several plot points, most notably the story of the Prince and the Witch and the story of the Princess who wanted to become a Prince.
There is a card game called "Once Upon A Time" revolving around storytelling. The stories always start with this.
Kurt Busiek's Trinity: Once a race of aliens is telling their creation myth, it starts:
In the Longago. Aye, and in the Long Longago, and in the time before the Long Longago. In the Before, when nothing was.
Narrator:Once upon a time, in a magical kingdom known as Andalasia, there lived an evil queen. Selfish and cruel, she lived in fear that one day her stepson would marry and she would lose her throne forever. And so she did all in her power to prevent the prince from ever meeting the one special maiden with whom he would share true love's kiss.
Malcolm Crowe:Once upon a time there was this person named Malcolm. He worked with children. He loved it. He loved it more than anything else. And then one night, he found out that he made a mistake with one of them. He couldn't help that one. And he can't stop thinking about it, he can't forget. Ever since then, things have been different. He's not the same person that he used to be. And his wife doesn't like the person that he's become. They barely speak anymore, they're like strangers. And then one day Malcolm meets this wonderful little boy, a really cool little boy. Reminds him a lot of the other one. And Malcolm decides to try and help this new boy. 'Cause he feels that if he can help this new boy, it would be like helping that other one too.
Stephen Falken: Now, children, come on over here. I'm going to tell you a bedtime story. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin. Once upon a time, there lived a magnificent race of animals that dominated the world through age after age. They ran, they swam, and they fought and they flew, until suddenly, quite recently, they disappeared. Nature just gave up and started again. We weren't even apes then. We were just these smart little rodents hiding in the rocks. And when we go, nature will start over. With the bees, probably. Nature knows when to give up, David.
Narrator:Once upon a time, or maybe twice, there was an unearthly paradise called Pepperland. 80,000 leagues beneath the sea it lay, or lie. I'm not too sure.
In Ever After when Danielle's descendant is about to tell the "true" story of Cinderella she Lampshades this. She has recently read the works of the Grimm Brothers, so she has only recently learned the storytelling conventions:
Now then, what was that phrase you use? Oh, yes. Once upon a time...
Inverted in Emir Kusturica's Underground - the final words in the film are:
"Once upon a time there was a country called Yugoslavia..."
Once upon a time, back before I even learned how to tie my shoes, the Sun came up. Well, I know that each day, sunrise isn't such a big deal to some folks, but imagine for a moment, instead of rising up like this: (the Sun starts to rise from Earth orbit) One morning where you live, she took a look around, and decided to go back to sleep. This actually once happened to us. Let me tell you all about it..."
"Once upon a time in a faraway land, a young prince lived in a shining castle. Although he had everything his heart desired, the prince was spoiled, selfish, and unkind. But then, one winter's night, an old beggar woman came to the castle and offered him a single rose in return for shelter from the bitter cold. Repulsed by her haggard appearance, the prince sneered at the gift and turned the old woman away, but she warned him not to be deceived by appearances, for beauty is found within. And when he dismissed her again, the old woman's ugliness melted away to reveal a beautiful enchantress. The prince tried to apologize, but it was too late, for she had seen that there was no love in his heart, and as punishment she transformed him into a hideous beast and place a powerful spell on the castle and all who lived there. Ashamed of his monstrous form, the beast concealed himself inside his castle, with a magic mirror as his only window to the outside world. The rose she had offered was truly an enchanted rose, which would bloom until his 21st year. If he could learn to love another and earn her love in return by the time the last petal fell, then the spell would be broken. If not, he would be doomed to remain a beast for all time. As the years passed, he fell into despair and lost all hope, for who could ever learn to love a beast?"
'We've strayed into a zone with a high magical index,' he said. 'Don't ask me how. Once upon a time a really powerful magic field must have been generated here, and we're feeling the after-effects.' 'Precisely,' said a passing bush.
Reeve begins the story of Jainie with "Once upon a time."
Bewitched "I, Darrin, Take This Witch, Samantha (#1.1)"
Narrator:Once upon a time, there was a typical American girl, who happened to bump into a typical red blooded American boy. And she bumped into him, and bumped into him. So, they decided they'd better sit down and talk this over before they had an accident. They became good friends. They found they had a lot of interests in common. Radio. Television. Trains. And when the boy found the girl attractive, desirable, irresistible, he did what any red-blooded American boy would do: He asked her to marry him. They had a typical wedding. Went on a typical honeymoon, in a typical bridal suite. Except, it so happens that this girl is a witch.
Blackadder: In the third season, Baldrick reads the story he wrote:
"Once upon a time, there was a happy sausage named Baldrick. And he lived happily ever after. The end."
Charlie Townsend:Once upon a time there were three little girls who went to the police academy - two in Los Angeles, the other in San Francisco - and they were each assigned very hazardous duties. But I took them away from all that, and now they work for me. My name is Charlie.
Georgia:Once upon a time, or more specifically at the dawn of time, god, lower case "g", was getting busy with creation, as the kids these days are saying. He gave Toad a clay jar and said, "Be careful with this. It's got death inside". Pleased as punch and oblivious to the fact that he was about to become god's fall guy on the whole death issue, Toad promised to guard the jar. Then one day Toad met Frog. "Let me hold the jar of death, or what ever you call it", Frog begged. With a nod to Nancy Reagan's pearls of wisdom, Toad just said no. But Frog was determined, and after much whining Toad finally gave in. "You can hold it, but only for a second", he said. In his excitement, Frog began to hop around and juggle the death jar from one foot to the other. Frog was an asshole. "Stop!" Toad cried out, but it was to late. Frog dropped the jar and it shattered to the ground. When it broke open, death got out, and ever since then all living things have to die. Makes you wonder how much better the world would be if frogs just stuck to hawking beer. So there you have it, the mystery of death finally revealed. We all die, some of us sooner then later. For me it's going to be much sooner. But that's only the beginning of my story.
Al Bundy:Once upon a time, there was a young boy. A boy... full of hope. He was single, and he was happy. Then one night, much like tonight, something rose from the swamp. He heard a noise behind him: thump-thump, thump-thump. He walked a little faster. Thump-thump-thump-thump. Then he saw it. There, in the light of a bar, stood the evil, redheaded, high-heeled spandex monster. He ran from it. He stood it up, he dated others, but nothing could stop it! He could hear it's wild call: "oh honey? Honey?" It was horrible. Finally... it trapped him. Opened... opened its hideous mouth, bared its fangs and said, "Marry me?"
"For the 89th time...once upon a time there was a boy named John and John was an astronaut. He lived in a far away place called Earth which is so far away you've never heard of it. One day when John was out doing astronaut things a big, blue wormhole gobbled him up and spat him out at the far end of the universe. Things were looking grim in Mudville, till our hero met an amazing living ship, made some nice new friends, and he hooked up with his dream girl. We could've lived happily ever after, but the Peacekeepers raped, chased and tortured us for years on end. And two months ago, we got our asses shot off again."
Stanley Unwin: Are you all seaty comftibold two-square on your botty? Then I'll begin. (Song: "Happiness Stan") Now, of courst, like all real-life experience story, this also begins once upolly tie-toe...
Total Eclipse of the Heart:
Once upon a time I was falling in love But now I'm only falling apart There's nothing I can do A total eclipse of the heart.
The James Taylor song "Our Town," used in the movie Cars, begins
Long ago, but not so very long ago, The world was different, oh yes it was...
This is a fairy story—the story of Cinderella and the four ugly corporation directors. Once upon a time, not so long ago, Cinderella went down to Wall Street, not in a gold coach drawn by six white horses, but in the I.R.T. subway.
Patrick:Once, there was an ugly barnacle. He was so ugly that everyone died. The end.
Albert Barillé produced tons of educational animated series which all got Once Upon a Time in their title, completed with the main subject (man, space, life, America, inventors, explorers...). They also shared a very similar cast of reccuring characters.