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If You Can Read This

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Frequently characters will have to read something onscreen as part of the plot. It could be anything from a newspaper to a book to a computer monitor. Back in the days when TV sets used CRTs [cathode ray tubes], that text was largely unreadable due to their low resolution.

The march of technology has now replaced the old CRT with LCD flat panels and plasma screens with incredible resolution where even the smallest details in an image are discernible. This can be anything from informative to embarrassing, depending on whether the producers took this new technology into account when composing any onscreen text for the characters to read.

Compare Crystal Clear Picture, fixing the de-sync between In-Universe screens and the camera to avoid the Raster Vision that comes with CRT displays. Contrast with Freeze-Frame Bonus, when rewarding (to the viewer) information is hidden in a few frames, making pausing necessary. Not to be confused with Dead Man Writing, which may use "If you (can) read this" as a stock phrase. Font Anachronism can rely on this same principle when old-time lettering is streamlined so the modern audience can better read it.


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     Anime & Manga  
  • In Fullmetal Alchemist (2003), any book on alchemy shown onscreen is copied from Dungeons & Dragons player's manuals on alchemy. Evidently, Amestris runs on a D20 system.
  • In the 2009 anime version of Fullmetal Alchemist, in a couple of episodes, if you read the newspaper talking about the war in Ishval (the 10th episode of season 1), the story on the right of the page is actually about the Rodney King Beatings and LA Riots.
  • In an early episode of Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, the computer screens with Heero's medical data show text from the readme file for Photoshop's TWAIN plugin.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion uses the show's scripts to create text for various purposes.
    • In End of Evangelion, Misato reads what really happened at NERV. People who paused at the right time will see what she's really reading: A brief bio of Studio Gainax's history in English, where certain words have been replaced with all-caps plot related words, such as "GEHIRN", "SEELE", "ADAM", and "SECOND IMPACT".
  • In one Hetalia: Axis Powers strip, Hidekaz Himaruya included this small note as if deliberately for scanlators:
    If you can read this, you have too much free time.

    Comic Books 
  • In one issue of The Batman Strikes, the concentrating reader can see that the newspapers lying around Poison Ivy's cell contain a mini-subplot about Harvey Bullock desperately trying to stop Gotham from holding "Riddles About Reptiles Week" and other supervillain-friendly events. In a straighter use of this trope, another newspaper contains excerpts of the issue's script.

  • There is a eye chart in the background in The Return of the Living Dead where the letters read "Burt is a slave driver and a cheap son of a bitch who's going bald too ha ha."
  • The newspaper articles in Fight Club all have the same nonsense text, whether the headline is "Fountain Befouled" or "Feces Catapault Seized" or "Stolen Lab Monkey Found Shaved".
  • The Daily Prophet newspapers in the Harry Potter film releases. Most notable is one in the first film with an article about a 700-year-old wizard celebrating his birthday, with over a million guests said to attend the party, the hilariously huge numbers being distinctly absurd if you're at all familiar with Potter canon.
  • A surveillance console displaying a lot of scrolling small text in The Film of the Book A Scanner Darkly is actually scrolling through Blade Runner's screenplay format!
  • American Beauty has a sign in Lester Burnham's cubicle at work that simply reads "Look Closer." This was just something the set designer just felt like decorating the set with. Director Sam Mendes noticed this after seeing the footage in the editing room, and the phrase "Look Closer" would eventually become the movie's tagline.
  • The Star Wars prequel trilogy (and other EU sources) does this quite frequently... in an alien alphabet, called Aurebesh. If you transcribe each character for its Roman equivalent, it is just plain English. Some examples make sense in context (such as the screen of Anakin's Naboo Starfighter in The Phantom Menace) but most are simply inside jokes made by the creators of the material.
  • The license plates in The Fifth Element read "New York, the 'Fuck You' State".
  • In Sin City, the newspaper that shows Marv arrested for Cardinal Roark's murder has interesting articles: namely, transcripts for the opening scene (The Babe Wore Red) and the first few scenes of Marv's story, "The Hard Goodbye" - with a byline of F. Miller.
  • According to the pages of the Japanese report in Life of Pi, a major storm was not reported in the area of the ship when it sank. Additionally, the report says the ship sank stern first but the movie portrays it bow first. It can be used to indicate the Unreliable Narrator.
  • On Blu-Ray versions of Mulholland Dr., you can see that the script Rita reads from during the kitchen rehearsal is actually a page from the script to Mulholland Dr.
  • If one pauses the newspapers that briefly flash by on the screen in 7 Days in Hell, the first paragraph of the article is information that's relevant to the plot (and will always mention that Aaron killed a man once), while the rest of the page is simply the first few paragraphs of the Wikipedia page for tennis pasted over and over again.

    Live Action TV 
  • Cheers: In episode "I Call Your Name", aired in 1984, Cliff gives Carla a letter to mail. In high definition it is obvious that the letter has no address at all, instead only random squiggles.
  • The Blu-Ray release of the original Star Trek makes things visible that weren't before. E.g., in "Spectre Of The Gun", the text of a newspaper was taken from a 1960s financial section. In "Bread And Circuses" one of the columned Roman-esque buildings shown in stock footage says "Massachusetts Institute Of Technology" across the front. And, in "A Piece Of The Action", the infamous book about Chicago gangs appears to actually be a copy of the complete works of Shakespeare.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation's set designers had one heck of a sense of humor, and built in a ton of Shout-Out in-jokes which they expected no one else to ever see. Then the Technical Manual and DVDs came out, and the rest of us got to see them.
    • The dedication plaque on board the Enterprise-D that the engines were built by Yoyodyne, and listed many of the producers and writers as members of the engineering team who designed and supervised its construction.
    • The warp engine schematic in Main Engineering also labeled one obscure part of the warp reactor the "Oscillation Overthruster".
    • Also, the sickbay monitors had one bar labeled "med ins rem" for "medical insurance remaining".
    • The main schematics on the bridge and in Main Engineering showing the deck layout of the ship had other in-jokes, from a DC-3 prop plane in the shuttlebay, to a hamster wheel in the main warp reactor room.
    • A list of shuttlecraft barely visible in the shuttlebay set lists shuttles with unlikely names such as "Indiana Jones" (named for the famous archaeologist) and "Pontiac" (named for the car company whose commercials at the time featured voice-overs by Patrick Stewart).
    • The episode “The Neutral Zone” has Troi pull up the family tree of Clare Raymond, a woman from the 1990s who has just awoken from cryogenic status. It seems not only are six of her ancestors actors who played a certain Doctor, but also among them are characters from such diverse sources as The Muppet Show, M*A*S*H, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Eventually, it seems the designers of the tree simply gave up and began tacking "Raymond" onto the names of TNG cast members ("Brent Spiner Raymond", for example.)
    • Many of the pipes and ducts in the Jeffries tubes and inside the walls were labeled as "GNDN", an acronym for "Goes Nowhere, Does Nothing". Tiny labels elsewhere on the set featured the birthdates or initials of various members of the behind-the-scenes crew, or short poems or snippets of lyrics to songs from The Beatles to the theme tune from Gilligan's Island.
    • The LCARS displays are also shown to have formerly indiscernible markings on them. It's generally numbers and letters placed in some esoteric order to give the illusion of specific purpose, but the detail is remarkable nonetheless.
    • Even the Enterprise-D itself wasn't immune to this. On the filming model, one of the workers was seemingly so annoyed at the design and meticulous paneling work that they arranged some of the panels on the very back end of the ship next to the left warp engine and right below the "Enterprise" hull lettering to read "Ugly" with a backwards L. This is never visible on screen as the filming quality and specific location of the spot is never seen in close enough detail to make it out, but it can be seen on several model kits and toys of the ship who's makers either never caught it or assumed it was supposed to be there.
  • The Promenade Directory on Deep Space Nine continues the fun with entries such as:
  • This ultimately lead to a "Sure, Why Not?" moment on Star Trek: Enterprise. Enterprise was the first Trek series shot and broadcast in true High Definition, which meant that LCARS computer readouts were legible on screen. The production crew didn't think this was the case and proceeded to write out a complete history for Captain Archer on a computer screen for an episode involving time travel and the infamous Mirror Universe. Details included how he was eventually promoted to Admiral, was elected President of the Federation, and died peacefully in his sleep the day after he witnessed the launch of the U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701. After fans posted screenshots of the entries online, the writing staff was left with no choice but to canonize the details, whether they'd planned to or not.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
    • In the first season, an invisible girl is (eventually) taken by the government and put in a classroom with other invisible children. They are asked to open their textbooks. We learn today's lesson will be on infiltrating a cult compound to assassinate its leader... the textbook is readable in DVD format, and consists of the lyrics to "Happiness is a Warm Gun" by The Beatles. Strangely the title drop of the song is changed to "joy is a hot revolver" - maybe an in-joke about Writing Around Trademarks just in case.
    • In "Hush," a newspaper article about the Gentlemen's murders has text taken from The Onion.
  • The final challenge of The Amazing Race 16 required the teams to place psychedelic posters of the eliminated teams in the order of their elimination. They also had to place three posters representing the three non-elimination legs. These posters featured host Phil Keoghan's complete Opening Narration that was played along with the show's opening theme in Season 1.
  • On Babylon 5, the Starfury pilots wear flight suits complete with patches for the various fighter squadrons based on B5, with slogans such as "Ugly But Well Hung"note  At first, producer J. Michael Straczynski thought he was getting one over on the censors, only to later discover that the network had not bothered to assign any censors to look out for such things.
    • Also, in one third-season episode, Garibaldi is flipping through the Book of G'Quan. We see a few pages with Narn writing on them, followed by a few blank pages, followed by what is clearly pages made of newspaper.
  • In Kickin' It, Falafel Phil's displays an "A" from the health department in the front window - a Running Gag on the show is that Phil keeps a live goat in the kitchen.
  • Beginning with season 12, Degrassi has posted most printed material shown onscreen to the show Tumblr.
  • Crime investigation series Crimewatch UK screens reconstructions of crimes using lookalikes, to jog memories and solicit witness evidence. However, one elderly female viewer who did not quite grasp that she was seeing a reconstruction rang the show to say she knew the identity of the killer. She gave the police switchboard a name and even an address. This was followed through. The police rang her back, and her first words were
    Have you got him? When he was in the pub buying a drink, he opened his wallet. I remembered how to freeze the screen and zoomed in. His name was on his driving licence in the wallet!
    Madam, you gave us the name and details of the actor who was playing the role of the wanted man....
  • Better Off Ted has an example in the episode Bioshuffle when Ted and Linda share an office. At one point Linda accuses Ted of not being professional, and proves it by putting pieces of tape on her butt that read, "If you're reading this you're NOT being professional". Needless to say Ted read it.
  • The Pretender has a recurring bit about the hero collecting newspaper clippings related to the case of the week. Watching the DVD release on a modern screen, it's a lot more obvious that the body text of the articles is just filler, often the same filler text for several episodes running.

    Video Games 
  • In the final cutscene of Sonic Colors the first two lines of hexadecimal code translate exactly to what Yacker was saying. But the additional bit at the bottom display reads, "If you can read this, you are a geek."
  • A computer monitor in Mirror's Edge displays a humorous personal email of someone saying he pities whoever has to monitor his porn usage.
  • The Guardian Legend: All of the exposition is given to the player in the form of giant floor monitors.
  • Vexx has numerous instances of text in the game's Fictionary, Asataran. The longest of these is a very lengthy book title. If you actually take the time to translate it (not easy, since no translation guide is provided with the game manual—you've got to piece it together yourself—and the texture is blurred) — the title of the book turns out to be "A Lesson in Patience."
  • Left 4 Dead has graffiti all over the place. In Left 4 Dead 2, you can even find some by Frank West!
  • The computer screens on the desks you pass in the later half of Portal display the cake recipe later said by the second Personality Core.
  • In Half-Life 2: Episode 2, at least one computer screen within the missile silo displays the numbers from Lost.
  • In The Journeyman Project Pegasus Prime, a computer in the NORAD VI time zone that controls the submarines and a robot arm repeatedly displays "If you can read this, you are too close" while starting up.
  • In Halo 2, if you activate a computer console in "Zanzibar", it says "A total FU exception has occurred at your location. All system functionality will be terminated. Press any key to power cycle the system. If system does not restart, scream at top of lungs and pound on keypad."
  • The occasional tactical display in the background of mission briefings in Wing Commander IV had scrolling poetry.
  • In Spider-Man (PS4), the missiles that some mooks fire at Spidey have text on them that's only legible if the player goes into Photo Mode at just the right time and looks at the missile directly, due to them moving too fast to be seen in normal gameplay. Among other specs, the missiles are apparently "Guaranteed To Kill Spiders".
  • In The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III, the text on Crow's supposed grave is the same warning that appears on William Shakespeare's grave - "Good friend for Jesus sake forbear, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones."

    Web Original 
  • Kitboga is a scambaiter popular on Twitch and YouTube. One of the ways he tricks the scammers is with fake bank accounts. These are full of this sort of thing, such as "Banking doesn't have to be complicated, but it is anyways." The terms and conditions on one of them is the United States Declaration of Independence.

    Western Animation 
  • The various background signs, boxes, and papers in Rugrats often contain amusing jokes and gags, as well as Continuity Nods. One memorable box is for "Unsweetened sugar."
  • The Simpsons has an enormous number of them suiting its long run, but one of the most direct is the list of debunked claims by Rock Bottom in the episode Homer Bad Man. It's... lengthy, and include "If you are reading this, you have no life," and "The people writing these have no life."
  • Invoked in Futurama, where Amy mentions that old fashioned CRT TVs can't resolve her dirty tattoo. Of course, neither can plasma/LCD TVs.
  • Appropriately for a cartoon about secrets, Gravity Falls jam packs its frames with secret messages and foreshadowing, but there are occasional straight-up gags. For example, in Irrational Treasure, a list of hidden historical truths includes "Writing jokes for cartoons is more important than sleep."
  • In the Merrie Melodies cartoon "Lights Fantastic" (Freleng, 1942), a neon and lights sign displays a vision test, courtesy of eye doctor I.C. Spots.
    If you can read this...(standard size letters) you are average.
    If you can read this...(letters smaller) you are above average.
    If you can read this...(even smaller) you are exceptional.
    If you can read this...(tiny; zoom in to show Chinese charactersnote ) you are Chinese!