Follow TV Tropes


Small Reference Pools

Go To

"Anyone who thinks one book has all the answers hasn't read enough books."
Noreen, Saga

On the subject of contemporary music, film, television, and (to a lesser extent) sports, fictional characters can comfortably mention all kinds of people, expecting that most, or at least enough, of the audience will know whom they're talking about. On most other matters, however, their world becomes very small; TV producers fear any comment that might ever go over anyone's head, and thus only the most obvious and world-renowned people and things are allowed a mention.

It's worth noting that a major work of pop culture can completely turn one subject around and make it a free-for-all. For instance, before Jurassic Park, many people had only heard of maybe three or four types of dinosaur. Afterwards everyone could suddenly discuss velociraptors and dilophosaurs as though they'd known about them since childhood. note  Toronto's NBA franchise even named their team "Raptors", signaling that the species was there to stay on the pop-culture radar. The works of Leonardo da Vinci got a similar treatment thanks to Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.

What is obscure varies depending on time and place. Shows from the '70s and '80s assume that people will know about figures like Augusto Pinochet and Leonid Brezhnev, but one can't assume the same anymore, while references to certain American personalities in Family Guy or Robot Chicken will fly over the heads of viewers from elsewhere. Yet, while due to his antics, a lot of Americans probably know Rob Ford is the mayor of Toronto (or at least was until his death), they'd be hard pressed to name the Prime Minister of Canada (at least when it was Stephen Harper; Justin Trudeau, who took over in 2015, is pretty well-known to most Americans).

One notable case where all these qualms about obscurity get thrown out the window is the Celebrity Star. It's much easier to get a guest who's "famous" than one who's actually well known. If a band makes an appearance, most of the characters will suddenly become fans, no matter how obscure or washed up the band really is — which can also lead to such hilarious situations as the City Mouse suddenly liking Country Music or the wholesome, mostly white, Dom Com family all loving a rapper who is not normally known for being family-friendly. Likewise, B- and C-list actors are all suddenly big stars when they walk onto a TV show and everyone will know them by their real names.

Musical examples of these are often used as Standard Snippets.

A Super-Trope to Nothing but Hits, Small Taxonomy Pools, and Geek Reference Pool.

A Sister Trope to Parody Displacement, Public Medium Ignorance, Cultural Cross-Reference, Popcultural Osmosis, Eiffel Tower Effect, and Everybody Knows That. Depending on how small the reference pool is, this can sometimes lead to certain works being a Shallow Parody of the genre or medium they're referencing. Even the smallest reference pool will include at least one Household Name, aka a fictional work so well-known that it seems everyone knows about it.

Contrast Genius Bonus.

Examples subpages:

Other examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Asian Animation 

    Films — Animation 

    Eastern Animation 

  • During time travel encounters, all events of historical importance after 1900 happened in America (or possibly Germany, but only if Nazis are involved). Before 1900 all events of historical importance, or at least those not in America, happened in England, Rome, or occasionally Greece. Every event of historical importance that took place in the U.S. between 1800 and 1900 took place in one city.
  • When it comes to science-fiction writers, you can count on just about everyone having heard of one man: Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, a collection of short stories that has been adapted into several other media. Isaac Asimov is another very well-known author by the general public, but mostly due his creation of the Three Laws of Robotics, while maybe not able to name any of his books. Arthur C. Clarke tends to be less well-known, even though he helped to write the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey — a film that most people know through at least Pop-Cultural Osmosis. Hardcore Star Wars fans usually are familiar with Timothy Zahn, Kevin J. Anderson, Steve Perry, and perhaps Alan Dean Foster.
  • You can expect people to have heard of H. G. Wells, although most would be hard-pressed to name any of his works that aren't The War of the Worlds or The Time Machine. (Many aren't aware he wrote The Invisible Man or The Island of Doctor Moreau, even though those two have become much more popular as movies.).
  • The only Star Wars aliens people remember are Jawas, Sand Peoplenote , Wookiees, Hutts, and Ewoks. Most people will know of a species, but can't name it: "whatever Greedo was"note  or "whatever Admiral Ackbar was"note . There are also "those pig-man guards"note  and "that white-faced dude with the tentacle-head" note . Yoda doesn't seem to be thought of as an alien, possibly because his species doesn't have a name or because people think of him as just "a little old green guy." The more knowledgeable Star Wars buffs will also be able to mention Bith, Aqualish, Trandoshans, Ugnaughts, Kowakians, Ortolans, Pa'lowick, and Sullustans - all of whom had prominent roles in the 1977-1983 movies. If you're thinking of the prequels, then you'll probably know about Gungans and "that Jewish hummingbird-warthog thing". note 
  • Only Star Wars planets: Tatooine, Alderaan (which was only briefly seen and then got blown up, so it barely counts), Yavin 4, Hoth, Dagobah, Jakku, Bespin, Crait, Endor (only hardcore fans will ever properly call it "Sanctuary Moon"), Naboo, Coruscant, Kamino, Geonosis, Utapau, Mustafar, Exegol. What about Kessel, Ord Mantell, Taanab, etc.? Won't get mentioned, even though they're outright spoken in the movies' dialogue (go back and check). True Star Wars buffs can name several dozen planets, or even more. Curiously, only rarely will anyone remember Kashyyyk or Nal Hutta, even though Wookiees and Hutts are two of the most well-known Star Wars aliens.
  • The only works in the Space Western genre are Firefly, Trigun and Cowboy Bebop.
  • The only Star Trek characters are Kirk, Spock, Scotty, Khan, Picard, Worf, Q, and Data. Geordie, Wesley, and Seven of Nine might get mentioned if they're lucky. And Khan is only remembered for that time Kirk shouted his name.
    • To millions, while the show was on the air, Star Trek was "that show about the guy with the pointed ears." Many probably still think of it that way. They're also likely to know this (and maybe even that this happened), but that's all.
  • The only Star Trek aliens are Vulcans, Klingons, the Borg, and Tribbles - plus maybe "those helmet-headed guys with big noses."note . You will also occasionally hear the Romulans referenced, but they aren't nearly as entrenched in pop culture as the aforementioned races. Orion Slave Girls never get mentioned, even though they're the Trope Namer for Green-Skinned Space Babe.

  • This applies to both opera singers and operas themselves.
  • Even though there are many famous singers in opera, the general public may know only of the late Luciano Pavarotti after his version of "Nessun dorma" from Turandot was used as the theme song for BBC's TV coverage of the FIFA World Cup in Italy in 1990.
  • Most people who know of American soprano Renée Fleming may remember her from her being the first opera singer to perform The Star-Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl 2014.
  • Plácido Domingo is remembered by the general public perhaps most for his recording of "Perhaps Love" with country singer John Denver.
  • When people think of opera, one of the first things they think of is a fat lady in Viking armour, straight from Wagner's ''Die Walküre".
  • It's either that or Rossini's The Barber of Seville, notably "Largo al factotum".
  • The general public definitely knows about the Flower Duet (Sous le dôme épais) from Léo Delibes' Lakmé from its media use. In the UK, it was most popularly heard in a British Airways ad. The Flower Duet has also been used in films such as The Hunger, Piranha 3D, and Meet the Parents.
  • "Ride of the Valkyries" from Richard Wagner's Die Walküre is most commonly associated with Apocalypse Now & What's Opera, Doc?.
  • Likewise, "Nessun dorma" is popularly associated with the fifth Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.
  • "Il dolce suono" from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor is commonly associated with The Fifth Element.
  • Most people who know about Verdi's La Traviata have heard it in Pretty Woman.

  • The only webcomics that exist are xkcd and Penny Arcade. Brawl in the Family may get a mention, but only for spawning the "Too bad, Waluigi time!" meme.
  • Manly Guys Doing Manly Things: Referenced here. Commander Badass is considering his Halloween costume options, but doesn't think enough people will recognise Tywin Lannister to make it worth shaving his head. This comic was made about a year before Game of Thrones started, when A Song of Ice and Fire was just another middling-successful fantasy novel series. Also, Book!Tywin shaves his head.

    Web Original 

  • Dance:
    • This mostly shows up on a cultural level: people will be aware of the dance styles of the culture they grew up in, and that's it.
    • For Americans, dance is the waltz, the tango (only because it was once banned for obscenity; when was the last time you saw anyone outside of fiction literally tangoing?), ballet (which began and ended with Tchaikovsky), and maybe hip-hop/street dance. In areas with a large Latin American population, there may be awareness of dances like salsa, samba, and rhumba as well.
      • And there will never be a mention that most of those are styles and/or families of dance, not individual dances themselves.
    • This has improved somewhat largely due to shows such as So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars, and movies like Take the Lead and the Step Up franchise.
  • Wine:
    • For those special occasions, it's always a bottle of champagne (which technically must always be French, even though people seem to think it exists in all countries). Nobody ever thinks of Spanish cava or Italian spumante when discussing sparkling wine.
    • When demonstrating that you can pick the perfect wine to pair with your meal, it's always Bordeaux or Chianti. Ironically, these are both red wines and thus pair best with red meat, which is eaten less often than white meat these days.
    • Red or white. The most common red wine is probably Merlot, while the most famous white wine (as well as arguably the most famous wine in the world) is Chardonnay. If you're a Californian, you might mention Zinfandel and White Zinfandel, respectively.
    • A specific example comes from the film adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs; in the novel, Hannibal Lecter ate the census taker's liver with fava beans and a nice Amarone, but the movie script changed the wine to Chianti, assuming that most of the target audience wouldn't know what Amarone was.
  • Harold Ross, founder of The New Yorker magazine, would write "Who he?" on the copy whenever one of his writers used a name without explaining who the person was. He said that there were only two names you can assume everybody knows: Sherlock Holmes and Harry Houdini.
  • In this article, a teacher of English at a 'college of last resort' mentions that the only movie he can count on every one of his students being familiar with is The Wizard of Oz.
  • Pirates come in three flavors: Blackbeard, Black Bart, and Captain Jack Sparrow. They don't do anything remotely related to piracy for the most part. Hardly surprising on Black Bart's part since he was a Stagecoach Robber. Although most people are probably referring to the actual pirate Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts.
  • People refer to any Wire Fu-heavy fight sequence in a film as being in the style of The Matrix or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. They weren't the only ones, or the first ones, or even the best ones, fight-wise.
  • The only operating system is Windows, or Mac OS X. Go a bit further and you'll find GNU, though people will call it "Linux" and "open source". Even within that community, other historical and important operating systems (Genera, TENEX, ITS, WAITS) are forgotten in favor of UNIX. Which is hilariously wrong, since Linux is an OS kernel, and very few run GNU/HURD (the actual GNU kernel). For that matter, did you forget VMS? CP/M? Or the BSDs? Given that ITS was limited to PDP-6 and PDP-10 computers in MIT, it's not surprising that it's largely forgotten. Unix could and does run on a greater variety of systems than the Lisp machines for Genera or the mainframe-class PDP machines that TENEX, ITS and WAITS could run on. Also, you can add Multics and OS/360 to important historical operating systems that are forgotten within most communities.
    • Furthermore, the only Linux distribution is Ubuntu. Anything else is considered too geeky even in a geeky show.
  • The only way to crack into a computer is by guessing the password. Buffer overflows and SQL injections don't exist.
  • The only nuclear meltdown ever was Chernobyl. Despite this, it is still used to argue against nuclear power, because its infamy means everyone assumes a ton of people died all at once, or that such failures are endemic to nuclear power rather than just to how the Soviets tended to handle such things.
    • In the new tens, Fukushima equaled nuclear power plant failure, which is even more unfair because it wasn't human error that caused that.
    • Americans will also mention Three Mile Island, though it was relatively tame in comparison. Most people mentioning it seem to think it was a Chernobyl-sized disaster.
  • Hurricanes? Well, we've got Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, Irma, Maria, and, err... that's about it. And far as typhoons are concerned, only Haiyan exists in worldwide consciousness.
  • Ask someone outside of Japan to name a Sanrio character. No doubt they'll say Hello Kitty, maybe Keroppi, Badzt Maru and My Melody if you're lucky, ignoring more recent characters like Cinnamon (who always tops popularity polls in Japan) or Gudetama, although younger people might bring up Aggretsuko and Kuromi.
  • The only earthquake in history was the one in Haiti.
    • Or, if you know that tsunamis come from earthquakes, you can add the Indian Ocean and Japan earthquakes.
    • Or that one in San Francisco? A long time ago? (1906 to be precise)
    • Loma Prieta 1989 (the World Series one) and Oakland 1994 might be mentioned, especially in works set in that area.
    • Possibly the one along the New Madrid fault line in 1812, but only if you're in the American Midwest.
  • The only volcanoes to have erupted are Mount Saint Helens and possibly Vesuvius.
    • The one volcano in Iceland that no one is (or ever will be) able to pronounce or spell correctly.
    • The Pelé Mountain in La Réunion. Because a whole city being wiped out in relatively-modern times is scary.
    • Krakatoa, which is west of Java.
    • It may be acknowledged that there are active volcanoes in Hawaii, but their individual names probably won't be mentioned.
    • For a while in the 90s, they trusted people to be familiar with Mount Pinatubo, but not so much anymore.
  • All pistols are either Glocks or "Colt .45s", all shotguns are just "shotguns", all submachine guns are Uzis, all rifles are AK-47s, all mounted machine guns are either miniguns or ".50 cals", and all explosives are "Bazookas". This even happens with people who do know a thing or two about guns - any M4 seen without the distinctive carry handle and/or an aftermarket front sight will be immediately assumed to be an HK416, for instance.
  • The only school shootings to ever happen were Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and Stoneman Douglas. Teenage shootings also apparently began in the late 1990s; no one remembers, say, the McDonald's massacre in San Ysidro, California, in 1984. Only white kids do school shootings, by the way.note note 
  • Most people know that not all roses are red, and are aware of white, pink, orange, and other varieties. But few realize that the archetypal rose form, with a whorl of petals that completely surround the interior part, is found among just a couple varieties, most notably the Hybrid Tea. Of the hundreds of rose species and cultivars that exist, nearly all look like "standard" flowers with open petals, and not like a "real rose".
  • Martial arts? You'll be hard-pressed to find people who know that it isn't just East Asian stuff or that the West has more than, say, boxing, wrestling, maybe krav maga... and even for the "famous" East Asian styles, most will just say "karate" or "kung fu", neglecting that these are broad categories with sub-styles that can vary quite drastically from one to another, such as the acrobatic-and-kick-centric changquan vs the close-in wing chun. Mixed Martial Arts has only slightly broadened the pool, partly because so few of the more obscure styles' practitioners either make it big or bother making appearances at all.
  • Cryptids in fiction will usually be Bigfoot, Yeti, the Loch Ness monster, and Chupacabra. If you're lucky you might get The Mothman. Japanese works are more likely to depict The Flatwoods Monster.
  • A famous missing person, especially for a throwaway gag? Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa, or Anastasia Romanova (even though her body was found.) If you're feeling a little more adventurous, add D. B. Cooper and maybe Percy Fawcett.
  • Lenny Bruce: He is perhaps the only comedian who is more famous and respected for fighting against censorship and freedom of speech than actual jokes. Most documentaries focus more on this aspect of his life too.
  • Discussed in religious terms by Irish comedian Dara O'Briain in one of his stand-up routines; he discusses how after making jokes about Catholics and Protestants in many of his routines, he'd be approached by religious people who'd lambast him for being "too scared" to instead make jokes about Muslims. O'Briain pointed out that the actual reason was that not only did he not actually know anything about Muslims, but most of his intended audience probably didn't either, so even if he were to research and write a devastating take-down of Islam, most of his audience wouldn't get it.
  • Ask a person for a stock list of constellations. It will usually come in two flavors: it's either the zodiacs, or the usual common ones like Orion, Ursa Major/Minornote  and the zodiacs. As for recognizing constellations, Orion and Ursa Major are the only ones to ring a bell.
  • As far as stars go, most people know the North Star and that's about it. Most people don't even know its actual name is Polaris. Many have heard of Sirius but will think that's another name for the Pole Star (tip: it isn't.) Alpha Centauri is reasonably well-known, mostly because it's the closest to us. Don't expect anyone to know that Alpha Centauri is actually three stars (or two if you're only counting the binary pair).
  • In fiction, the entire science of cryptography consists of: The Book Cipher, code books (usually ridiculously funny) and for the ambitious, substitution ciphers (which are always cracked by frequency analysis). If alchemists appear, there might be a highly obscure allusion cipher. PGP? Who's heard of it?
  • Male Wholesome Crossdresser characters? Bridget and Astolfo are the only such characters ever made.
  • Yoga in its entirety consists of holding three poses (only a real show-off would ever call them asanas): Lotus, Dancer, and Downward Facing Dog.


    Card Games 
  • The card game Magic: The Gathering does this as well. They tend to use obscure but real mythical creatures, and the original sets, before the storyline became coherent and unique to the sets, would borrow liberally from odd sources.

  • Dennis Miller is famous for constantly bringing up obscure references, so much so that a website was created to decipher his comments on Monday Night Football for the average football fan.
  • Patton Oswalt likes to lampshade the obscure references in his stand-up, by effecting an even nerdier voice than usual, and mentioning something even more obscure.
  • David Mitchell argues against using small reference pools in this video, pointing out that many people, especially teenagers, are more likely to just Google the reference than to feel excluded for not getting it.

    Comic Books 
  • Neil Gaiman's The Sandman references a great deal. For example, the second volume mentions Parliament's War, Fiddler's Green, etc.
  • Alan Moore and Kevin O' Neill's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is definitely a subversion. Sure, three of the original five league members are well known, but the two most important include the fairly obscure (and frequently misspelled) Allan Quatermain and a lesser known character from the novel Dracula. Beyond the League, the references get incredibly obscure.
    • The Black Dossier is nye literature code without some sort of cypher key to understand what he's talking about.
    • By the time of Century, the first issue its really light on this. But the second issue, being set on 1969, with a lot of series and film characters on the background and as characters... it's reference porn all the way.

    Comic Strips 
  • Dykes to Watch Out For is festooned with literary, cultural, and historical allusions of all kinds (not solely LGBT culture, either).
  • Linus Van Pelt of Peanuts was fond of quoting Bible passages, often from fairly obscure books of both the Old and New Testaments. And there is his immortal quoting of the Gospel of Luke in A Charlie Brown Christmas, but that had always been well-known to Christians. And cartoonist Charles Schulz, a big sports fan, frequently mentioned famous athletes of the day, most of whom are all but forgotten today (French-Canadian hockey player Maurice Richard, for instance).
  • Calvin and Hobbes usually tried to steer clear of cultural references, but Calvin once compared the experience of walking through the snowy woods to Doctor Zhivago (an Academy Award-winning movie, to be sure, but one that most people have not seen since the 1960s). Another strip had Calvin waxing sarcastic about middle-aged pop stars endorsing soft drinks; this was fairly common in the early '90s (Ray Charles, Elton John), but many current viewers may not remember those commercials. Hobbes also once called Calvin out for misspelling the word "Weltanschauung."
  • Lasagna was not widely known west of the Hudson River or to non-Italian-Americans until it was revealed to be Garfield's favorite food. One strip even had Jon Arbuckle name-dropping various Italian cheeses as he prepared Garfield's meal: ricotta, mozzarella, parmesan (parmagiana in Italian).

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Super, when Libby lists superheroes with Kid Sidekicks, she rather surprisingly mentions the original Human Torch and Toro between Batman/Robin and Flash/Kid Flash.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Mystery Science Theater 3000 averts this trope. Nothing is too obscure to reference; their official Youtube channel is working on producing annotated versions of each episode to explain the references, and the explanations make you realize just how obscure they get. The writers' philosophy was, "The right people will get it."

  • They Might Be Giants have tried to rectify the situation singing the praises of Belgian painter James Ensor and the sorely underrated President James K. Polk, among others.
  • "Those Endearing Young Charms" will never be played correctly, due to a stick of dynamite being placed under the right key of the ninth note.
  • The 1975 Alice Cooper song "Department of Youth" does a bit of name-dropping, with Donny Osmond and Dwight D. Eisenhower both mentioned (Eisenhower undoubtedly familiar to most grade-school kids, and the Osmonds fairly commonly known), but also Protestant preacher (and former baseball player) Billy Sunday and short-story writer Damon Runyon, neither of whom most kids are likely to know. Lampshaded within the song when Alice goes "And we never hoid'a..."

  • Pythagoras, the ancient Greek mathematical theorist, is pretty well known to some Baby Boomers who remember his appearance in the Classic Disney Short Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land. And they might also recall from that cartoon that the pentagram was originally the symbol of the Pythagorean secret society, not a sign of Satan.

  • BBC Radio show Round Britain Quiz is almost an inversion of this trope. It's a highbrow panel game for some very well-read intellectuals, except when it comes to anything that's recent, science-/engineering-based, or American. Then it switches to Huge Reference Pools — some people who know everything about classical literature or classical music (to take some recent examples) are clueless on questions about Elton John or Pink Floyd, or don't know which city is 'Motown'. They have since made an effort to get teams which have a breadth of knowledge that does include pop culture and science (including DJ and music journalist Stuart Maconie), but it's still more likely for the average contestant to flounder there than in identifying a 19th century novel.

    Video Games 
  • Tales of Symphonia has the angel Remiel, a somewhat obscure apocryphal angel, appropriately responsible for sending visions and prophecy. Some sources also make him responsible for those who will be resurrected. Both are appropriate for his place within the early game journey of rebirth.
  • While not the smallest reference pool, in The Secret World, they mention Vivaldi as a composer.

    Visual Novels 

  • Thanks partly to the influence of Gary Larson's The Far Side, many Dada Comics avert this trope, sometimes bordering on Viewers Are Geniuses. One instance in which this trope caught up was a panel in which one cowboy offered another a latte. In the days before Starbucks, many audience members were convinced that "latte" meant gay sex; others knew that it was a type of coffee but didn't know the word was Italian, assumed it was French, and pronounced it "lat."
  • The names of The Order of the Stick books often reference works of literature, at least one of which is well outside the norm: War and XPs (Tolstoy's War and Peace), Start of Darkness (Conrad's Heart of Darkness) and On the Origins of PCs (Darwin's On the Origin of Species) Strips have also referenced the novel Dune, the musical Meet Me in St. Louis, and hinged several key character moments on a game of Go.
  • Irregular Webcomic! lives on averting this trope. Obscure mathematical jokes abound. Luckily for the majority of his readers, the extensive annotations underneath each strip explain the mathematical or scientific principle in question, often a whole lot better than your math teacher or textbook will. Extensive and accurate historical and literary jokes are also common. Irregular Webcomic doesn't sacrifice humor for "get out of my head" moments.
  • In Nip and Tuck, Ms. Ruth assumes she hit on this when she compares Nip and Eric's characters in a movie they're working on to Jean Valjean and Javert and gets no reaction — and finds they just don't think it's a good analogy.
  • xkcd often has strips with jokes on the subjects of advanced mathematics and physics, computer coding, and various other obscure references. It's gotten to the point that there's a whole wiki to explain every strip.

    Web Original 

Alternative Title(s): Limited Reference Pools, Minorly Mentioned Myths And Monsters