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Viewers Are Geniuses

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"Never underestimate your audience. They're generally sensitive, intelligent people who respond positively to quality entertainment."
Lt. Colonel Cameron Mitchell, Stargate SG-1

The public's been clamoring for some more intelligent television in the wake of Reality TV and Lowest Common Denominator Recycled Scripts. So, you go and write a series loaded with difficult quantum mechanics, quoting obscure 17th-century philosophers, with characters who are philosophical Magnificent Bastards who speak a dozen languages while conversing to each other by sending Shakespearean Zen koans hidden into chess move patterns, and packed with allusions to ancient Sumerian religion. You make sure all your Technobabble is scientifically plausible and go to great lengths to make sure all your ancient Roman soldiers are wearing exact replicas of period equipment. Now it's True Art, right?

So you sit back and watch the ratings — which plummet faster than a rocket-propelled brick in a nosedive. What went wrong? In trying to avert making the classic mistake that Viewers Are Morons, you went too far and ended up assuming that they're geniuses instead. Of course, if you're working in a medium that doesn't need an audience of millions to be profitable, you may not care. While a lot less common than its more insulting opposite (any show without the "mass-market appeal" that the less high-brow stuff has will be Screwed by the Network without mercy), overestimating the audience can be more of a death knell than underestimating it, even without network sabotage.

The opposite is also true: an intelligent, engaging work may lack any sort of references at all. There's also the trap of being so consumed with the complexities that you forget simpler things like plot and characterization.

However, in the eyes of artists and some fans, this is a Justified Trope. There are many instances where a film with dense references and information provides an Unconventional Learning Experience, introducing high concepts in a dramatic, entertaining fashion. This empowers readers and viewers and makes them interested and curious in exploring offbeat ideas that they otherwise might have felt they are not educated to understand and accept, since many of them have internalized the Viewers Are Morons ideas and reflexively feel some movies or books are not for them. For instance, Joseph Campbell's Heroic Journey concept was fairly obscure before Star Wars used a Heroic Journey plot, which brought the concept into the mainstream. There's also changing societal norms to consider. The number of people with college educations is higher today than it was, say, in The '60s, so what used to be obscure becomes mainstream with the passage of time, and indeed, new genres and new storytelling techniques are created because audiences have become too smart for old plots and hackneyed clichés. In the case of some artists, the dense play of text and subtext for them is the reason why they make art in the first place, and they set out to fill it with Genius Bonuses and Rewatch Bonuses so that audiences can immerse themselves in understanding the work fully.

Ironically, the reverse is also true. Art forms that we regard today as High Art like opera, classical music, poetry, and even Greek or Shakespearean tragedy were popular and commercial work in the day. Audiences across the class and educational spectrum had no trouble understanding and following these works. And indeed, they were all filled with topical and common references that audiences had no trouble following.

It is this distinction which is why you see so much dissonance in understanding humor as a general topic. It is far easier for the Lowest Common Denominator to "get" a joke, if there is a clear "butt" of the joke. However, people who really follow humor aren't aiming to disparage people, but are instead in finding out the Twist Ending, or the Pun.

The most successful way to do this may be to provide a Genius Bonus. If a writer gives the more intellectual content a small dose at a time, viewers can still enjoy the work at their level, but those who get the Easter Egg will enjoy its hidden depths.

See also Faux Symbolism, Mind Screw, and Moon Logic Puzzle. Not mutually exclusive with Artistic License or Falsely Advertised Accuracy — just because a show is crammed with obscure knowledge doesn't mean that it is correct, even when it comes from the show to begin with. This can be the result of too many In Jokes being included in a work.

See also Viewers Are Morons, the opposite side of the coin. When this trope and the latter trope conflict however, you can wind up with an Unpleasable Fanbase.


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  • There was a commercial that assumed people had more knowledge of what goes into their deli meats than they generally do. The commercial has two cows standing on a stage. One represents the advertiser while the other represents the competition, and from offstage someone throws a bucket of seaweed over the competition's cow. The cow representing the company, however, remains clean and "natural". They were trying to illustrate how their competition used filler materials (seaweed derivatives being very common as filler ingredients) in their meat products but that they didn't, and where thereby superior quality meats. Too bad the commercial never bothered to explain itself because most people didn't know about filler much less what the seaweed had to do with anything.
  • Denny's restaurants had a bacon-themed special called "Baconalia," a pun on "Bacchanalia," which were cult orgies in Ancient Greece and Rome. One wonders if Denny's wanted their patrons to get the esoteric reference or not.

    Anime and Manga 
  • Fullmetal Alchemist: The Conqueror of Shamballa: The creators of Conqueror of Shamballa showed their work in depicting Munich in 1923. The Thule Society was a real Nazi secret society trying to enter an unknown land called "Shamballa", and the Nazi meeting Edward stumbles into was based off the Munich Beer Putsch. However, much criticism of the movie accuses the film of perpetuating the All Germans Are Nazis stereotype, suggesting many Fullmetal Alchemist fans were not familiar with this period of German history or the references to it and thought the movie threw in Those Wacky Nazis for no good reason.
  • Ghost in the Shell is pretty hard on the brain. Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, for example, is an intertextual rumination on posthumanism that requires an understanding of the works of people like Hans Bellmer for proper comprehension.
    • While being comparatively lightweight, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex discusses sociology and memes, and if you understood it fully the first time, you either already had an undergrad understanding of sociology, or earned one in the process of puzzling it out. It also has a tendency to have characters spout plot points (often convoluted political situations) at an accelerated clip. It then rarely, if ever, repeats itself. Example: in 2nd Gig, the full source of the title 'Individual Eleven' and its supposed contents are explained once, despite coming in in multiple episodes before and after the explanation. The extent of the subtleties in these conversations are enough to quickly lose all but astute political science majors the first time through, much more so than the sociology and philosophy references — not to mention ultimately being a Red Herring.
    • Near the end of 2nd Gig, Kuze has a discussion with Yousuke Aramaki which requires a customary understanding of basic Marxist economic philosophy to piece together.
  • Serial Experiments Lain:
    • The central theme revolves around highly technical aspects of computers and networking, and the series is a well-known member of the Anime Mind Screw Club.
    • Several extended Jungian metaphors.
    • "Lain's computer hardware is so cool. How come we don't get designs like those?"
    • Lain lacks a plot at all until you do the research. The plot only emerges at all once you get to the point where you're looking at the patent file for Microwave Audio Induction and trying to figure out if on Schuuman Resonance frequencies it can be used to trigger individual action potentials (nb: Schumann resonance is actually a massive frequency range — the number given in the show of 7.83Hz is actually the median).
  • Many anime series produced by the Bee Train studio (most famously, Noir and Madlax) require so much reading between the lines and background cultural knowledge that most viewers refuse to believe that something worthy was there in the first place. As a result, the rather small fan community deliberately positions itself as "intelligent fans", actively shunning whom they refer to as "fanboys" and "haterz".
  • Hellsing is positively dripping with Western symbolism. Only those familiar with Catholicism, Protestantism, the Reformation, and the cultural and religious conflicts between the two Christian branches will understand all of the references and subplots that litter the storyline. The same could also be said of the characters' backgrounds, which involve everything from the Ottoman Turks and collapse of the Eastern Roman Empire to the Nazis of World War II and the continued disputes about Northern Ireland. The plot literally requires viewers to possess at least a decent working knowledge of European history to grasp anywhere near all of the allusions that are made to real-life historical figures, their peoples, their religions, and their possible connection to supernatural creatures like vampires, werewolves, and other monsters.
    • Many of the characters' and agency's names give hints about their nationality and roles in the plot, but don't expect anyone aside from those who are well-acquainted with European culture, Judeo-Christian religions, and fictional works to correctly deduce or identify the reasons behind their significance.
    • Not to mention Schrödinger, who is based on a thought concept of quantum physics that baffles even those in the sciences from time to time. Many viewers may never have even heard of the concept, which the show doesn't explain in great detail, either.
    • Alucard's past is based on the events of Bram Stoker's original novel (and some of the Truer to the Text 1992 Bram Stoker's Dracula film) and the life, politics, and death of the historical Vlad III Dracula; NOT the distilled Hollywood Pop-Cultural Osmosis Dracula. Best to have a passing knowledge of these for random flashbacks and mentions of obscure details of his life to make sense.
  • Ergo Proxy casually references Classical Mythology (Daedelus and Icarus, Theseus and the Minos maze), philosophy (Rene Descartes, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Alan Turing, among many others), film (The Battleship Potemkin, AKIRA, Blade Runner), Gnosticism, art (Michelangelo Buonarroti, John Everett Millais), history, and many other things, almost to the point of showing off to the audience how smart they are by cramming episodes with as many allusions as possible. While you may not need an understanding of any of the references to appreciate the concrete plot, how many people caught the City Lights bookstore (a real one located in San Francisco) and its importance to the beat poetry movement, or that Re-L's name was listed as "124C41+" in a computer database, referencing the 1925 science-fiction novel Ralph 124C41+ by Hugo Gernsback. Even Red Shirt characters have names from obscure ancient religions.
  • Nasuverse: Kinoko Nasu really, really loves winding philosophical debate, and he expects you to as well; his plots tend to get extremely complex, bringing up rules once or twice and then building stories based on them, and the rules governing the 'verse can get pretty complex as well, with a huge amount of Mr. Exposition giving Instructional Dialogue regarding borderline game-breaking abilities. Fate/stay night is particularly guilty. For example, several sections will be dedicated to explaining the minute details as to why imagining swords into being real is a stupid, useless form of magic, and then later it turns out that Shirou has a rare talent that turns it into a Game-Breaker.
    • For a few examples: in Fate/stay night, the resolution of Saber's fight with Berserker is an absurd Deus ex Machina unless you've read Le Morte D Arthur and remember a few odd comments about how the magic system works from earlier in the story, and there's a couple of one-off lines in the Fate route that establish just how Kotomine survives in Heaven's Feel, and in Fate/hollow ataraxia the only person who can beat Bazett is Lancer because of a few odd details about how their powers interact — her invincible counterattack triggers when you start your attack; he starts his attack after he resolves it.
  • Although Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei mostly makes sense to its intended Japanese audience (for a certain definition of "makes sense"), anyone who attempts to translate it deserves our pity. The official English version of the manga has about a dozen pages at the end of each volume dedicated to explaining the dozens of references, most of which are about either Japanese pop culture or obscure Japanese historical events. Without these explanations, none of them will make the least bit of sense to a foreign reader, but jokes that have to be explained are hard to make funny.
  • Darker than Black never explains anything, and on the rare occasions it does, the source is usually less than trustworthy. Most of the background is left deliberately vague, and it ends with a Mind Screwy Gainax Ending. In short, if you want to sort out the overall plot (rather than the two-episode sub-arcs; those tend to be fairly self-contained), you'd better have a very good memory or be taking notes.
  • As weird as it feels to list a Fanservice manga/anime here, Ikki Tousen nevertheless qualifies to some extent. The series seems to take for granted that all of its audience has some basic awareness of the historical characters it's portraying, which... for the most part, particularly in the West, they don't. It's made worse because those who do know the cast of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, either by having read the story or by being fans of Dynasty Warriors, most likely know them by their original Chinese names, but everyone in-series uses the names from the Japanese translation, making it very easy to miss the connection between, say, Sonsaku Hakufu and her counterpart Sun Ce.
  • Played with in Motohirou Katou's works, especially Q.E.D. and C.M.B.. The thing is, he always takes time to explains things that need explanation for most readers, but even with that, sometimes it still leaves us baffled (like Kana), especially things like mathematics and such.
  • Digimon Tamers makes references to the history of computing, the Internet, and programming, being considered by some fans the most mature and well-written of the whole Digimon franchise.
  • In Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, despite the series being a fairly simple and straightforward tale, the real nature of all elemental visuals accompanying the Breathing Styles' swordsmanship (as in, they aren't real) is presented in little key nods spread throughout the anime and manga, such as absolutely no character commenting, friend or foe, in the potential elemental damage that should be dealt by any of the demon slayers, whereas demons who actually have supernatural powers have had their elemental effects commented upon and warned against several times. However, these nods didn’t seem enough for some people, so Gotoge had to outright confirm in the manga, volume 17, extras that indeed none of Breathing Styles manifest real elements out of thin air.
  • Liar Game is happy to explain psychology and game theory to you, but it certainly helps if you're at least somewhat familiar with concepts (like the Prisoner's Dilemma).
  • Revolutionary Girl Utena is confident that you won't be overwhelmed or turned off by its dense symbolism and many layers of meaning. It knows that you know - despite it's Trolling Creator (who's actually very helpful in the right circumstances) - that it has nothing to do with the Walrus being Paul, and that the curtains are never just blue. It knows that it is a jungle gym of symbols and it's inviting you in to hang by your knees, or do pull-ups, or just climb to the top and chat with friends. Whatever speaks to you. Utena is your experience.
  • While perfectly enjoyable without any such knowledge, only the biggest history buffs will get anywhere near all of One Piece's references to real-life pirates, their crews, their ships, and nautical terms and techniques during the real-life Age of Piracy. An instance of such knowledge being beneficial to understanding the series is that any pirate named after a real seafarer will play an important role in the series.
  • You probably would not believe that Strike Witches of all things can be planted here. Nonetheless, apart from its most obvious appeal, it delves into ideas about Alternate Universes, Alternate History, World War II technology, Historical In Jokes, Gun Safety, military organization, its takes about the conflict in Europe, the conflict in Africa and other stuff. Did you know that the real Hartmann accidentally (?) took Adolf Hitler's hat because his own was gone? This is the basis for the Panty Thief episode in season 1.
  • You know all about quantum mechanics, right? Then you'll love Noein (though this one isn't as bad, since there's a character whose main purpose is to have quantum mechanics explained to him).
  • Concrete Revolutio: Choujin Gensou's use of Anachronic Order makes it difficult to follow the plot and characters through its timeline. Not only that, the show's timeline takes place in an Alternate History with each episode events playing out a specific event that occurred in post war Japan. Combined with its philosophies on justice, specifically Justice Will Prevail, and Grey-and-Gray Morality, you can see how it ended up on this list.
  • Most viewers can enjoy Girls und Panzer for its story and presentation, but an extensive knowledge of World War II-era armored fighting vehicles, weapons, military tactics, and other wartime esoterica definitely helps. For instance, why is Leopon team called that, and why is that particular tank in the hands of the Automotive Club? You'd first have to know that a leopon is a hybrid big cat (leopard and lioness crossbreeding), and that their Tiger (P) tank uses a hybrid transmission (petrol engines mated to electric motors). You'd then have to remember that while the gun worked fine, the Tiger (P) was more infamous for its notoriously unreliable motive systems — it's with Automotive Club because no other team would have the time or patience to make it work.
  • During Naruto Gaiden, Sasuke's daughter, Sarada, undergoes a DNA test to find, once and for all, if her real mother is Sasuke's former teammate, Karin. The test result comes out showing a perfect 100% match seemingly confirming it; however, those who know genetics will point out that a parent and child only share 50% of their DNA, one only has a 100% genetic match with oneself (or an identical twin), which fits with the reveal later that the umbilical cord used for the test belonged to Sarada and not Karin.
  • The Your Name side novel Another Side: Earthbound contains extensive discussions of Shinto in Yotsuha and Toshiki's sections that will fly over the heads of anyone who isn't well-versed in the faith.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh! The Dark Side of Dimensions (particularly in the original Japanese script) assumes that the viewer is as versed in quantum mechanics as Kazuki Takahashi apparently became. The finer details about the abilities and philosophy of the Plana are rooted in quantum physics jargon, with only vague allusions to how knowing this stuff explains things like Kaiba’s new Duel Disk system being able to counter their powers and summon Obelisk the Tormentor during his duel with Aigami. The movie-exclusive Artifact of Doom is not just called the Quantum Cube for pure Technobabble reasons.
  • Godzilla: Singular Point's human plot revolves around complicated discussions of quantum and theoretical physics to explain how the mysterious Archetype element and the Kaiju connected to it defy all traditional logical views of how physics work.

    Comic Books 
  • Nearly every panel of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen features obscure references to English literature and/or comic art. The accompanying text-stories are, if anything, even worse/better.
  • Starman (DC Comics) is full of references to obscure things. Lampshade Hanging in one issue:
    Jack: There's nothing wrong with being elite.
    Or another example.
    This one isn't about collectibles but it's the same kind of thing. I'm in a book store... for new books. I've gone a little bit crazy and I'm about to spend a couple of hundred bucks. I murmur under my breath "money's too tight to mention".
    Now the guy behind the register, he hears this. He looks at me, nodding his head knowingly like we're in some "club of cool" together. He says, "Yeah, Simply Red" like it's a password, and now we do the secret handshake.
    And I'm thinking "Simply Red"? Lame English band. More soul at a polka convention. And the book store guy thinks he's on some kind of inside loop with that.
    Sadie: Jack, that's the smuggest thing I ever heard. A guy tries to be nice and you stand there hating him just because he hasn't heard of the Valentine Brothers.
    You're like my ex-boyfriend. He was that way about authors. He'd deliberately drop obscure quotes and references. He'd take over conversations at parties. But none of what he read was for the love of it. His knowledge was like a weapon.
    Don't tell me you're like that. I don't want another jerk. I've had...
    Hey, why are you smiling?
    Jack: Because you've heard of the Valentine Brothers.
    [Naturally, since Jack and Sadie both know that the Valentine Brothers are a soul duo who originally performed "Money's Too Tight To Mention" before Simply Red covered it, they have no reason to tell the readers this.]
  • Really, most DC Comics Crisis Crossovers are like this, though Final Crisis takes the cake. It's not just the Continuity Porn that hung up fans on Final Crisis — comic book nerds are very good at continuity. Grant Morrison was also doing a lot of meta and philosophical weirdness about the nature of storytelling and the superhero genre in particular, which is a great way to annoy people who don't care about Barthes or Morrison's issues with William Moulton Marston and just want to see characters they love beat up characters they love to hate in heroic and impressive ways.
  • Keith Giffen's Ambush Bug stories are very much like this, with damn near every page (and sometimes every panel) containing references to decades of comic book history, as well as famous people and trends in the industry. Combined with extreme Medium Awareness, the comics are truly incomprehensible to non-comic readers (and often a bit confusing to regular readers who just aren't up on their history lessons).
  • From Hell: The work is teeming with references to historical figures and events, a lengthy exchange on fourth dimensional theory, psychogeography, Masonic ritual and Pagan mysticism and the Illuminati. Reading the appendix is not just recommended. It's a necessity.
  • Pretty much anything Grant Morrison has ever made. The Invisibles gets special mention, since in order to fully follow it, you would need: a degree in history; a biography of Morrison; a complete and unabridged summary of British popular culture of the past 80 years with an emphasis on the 1960's; a fine knowledge into various revolutions and revolutionary groups (Mainly the King Mob, French situationism, the Cabaret voltaire and the Dada Society) a reasonable understanding of the Voodoun, Aztec, and Native-Australian belief systems; an understanding of the underlying symbolism of the Egyptian tarot; books on metaphysics, homeopathy and the various theories of the holographic universes; a familiarity with the works of the Marquis de Sade; a copy of every single piece of conspiracy theory literature ever published from the 1940s to the present day; and a bucket full of enough psychoactive drugs to make Charlie Sheen run away screaming. Even then, you probably wouldn't get it all.
  • The Phantom: Not all the time, but a lot of the stories told about past Phantoms are more enjoyable if you know your world history.
  • Garkin's assorted belongings in Phil Foglio's comic adaptation of Myth Adventures include, among other things, a The King in Yellow paint-by-numbers book. (Talk about a Nightmare Fuel Coloring Book...)
  • While Kingdom Come would seem to have Continuity Lockout due to a huge cast, the characters that the reader needs to know are sufficiently introduced. But to fully appreciate the story, the reader needs to be familiar with the general evolution of the genre over the last 4 or 5 decades, especially then-recent trends in characterization to understand what the story is commenting on and, in retrospect, its own place in changing the direction of the genre itself. The book is also replete with Biblical symbolism and imagery, and references to Christian theology. If you know that many Christian theologians consider Jesus to be fully God and fully human, and that this unique biology is essential to his self-sacrifice being meaningful, you appreciate Superman's speech to Captain Marvel a lot more (just as one "for instance").
  • Joker:
    • One doesn't need an intimate knowledge of Batman's relationship with the Joker to understand the whole story, but it does explain certain moments, and can create a bit of Dramatic Irony as you watch Jonny Frost (Joker's latest henchman) believe that he's on top of the world with the Joker when nothing could be further from the truth. There are unexplained moments when Joker is looking around or asking others to look around for him, always commenting that someone is watching him. The very first time it happens, it appears as if he's staring back at Arkham Asylum as he is released. In reality, you can spot a hidden Batman among the gargoyles of Arkham, like much of his promotional art. The second time is harder to spot, in the shadows on a rooftop while Joker and Jonny drive below him.
    • There's also a part where he shoots a man twice, and then starts talking to the sky about it not being bad enough before going on a shooting spree. The main character, Jonny, has no clue what he's talking about. He's wondering aloud why Batman hasn't confronted him yet, even though he's been watching him ever since he left Arkham.
  • Between Grayson, Omega Men, The Vision (2015) and Mister Miracle (2017), Tom King is known for going light on direct exposition, and expecting the reader to keep up with themes and character development that are hidden beneath the surface. Naturally, this gets backlash from readers who are completely missing the point.
  • Given the size of the cast in Astro City, many of the background characters receive little more than names and costumes. Kurt Busiek relies on the reader's knowledge of other comics to fill in the blanks, particularly with obvious Expy characters like Rex Zorus (The Thing), Samaritan (Superman), the N-Forcer (Iron Man), or Winged Victory (Wonder Woman). Such knowledge rounds out the setting considerably.

    Comic Strips 

    Fan Works 
  • A Death Note fanfic, apparently about random American civilians during Kira's reign, starts off with a Seinfeldian Conversation about how easy it is to do a feminist critique of classic literature, which further digresses into this exchange:
    Character A: Y'know, if Sir Nigel does come up on the test, I'll thank my lucky stars it wasn't, say, Rodney Stone. Would've refused to read it on principle.
    Character B: What? I've never even heard of Rodney — oh. [rolls eyes] I'm guessing it came out around the turn of the century?
    Character A: So I'm predictable.
    • If you knew without Googling or proceeding to the next chapter that this is supposed to mean that Character A is predisposed toward a particular side, well, it's a good thing that you came down from your terrifying ivory tower long enough to watch a cartoon, but... chances are you're the author.
  • This chapter of A Few Angry Words. There's a Shout-Out in there, but in the comments for the chapter, nobody gets the reference. One guy almost does, but then proceeds to cite the wrong story.
  • Prinz von Sommerhoffnung, my goodness. What's supposed to be, if the author can be believed, a My-HiME AU novelisation slaps you with a questionably correct piece of translation-wordplay from the title on. The various character names, ostensibly attempts at Captain Ersatz-ing, run on translations, transliterations and wordplay that need some amount of bizarre lateral thinking to decipher; not to mention that Shout Outs both to modern and older works are handled in a roundabout way. Perhaps the worst part, though? The author knows his stuff is undecipherable, and seems, well, blasé about it.
  • S-Michael, being Brilliant, but Lazy as he is, will never, ever tell you anything you should already know. In Thicker than Water, that whole JD thing is based on real science! Better science than Blood+ is, in fact! (Assuming of course that certain facts of chiropteran biology are inherently similar to human biology, at any rate.)
  • Higurashi: When They Cry fanfic Cicadas: Case of the Endless Dreamer. The entire story, due to often being told by a malicious Unreliable Narrator, relies on the reader managing to weave through the various red herrings present, pick up the small details, and determine exactly what is true and what is fiction. Otherwise, the reader has to deal with various inconsistencies with canon, contradictions, and will outright not have a clue what is going on in a good portion of the story.
  • Some readers of Mass Effect: Human Revolution have accused it of reaching this level, between the Gambit Pileup of clashing Magnificent Bastards fighting wannabes and conspiracies, mysticism In-Universe and out, Narrative Filigree and the Reference Overdosed.
  • The "A dance of Shadow and Light" series by Ocadioan is so ripe with historic, cultural, language and mathematical references and hints that, in the author's own words at the end of the series, "if you had even noticed half of them, then you would not have been surprised by any of the events that happened in the story or the series as a whole.". Examples of his easy Easter eggs include noticing the reference to the Damocles of Syracuse, and specifically the Sword of Damocles, noticing the name behind Project Faust (yes, THAT Faust, and a small Faustian Rebellion has already been done by then), or figuring out that Mercury's death coincides with him being 666 years old and having having his soul trapped at the Earth's core.
    • The author is nice enough though to create a chapter in Sidestories that explains the major plotpoints that the readers would very likely not have caught otherwise. And most of the references are merely Easter eggs anyway, though there is apparently another layer to deepen the story that is only accessed through the same sort of references and a fair amount of Fridge Logic. An example of this is having to notice and keep track of the irony of a main character in Phoenix-fire mentioning that she would be thanked eventually by the people of Alagaësia for going to such lengths to kill Mercury, then abandoning it all near the end when all of her family and friends have been killed, only to then be thanked by Mercury right after she kills him.
  • A Good Omens fic by A.A. Pessimal, based on the riff that The Devil Has All The Best Tunes, deals with Crowley and Aziraphale getting involved in the murky world of pop and rock music. The chapters include Black Sabbath getting a helping hand from Crowley, and the Four Motorcycle Riders of the Apocalypse each sponsoring trends in music that they are attracted to. note  The chapters become increasingly dense with references to sixties and seventies rock and pop music, and the last, where DEATH takes an interest in an obscure New York rock band with an intellectual edge and gets them to write his theme song, is so packed with obscure references the reader would need a degree level education in music trivia to get all the references. Even the author admits he might have overdone it a little.
    • Pessimal generally deals in Discworld fics. The general opinion of readers is that he manages a very good Pratchett pastiche and that, as with the inspiration, the tales are loaded with references, allusions and background detail, right down to lots and lots of necessary footnotes.
  • Superhero RPF is arguably not as bad as some of the other examples, but it still unintelligible without knowledge of the source material (Marvel Universe, especially its teen heroes), and fandom cultures (from livejournal to tumblr and beyond). No, it won't explain anything, if you can't guess the platform from the formatting, the people from the screen names, or the jargon goes over your head, too bad.
  • Some of the backstory and references in Sonic X: Dark Chaos are nearly impossible to understand without a theology major, historical research into the Bible and the Koran, knowledge of American right-wing Evangelical beliefs, familiarity with the works of HP Lovecraft, and knowledge of Christian and Jewish demonology. Some understanding of LaVeyan Satanism helps too.
  • Pacific: World War II U.S. Navy Shipgirls:
    • Its designs incorporate tons of tiny details about the original ships' history and their namesakes that are very likely to fly over the heads of people who aren't hardcore naval history buffs. While a few things are genuinely playing to fetishes, many of the design choices have historically authentic but obscure backing, without which one can be led to believe such-and-such was thrown together at random.
    • The Japan-focused content is written by Sune, a native Japanese with IJA heritage and insight into ultranationalist thought, and requires an understanding of post-World War II Japanese conspiracy theories, culture, politics, religion and sociology to properly appreciate.
  • Infinity Train: Blossoming Trail throws in a lot about demons from the Ars Goetia that most people won't know on first glance. For instance, Chloe paints the seal of Marchosias for a scabbard on her donut holer Cheshire. Marchosias is a wolf-demon who wishes to one day ascend to heaven but is deceived in that hope. Symbolically, Chloe wishes to become friends with Goh again, but she realizes that it's not going to happen.

    Films — Animated 
  • Fantasia, Walt Disney's third animated film, was based mostly around the assumption that viewers liked and appreciated classical music and abstract imagery just as much as he did. Although the film has been Vindicated by History, at the time of its release it was a massive box office flop; even his brother/business partner Roy was skeptical of the film, claiming that there should have at least been some sequences in the film based on more popular forms of music. The studio's next music anthology Make Mine Music would feature a mostly pop-based soundtrack, while the sequences that were based on other forms of music like classical and opera (such as "Peter and the Wolf" and "The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met") had narrators and full story lines (both films are good in each merits).
  • The Great Mouse Detective has got a very subtle one when it comes to Ratigan's Disney Villain Death. His foot slides on the clock hand of Big Ben when 10 p.m. strikes, causing him to fall to his death. You don't get it? We can't blame you. A not very well-known outside of England fact is that at 11 p.m., there is a little tune playing in Big Ben. An even lesser-known fact is that there are actually lyrics written for this tune. What are they?
    "All through this hour,
    Lord be my guide,
    And by Thy power,
    No foot shall slide."
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame is packed with religious symbolism the average adult viewer, and certainly the average child, would not understand. Some examples that come to mind are Esmeralda's dance dress being the colors of the Whore of Babylon, Phoebus and the soldiers offering 30 pieces of silver to the gypsies in exchange for her location, and Frollo's song Hellfire (in which he insists his lust and obsession with Esmeralda is her fault and God's rather than his own) being sung to a confessional prayer to chants of Mea culpa (through my fault).
    • Every time Frollo appears, a background chorus sings "Kyrie elison," meaning "Lord have mercy." The song in which he murders Quasimodo's mother also has a background choir singing Dies Irae, containing "beware the coming of the judge!"
    • The damage that happens in the climax- broken gargoyles, etc- is actually real-life damage that has happened to the cathedral throughout history.
    • Quasimodo's scene with the chains is reminiscent of Samson from the Bible.
  • Up: Carl and Russell are playing a car spotting game (red one, blue one). Dug looks off camera and says "Grey one" and a red one goes past. The "genius" part is that dogs are red/green colorblind, but the "fail" part is that they're not completely colorblind; Dug wouldn't be able to tell a red car from a green car, but he should be able to distinguish either from a grey car.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • All of Woody Allen's films believe this. It doesn't take a genius to understand when a character says, "She believes the Sabine women had it coming to them!" or "Winner of the Zelda Fitzgerald Emotional Maturity Award" what they're getting at, solely through context.
  • Some people found Donnie Darko hard to follow, so a Director's Cut was released that basically went to the opposite side of the spectrum, replacing all the interesting ambiguity with a lot of flat explanation.
  • Southland Tales is drenched in references to literature and politics that range from punishingly obvious to downright impenetrable. Everyone watching the film can tell that it's certainly supposed to be about something, but what the hell is actually going on or what it's all supposed to mean in the end generally baffles most audiences. Ultimately the director certainly had a lot of faith in the audience that they'd be able to follow his thought processes. Or he just intended to make a longer film with more explanation, or thought more people would read the prequel comic. Though the longer cut at Cannes got similar, if not even more negative responses than the final cut.
  • Primer was written by a math graduate who studied physics intensively to produce one of the most plausible Time Travel movies ever. In the words of one reviewer, "Anybody who claims they fully understand what's going on in Primer after seeing it just once is either a savant or a liar." Reportedly, writer-director Shane Carruth didn't think the movie would be too hard for the average viewer to figure out. Following the events that the audience (and main characters) can see happening is challenging, but possible. On the other hand, there's so much going on that either isn't shown directly or isn't what it seems that, by the end of the movie, even the two main characters end up completely baffled by the massive Gambit Pileup they've been playing against each other.
  • Hardly anyone understands all the vital plot points from The Descent first time 'round. Either they completely missed that Sarah went crazy or they didn't connect the dots and get that the crawlers were evolved from cavemen who stayed down in the cave or they would miss the subtext that Sarah possibly only imagined the crawlers or they would make a more simple mistake and forget the seemingly unimportant singular lines of dialogue which would explain things later on. To top it off, it's very difficult to tell who's who in the dark, and fans are still arguing over what the hell the ending means...
  • Spike Lee's 25th Hour has a deleted scene where a pair of gangsters explain the exact reasons why the protagonist has 24 hours of freedom. Pretty much every single review either couldn't figure out the reasons within the context of the film, or presumed that the 24 hours were not Truth in Television. They were, at least at the time.
  • The climax of Trading Places involves a surprisingly complex commodities market scheme. However, earlier in the film, the Duke brothers explain the basic concept of commodities trading in such simplistic turns that Billie Ray gives an Aside Glance to the audience.
  • Videodrome. A good understanding of Marshall McLuhan's media theory is required to really get it.
  • In the Director's Cut and the Final Cut, Blade Runner's world is a complicated one with little to no flat explanation, a slow pace, and a lot of rumination on human nature. It requires a certain type of viewer to understand and enjoy it to its fullest. The theatrical cut, however, includes narration in a Viewers Are Morons move by the studio.
  • In Stargate, the Egyptologist character figures out how to speak the language of the humans found beyond the stargate in about five minutes of dialog with the native girl he later has a romance with. When another character expresses amazement that he cracked the language so quickly, he observes modestly that he just had to get the vowels right. This is hilarious, but to catch the humor you need to know arcane details about how the vowels of Ancient Egyptian were reconstructed by modern scholars. In short: while we can read Ancient Egyptian, there is little data on how it was pronounced, and the sounds we assign the language today are probably off from what the actual language sounded like. That's exactly why you can hear Ra or Re used interchangeably, neither of which has been proven to be the genuine rendering of the god's original name (for all we know, it could just as well have been "Ro" or "Ri").
  • Inception. There's a lot to keep track of in this film, including dream rules and levels, and after the initial period of exposition and heist planning, Nolan expects you to figure it out for yourself. His next non-Batman movie Interstellar manages to go even well beyond that. Having some basic knowledge about general relativity, space-time, and exoplanet research goes a very long way in figuring out what's actually going on. And it might require some deeper understanding of the existentialist philosophy that underlies all of Nolan's movies to be able to figure out what anything of it might be supposed to mean.
  • In The History Boys there is an entire scene spoken almost entirely in French. There is also a lot of jokes that are more funny if viewers understand the context behind it, from World War II to Nietzsche and from the Dissolution of the Monasteries to Brief Encounter to Thomas Hardy.
  • Ocean's Twelve makes a point of omitting details and forgoing explicit exposition. It assumes the viewer will fill in the gaps. Though it never gives you all of the details, it does explain how things happen at the end via flashbacks.
  • Much of Peter Greenaway's work fits this trope. For example, he commented in the DVD bonus features for The Draughtsman's Contract that he did not want to explain the plot and its ending within the film, feeling that the audience would understand what had happened. Many people disagree.
  • The Lost Bladesman (2011) assumes that viewers are already familiar with Romance of the Three Kingdoms, specifically the arc about Guan Yu's journey of "slaying six generals at five passes" along the way to returning to Liu Bei, despite the fact that the movie's actual plot is heavily divergent from that arc, with almost no attempt to explain the surrounding circumstances.
  • If you're not American, or even just a politically-apathetic American, you might have some difficulty understanding the basic plot in The Ides of March as the way in US Presidential candidates are nominated is quite unique and unlike any other country's in the world. The basics of the process are largely glossed over and it's assumed the audience is already familiar with them.
  • Mr. Nobody. The concept of Old Nemo's Memories, fractally nesting, equally possible subplots are easy to understand as concept, even while the film is jumping back and forth between them like hell. The fact that the scenes of Adult Nemo in a checkered vest within a Mind Screw realm are littered amongst them does keeping track of the actual plot a little confusing at first. That they are in this exact weird way to shout out that they did never take place in any possible lifespan is not apparent to say the least. Old Nemo has no actual backstory, so they are merely fillers in the little boy’s imagination, just like pretty much all of the film. The same effect occurs in the Gainax Ending, the fact that all these possible lives are just imagined is easy to digest, even that post-dream decision does make sense if you think about it afterwards, but to keep track of that metaphor with this whole Universe turnaround does only make sense if you're high or on your fifth run.
  • The Mirror: You need a pretty extensive knowledge of Russian literature and the ability to pay extremely close attention (the same actors play multiple characters in multiple timeframes; in the lead actor's case the two characters are even referred to by the same name to make it even more confusing) to make sense of it. It doesn't help that the subtitles on the Kino DVD don't translate or even mistranslate bits of dialogue.
  • The otherwise scholocky low-budget horror film .Com for Murder assumes that the audience has a good familiarity with the 18th century German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther.
  • One of the reasons why Johnny Dangerously has never caught on like other famous parody films from the same period (Airplane! and Top Secret! for example) was because it was parodying a genre (the 1930s gangster movie) that had faded from the public consciousness. Not only had 50 years passed since the genre was at its height, its place in the American collective unconscious had been supplanted by The Godfather and its derivatives. It's very strange to note that although the movie came out in 1984 and was a parody of gangster movies, that there wasn't a single reference to The Godfather in it.
  • Captive State: Surprisingly little exposition, a large cast, and a lot of unanswered questions.
  • Once Upon a Time in Hollywood assumes that the viewer is already familiar with the real life Charles Manson murders. If you go in blind, there are certain aspects about the film that will hold little or no significance to the viewer otherwise, especially with its ending.
  • A Love Song For Bobby Long contains an utterly impressive density of references to classics of American literature, and assumes that every viewer is intimately familiar with works spanning centuries, despite the protagonists being pseudointellectual drunkards on a slow path to redemption.
  • The Architect scene from The Matrix Reloaded is an infamous example of this. It has commonly been mocked and parodied in pop culture because of his Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness delivery which much of the audience found hard to follow (and many that could follow it still found it pretentious). It also muddles the fact that his speech is a major Plot Twist for the whole series itself: that The One was really a controlled glitch in the Matrix to account for human choice, whose destiny was ultimately help the machines reboot the Matrix and prevent human extinction so that it does not lose its main power source, and the questions it brings up regarding whether free will is an illusion. The Wachowskis are aware of the negative reception of the scene, including the MTV parody of the scene in the DVD release of the movie, and including some Self-Deprecation on their part regarding their tendency to do this in The Matrix: Path of Neo.
  • The film version of No One Gets Out Alive doesn't bother to explain what its main supernatural monster is, only that it originates from Mexico. For most of the movie it appears as a box with hands coming out of it, and The Reveal shows it as a fully CGI Eldritch Abomination, but it does have a source, it's Ītzpāpālōtl, of Mayan Mythology fame.
  • Luhrmann and co. expect you to have some kind of familiarity with late 19th-century France if you're going to go see Moulin Rouge!. Some of its most common criticisms come from modern audiences not recognizing the discrepancies between modern society and the way things operated in 1899. For example, a common criticism is that Satine keeps saying she wants to be a real actress, but is already performing every night — no, no. What she's saying is the equivalent of a modern day porn star saying she wants to become a Hollywood actress. A deleted scene directly acknowledges another critique that can be explained with historical knowledge: Zidler needs the Duke to be his investor because, even in spite of the rich clientele, he's in debt from all he's spent on electricity. Instead, the viewer has to rely on prior knowledge and intuition, as well as a few side comments, to understand... Because it definitely wasn't cheap back then.

  • The Gaiad demands a knowledge of nearly every scientific discipline and literary tradition to understand, for example comparing DNA methylation to traditional Hebrew Calligraphy.
  • Authors who put non-English phrases or sentences into their English-language novels and, instead of leaving them as a Bilingual Bonus, make them central to understanding the plot.
    • In Dorothy Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey story "The Entertaining Episode of the Article in Question," understanding the vital clue requires a knowledge of French grammar. The grammar point in question is quite elementary, but the clue is hidden in half a page of untranslated French dialogue. While most of Sayer's original audience would have learned French in school, it's still quite a demand to make of the reader.
    • Agatha Christie sometimes does this in her Hercule Poirot novels, or else puts Bilingual Bonuses in places where they look like they might be important. In "Murder on the Orient Express", the reported last words of the victim are in French. The characters talk about how important this phrase is but no one ever translates it to English for us poor saps in the 21st century that don't speak conversational French. In the end, it turns out that the actual words weren't important, and the killer[s] is/was was intentionally trying to have the other people on the train realize that the victim didn't speak French at all in a convoluted scheme for blame to fall elsewhere.
    • Not limited to English; Tolstoy and his contemporaries pulled this kind of thing all the time. Translations of Anna Karenina, especially, are famous for retaining the French lines without bothering to so much as footnote them, making it doubly confusing by readers already confused by awkward translations of Russian idiom. However, in Russia and Europe of the 19th century, French was a common second language among the aristocracy and educated middle class so these references would have been understood and not necessarily fly over people's heads then as they might today.
    • Poe parodies this in his essay "How to write a Blackwood Article" and the "Blackwood Article" that follows.
    • The other thing you'll see in older literature is Latin tags — sayings or phrases in Latin in an otherwise English work. At a time when little children were taught Latin (partly as a basis or intro for learning other Romance languages), these little tags like sine qua nonnote  or et hoc genus omnenote  were assumed to be understood by anyone who could read. Some like "pro tem[pore]" and "RIP" (requiescat in pace) have made it into modern usage. Less often, you'll see Greek tags. Biblical phrases are also commonly used.
    • In many non-English speaking circles, especially in continental Europe, an advanced grasp of at least written English is taken pretty much for granted and job announcements sometimes won't even mention this particular requirement due to it being not as much of a highlight and more so that a lack thereof would be considered a disadvantage (just like nobody boasts of being able to read and write). If you were to post a link to a news article in English on, say, a Swedish gaming forum, even if any of the users actually needed a translation, chances are they wouldn't dare to ask for fear of humiliation.
  • Authors using Direct Line to the Author sometimes have this happen whether it is their intent or not. For instance, some early reviewers of the first Flashman novel thought it was an actual memoir (despite the fact that the protagonist is a character from Victorian fiction). Oddly, one book, Dickens of the Mounted, is a Spiritual Successor/pastiche of the Flashman series and actually has a Lawyer-Friendly Cameo from Flashman and was also interpreted as being the actual memoirs of the protagonist (who was in this case actually a real person, the ne'er-do-well son of Charles Dickens).
  • Discworld definitely counts. While some stories may appear to be even simple children's stories, every single novel in the series contains a VAST amount of parodies, references and allusions to many equally vastly different things. This ranges from history to quantum mechanics, and from popular culture to religion. Be it mythology, geography, Shakespeare, physics, popular culture or anything else, everything is discussed or parodied, and in order to understand all allusions one would be required to browse Wikipedia 24/7. However, the series is still easily accessible by those who do not have such knowledge, allowing the reader to enjoy it no matter how much he knows, but the more educated readers will still get a huge Genius Bonus. A guide to many of the references in Pratchett's books is here.
  • Dragon Bones has a horse named Stygian. A reference to the river Styx, which is located in the Greek underworld. The dark and gloomy afterlife place. Apparently, the German translator thought that viewers aren't so clever after all, and changed the horse's name to something that means "monster", so that it's clearer why, exactly, the protagonist decides to change the name to something less intimidating.
  • You can read all the way through Erskine Childers' The Riddle of the Sands just for the gripping conspiracy that invented the modern espionage novel or the beautifully verbose and poetic descriptions of the sea... but having extensive knowledge of sailing in small boats certainly helps.
  • Most readers find Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles largely incomprehensible for the first 100 pages due to the untranslated Latin, Spanish, and French, the fact that most characters are referred to by multiple names, that much of the meaning comes from snippets of obscure medieval literary quotations that require knowledge of the (unprovided) full piece to understand, and the plot that assumes detailed knowledge of 16th century Scottish politics. There are two official guidebooks and multiple fan-made translations and literary-reference compilations to make up for this.
  • Michael Crichton is notorious for this.
    • Many people who read Jurassic Park right after seeing the movie were overwhelmed with Crichton's stifling detail of anthropological and palaeontologic minutiae. Then in the second book there are extended sections of dialogue explaining how much of the exposition from the first book was wrong, many of them due to Science Marches On.
    • Think Jurassic Park is bad? Just try reading (or watching) The Andromeda Strain. A lot of technobabble (accurate, though) involving genetic mutations, diseases, and molecular level sciences.
  • Umberto Eco
  • T. S. Eliot's long poem The Waste Land. It contains quotes from various famous sources, still in their original language. If you're not reading an annotated version, it will make no sense, but even the notes don't really help much; they were described by Louis Menand as "simply another riddle -- and not a separate one". Eliot himself wrote in The Frontiers of Criticism that he started out just citing his quotations "with a view to spiking the guns of critics of my earlier poems who had accused me of plagiarism", before realising he had to come up with more material if the poem was going to be released as a book "with the result that they became the remarkable exposition of bogus scholarship that is still on view to-day". It also doesn't help that even Eliot seems to admit that some of the references make no sense without the notes. One of the cards during the Tarot reading represents the Fisher King, but not only is this not indicated in any way, Eliot claims to have no idea why he associates the two.
  • Ernest Hemingway's "theory of omission" or "the iceberg principle.". Though this depends on how you read it — some say Hemingway is simply championing understated Beige Prose as opposed to overwritten Purple Prose, therefore adopting a nice middle ground between Viewers Are Morons and Viewers are Geniuses, others say it is this trope.
  • Lampshaded in Ian Fleming's James Bond novel Casino Royale, when M complains to one of his underlings that the report the underling wrote has a French sentence without any translation.
    'This is not the Berlitz School of Languages, Head of S. If you want to show off your knowledge of foreign jawbreakers, be good enough to provide a crib. Better still, write in English.'
  • While they can still be enjoyed on a superficial level, William Gibson's novels (Neuromancer, Mona Lisa Overdrive, Idoru, etc.) rely on complex and multilayered metaphors, both pop culture and "learned" allusions, and a blurring of traditional concepts of "human," "life," "technology" and "reality", among others. On the other hand, Gibson admits in interviews that readers shouldn't look too deep into the technical aspects of computer science and cyberspace in his works, because he didn't even own a computer until well after he'd written Neuromancer and was profoundly disappointed with how mundane it was. However, he did do the research; he's known to keep track of "the invisible literature" — scientific research papers.
  • James Joyce's Ulysses
    • It requires intimate knowledge of the history of literature (especially English-language literature), geography of Dublin, history of Ireland and a genius ability at recognizing allusions. Finnegans Wake requires... surrendering the possibility of comprehension, which was perhaps the point.
    • Given that the title is the Roman name for Odysseus, understanding Homer's The Odyssey is incredibly significant to the book. It also helps if you're familiar with Shakespeare's Hamlet.
    • Although it must be pointed out that objections to Joyce's Ulysses in its day had to do with its straightforward look at sex and not the density of allusions per se. Even then a lot of his references were common reading material. Like The Odyssey may not have been widely read by the general public but it's hardly an obscure poem, nor is Hamlet for that matter. The Irish political references are very local but It Makes Sense in Context.
    • It should be noted: unlike with many other works on this page, Joyce was actually courteous enough to provide a guide to reading Ulysses, as he recognized that the novel might otherwise be a bit hard to follow. When he sent to the book to his friends Stuart Gilbert and Carlo Linati, he gave both of them rough outlines of its fundamental structure, pointing out some basic details of plot progression (like when and where each episode takes place, and which episodes are meant to parallel which chapters in The Odyssey), as well as listing some of the core symbols and themes in each episode, and laying out the central images and ideas of each episode (like which body parts, colors, and academic disciplines are supposed to figure into each episode). These outlines, now known as "The Gilbert Schema" and "The Linati Schema", are very helpful in making the novel a bit more accessible.
  • The first half of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury is incomprehensible at first glance. Benjy, a 33-year-old with a profound mental disability, narrates the first section. He narrates all events in the present tense, even if it's a past memory. The second narrator is the incredibly intelligent and thoughtful Quentin Compson. The difficulty in his section stems from his narrative constantly shifting between what's actually happening, what he's thinking about, long sections of stream-of-consciousness narration without any punctuation, and even being able to tell what really does happen at some points. Case in point: Did Quentin just fantasize about having sex with his sister, or did it really happen?
    • And to make matters worse, Quentin is narrating his part of the story while having an extended mental breakdown. For the record, he didn't have sex with his sister, he only claimed to have done so because he felt it was better than the alternative.
    • Part of the confusion stems from Faulkner's intent to have different points of view and time periods made explicit by the use of a variety of text colors. Therefore, a section narrated by Benjy in the 'present' would be printed in one color, past events in another, and a section narrated by another character in a whole different color. Printing expenses prevented the multicolor approach from going forward but the story retains the unannounced jumping perspective, making it a uniquely challenging narrative.
  • The epic Shogun, featuring a fish-out-of-water Englishman in late feudal Japan, presents a challenge with imported Japanese words and phrases. Author James Clavell shows a tendency to introduce and translate Japanese phrases exactly once, before proceeding to use them for the next thousand pages. Unless you happen to speak Japanese, you'd best be taking notes.
    • An understanding of the various real-life historical figures that the novel's characters are based on will greatly enrich your reading of the text, but once you realize who is supposed to stand in for who (and it's not difficult if you know the history, as Clavell's replacement names are very close to the original, especially for the big players) it spoils the ending.
  • Garry Kilworth's Welkin Weasels may suffer from this thanks to the rapid-fire Shout-Out rate. How many of the ten-year-old target audience will get references to Shelley, Coleridge, and Orwell, among others?
  • Stanisław Lem's works are usually loaded with science and philosophy. Most of his parodistic works, like The Cyberiad and Mortal Engines also require good knowledge of literature theory.
  • Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels feature an extraordinary level of use of complex physics and biology concepts considering that the books are mainly intended for children. However, it also qualifies as a Parental Bonus since they're mostly just used as plot devices and so the reader doesn't really have to understand how everything works and just accept that it does work.
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events falls firmly into this category, particularly for a children's series. While this is partially lampshaded with the constant refrain of "a word which here means—" (which often is for words that are incredibly easy to understand), it still does not explain the constant references, particularly in character names (Esme Squalor, Nero the fiddle-playing principal, Frank and Earnest, Duncan and Isadora, Mr. Poe, etc.) or the convoluted plots and Mind Screw themes. While many kids around the age of 10 have enjoyed every minute of these books, they live and breathe this trope. This actually tremendously increases 'family value' of the books, because they can be very entertaining to kids and parents alike.
  • The works of author Cormac McCarthy.
    • Some can be thoroughly enjoyed without being well-versed in McCarthy's interests or history — such as All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, and The Road — but it definitely helps to make sense of it all (especially with Blood Meridian and Suttree).
    • His Border Trilogy (of which All the Pretty Horses is the first) has characters have whole conversations entirely in Spanish. There's a website where you can download a list of all of the translated dialogue, which you may need by your side during the reading.
  • Ezra Pound
    • Try reading his "Cantos" without a way of translating Chinese, ancient Greek, Latin, Italian, and Basque. Yes, Basque!
    • And when you find that way of translating Chinese, offer it to Pound. His Chinese is actually kind of awful.
    • Once you've done that, make sure to study 14th and 15th century Italian painting and political history. And the world of prewar Europe. And Greek mythology.
  • Even worse: Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Even having the necessary knowledge in history, statistics, physics and linguistics to understand the background might not be enough to get through the Mind Screw it is. Though the Mind Screw might be the point since it's about the unsolvable post-war industrial complex Cold War that is too big for a single plot to encompass it.
  • William Gaddis' JR is a 700-plus page novel with no chapter stops that is almost entirely composed of conversational dialogue that is sometimes packed with financial jargon. And it doesn't even tell you which character is speaking; you have to figure it out from context clues. A Frolic of His Own, another Doorstopper, is written in a similar style, and full of legal jargon.
  • Idlewild by Nick Sagan and its sequels, several times. For instance, the character of Fantasia averts The Schizophrenia Conspiracy, but you're assumed to know what hebephrenic schizophrenia is.
  • Charles Stross' Accelerando relies heavily on computer science and information theory concepts without bothering to explain them and is literally written in Expo Speak.
    "Don't trust anyone whose state vector hasn't forked for more than a gigasecond." note 
  • S.S. Van Dine was even worse than Arthur Conan Doyle. Philo Vance uses quotations not only from Latin, but also from French, German, and Italian. They usually are at least somewhat important, and they may be a paragraph, not just a sentence, long. He had one multi-paragraph footnote in German.
    • Perhaps this is why Ogden Nash wrote this couplet:
    Philo Vance
    Needs a kick in the pance.
  • Paradise Lost is filled to the brim with allusions, intended to be read by an early modern Gentleman Snarker with an extensive library of contemporary and ancient works. Modern readers can substitute the library with Google and The Other Wiki.
  • The description of the Xunca superweapon in Flinx Transcendent, the final book in Alan Dean Foster's Humanx Commonwealth series, is likely to be incomprehensible to anyone without at least a basic grasp of string theory.
  • Montague Rhodes James's classic horror story "Oh, Whistle, And I'll Come to You, My Lad" lampshades this trope: everything goes pear-shaped because the protagonist doesn't realize that the apparently unintelligible inscription on the whistle is in Latin, just like the intelligible inscription on the other side. To be fair, there's no agreement about how to translate it, but the general gist is that anyone blowing the whistle will be in for a nasty shock.
    • Most of the horror stories by M.R. James, for that matter. "Mr. Humphreys And His Inheritance" is the most blatant example by far, with a lot of religious, classical and antiquarian references thrown in and a few Latin phrases left untranslated — a succinct discussion of which produces enough materials for a full-blown literary article. A study guide is also helpful if the layman wishes to appreciate "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book" fully.
  • Dan Simmons
    • One can only really understand Ilium and Olympos after studying The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Shakespeare's The Tempest; and be familiar with The Time Machine, the complete works of Marcel Proust, Shakespeare's sonnets, and Hans Moravec's writings; and should know a decent amount about quantum physics, the Voynich manuscript, terraforming, transhumanism, and biosphere theory. Then it might make sense. No guarantees. It helps that there are characters who love talking about Proust and The Iliad while much of the rest can be taken as "awesome magic stuff".
    • Hyperion does the same thing but this time with John Keats, Jack Vance, time travel, quantum mechanics (again), transhumanism (again), Internet sociology, The Wizard of Oz and the Canterbury Tales.
  • House of Leaves. The weird text alone is enough to confuse most people.
  • Very little of the plot of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency is actually stated outright.
    • Douglas Adams expects readers to connect several clues by themselves, to remember minor details from early in the book that suddenly become major plot points towards the end, and to be familiar with the life and work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The ending, in which Dirk Gently saves humanity from being erased from existence, is completely incomprehensible unless you know the story of Kubla Khan and the person from Porlock.
    • Or you could have watched (or read or listened to) the Doctor Who serials "City of Death" and "Shada", since Adams basically reused their plots — even copying some of the dialogue verbatim. He gets forgiven since he was script writer, and the episodes he wrote initially didn't make it to air due to a strike at the BBC.
  • Any copy of The Divine Comedy that doesn't include extensive annotations becomes this within, quite literally, the first few stanzas.
    • In the original context, Divine Comedy was well, a hit, since it was the first major serious work of literature in vernacular language rather than Latin and indeed the poem entered the common everyday language with many phrases becoming Memetic Mutation.
    • Of course, for most of Inferno, you need mostly to understand the politics of Italy at the time. When it was written, it would be the equivalent of writing about Bush trotting through hell and seeing all the Democrats, Al Quaedans, and EU-eans being tortured. Though it might not have been obvious even to Dante's contemporaries who was who, since he often uses partial names, nicknames or descriptions. (The equivalent of writing "here's Nick, il Cavaliere and the boy from Eton" and letting your readers figure out that you mean Nicolas Sarkozy, Silvio Berlusconi and David Cameron.)
  • The Aubrey-Maturin novels contain masses of unexplained early-nineteenth-century detail and language. There are now several companion books. On nautical matters, at least, the author has explanations addressed to Stephen Maturin as The Watson; but pay attention, because most things are explained only once, and will come up again in later books.
  • Greg Egan doesn't expect that the reader will already know sophisticated concepts in algebraic topology, computation theory, or whatever scientific concept he's interested in at time of writing, but many of his works are difficult to understand if you don't pick up enough of it from his in-universe layman's introductions.
  • Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges is known for including multiple references throughout his books, including and not limited to religion, philosophy, and the works of fellow writers. It is said that there is no one who has been able to decipher them all. Many claim that the references are so convoluted, they even speculate he just did it for the lulz. Sometimes the works they reference don't even exist, which means it's the reader's job to find out what's really obscure and what's just not real.
  • Blindsight is probably one of the biggest examples in existence. No, you will not read "radio signals were picked up". You will read — we kid you not — "Fourier transforms appeared".
  • Pretty much anything by Roger Zelazny. From minor things like expecting you to know why Corwin "closed her eyes with kisses four" so as not to break the spell, to needing to have a pretty good understanding of Hindu-Buddhist myths to get the whole of "The Lord of Light," to simply needing a background in pulp fiction to know that one of the guys who tries to kill Red, is Sunlight and the guy Red hands him over to is Doc Savage.
  • John M. Ford often wrote stories so densely layered and plots so wheels-within-wheels that his own editors often didn't know where he was going. "Most normal people had the slight sense that something large and super-intelligent and trans-human had sort of flown over," said one.
  • Haruhi Suzumiya: What starts out as a healthy amount of Genius Bonuses later falls straight into this as they become pretty crucial to knowing what the hell is going on. There are as many throwaway references to astrophysics as there are to pop culture, a Time Travel incident reaches near-Primer levels of complexity, and one novel features an in-depth discussion of Euler's planar graph formula — which is necessary to resolve the current situation. There are diagrams.
  • Almost any fiction until the mid-19th century or later. Many specific examples appear upthread with individual entries, but until relatively recently it was a trope of most fiction to be filled with allusions to the classics, the Bible, major contemporary philosophers, and other languages. If you want the secret to all those references, go here.
  • The Dark Half has an in-universe example. The protagonist has written several highly intellectual novels with great reviews and poor sales. In the meantime he has also written under a pen name intentionally trashy books that engorge themselves on sex and violence which have gone on to become bestsellers. Stephen King wrote the book in part as a response to his pen name Richard Bachman becoming public knowledge. The stories he wrote under the pen name in turn tended to be less psychological than those with his own name on them.
  • This is probably part of the reason why the Intrigues of the Reflected Realm series by Robin Jarvis never progressed further than the first book — the complex backstory is only hinted at and requires multiple re-readings before it makes sense, plus in order to understand the plot you need to be familiar with the concept of genetic engineering, which is integral, but again, never fully explained. Being familiar with the Elizabethan idea of the four humours helps a lot as well. Bearing in mind that this is a kid's book, the result can be hopelessly confusing on first reading.
  • Gene Wolfe:
    • He is well known for leaving large amounts of his background and story as puzzles for the reader — particularly in the Book of the New Sun series. Important details like which characters are the lead character's close relatives and where (on earth) the story is set are left as puzzles for the reader — as are many obscure (but real) words used in the series.
    • Fundamentally, the reader is sometimes left to puzzle out what genre the story is supposed to be: Science Fiction or Fantasy? Religious or secular? The narrator himself may not know.
    • Wolfe has been quoted as saying it's insulting to tell the reader something more than once. Therefore, what seems a one-off aside may be an important key a multi-volume story.
  • Jasper Fforde's works are loaded with literary puns and in-jokes, and oftentimes he relies on the conventions and limitations of his medium to drive important plot points. It's wonderful reading but try to keep up.
  • In The Pale King, Garrity's ghostly rants include references to Pascal, Marquise du Deffand, Latin, Greek, Metropolis, Kierkegaard, and philology.
  • Neal Stephenson has set up shop smack in the middle of this trope and lives quite well there, thanks much.
    • The Baroque Cycle books in particular go down much smoother if the reader has an undergraduate-level comprehension of economic theory, currency trading, securities investment, shipbuilding, counterfeiting, alchemy, high-seas piracy, and a graduate-level mastery European political machinations during the Renaissance era.
    • You'll get a lot more out of The Diamond Age if you are already conversant with advanced concepts in nanotechnology and Asian geography.
    • If you can't crack an output-feedback mode stream cipher before you read Cryptonomicon, you'll be able to by the time you finish. (There's even a handy Appendix to show you how!)
    • In Snow Crash, Stephenson pauses about halfway through to ensure that the reader is brought up to speed on essential elements of ancient Sumerian mythology and human neurological development before continuing with the plot.
    • Anathem speaks learnedly about subjects many readers may not even be able to pronounce let alone describe, including epistemology, ontology, orbital mechanics and the (theoretical) quantum-multiverse. Sensing a pattern...?
  • The SilmarillionJ. R. R. Tolkien's epic history of Middle-Earth — needs the reader to have both a photographic memory and an understanding of pre-medieval Norse/Germanic naming conventions just to keep up with the characters that were introduced hundreds of pages previously but then turn out to have a child who married the child of the child of... okay, enough of that. There is a list of characters at the back though, along with family trees so you can see such things as how Aragorn is related to Celebrimbor.
  • Charles Stross is an arch-geek, and The Laundry Files contains lots of references to Mandelbrot sets, P-complete and NP-complete equations, and a lot of other stuff that you have to have studied advanced math and the like to understand (thankfully, understanding the Technobabble isn't required for enjoyment). Lampshaded early in The Atrocity Archive when Bob gives us an overview of computational demonology:
    The [Turing] theorem is a hack on discrete number theory that simultaneously disproves the Church-Turing hypothesis (wave if you understood that)...
  • A Song of Ice and Fire: The show may be complex, but George R.R. Martin's series is comprised of compressed paper bricks of characters, conflicts, locations, plotlines, motives, implications, deaths, twists, and revelations. There have been 24 major POV characters so far, narrating about as many distinct plotlines over half as many distinct locations, including over a hundred secondary characters. Not for the faint of attention span.
    • Reading this series can be considered a dry run for Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time — with over 140 POV characters spread over fifteen books, 10,000 pages and if you were to sit down and listen to them non-stop, just over 19 days of audio. Whilst this could just be considered a colossal task on its own, any character could come back at any time, requiring readers to call back to previous books and remember what obscure phrase that was mentioned in passing could now mean in a revealing light.
  • Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen is quite possibly one of the most complex works of fantasy ever written. The main storylines of the series span four continents, every one of the ten Doorstopper books has a cast of hundreds, and the series' backstory covers hundreds of thousands of years. Viewpoint characters constantly change; there is extensive and deliberate use of Lost in Medias Res, obtuse in-world poetry used as chapter epigraphs, oblique dialogue, digressions as characters discuss or ponder philosophy, and complex prose. The first book, Gardens of the Moon, is infamously difficult for new readers to get into. This was done deliberately, as Erikson wanted to weed out readers without the patience to keep track of his vast numbers of characters and plot lines.
  • Larry Niven expects his readers to be conversant in a basic level of physics. His character will occasionally mention some scientific principle, but will never explain that principle, or why it's important to the story, because they (the character) already know what it means. So when a character mentions it takes six hours to get a message because of light-speed delay, or mentions the tidal differential of a ship in orbit around a neutron star, or starts talking about a thickened gas torus in high gravity rotational environment and it confuses you, Niven expects you to do the research and keep up.
  • Horatio Hornblower is another Wooden Ships and Iron Men series, with extremely detailed descriptions of nautical work. Sometimes, C.S. Forester will explain a particular term or operation. But if you don't know what halyards or mizzenmasts or hawse-holes are... well, good luck. (Oh, and a working knowledge of the game of whist will help you too.)
  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, especially now that most of the matter that the book satirizes (particularly children's poems) are known to the vast majority of people solely through this book. The Annotated Alice, edited by Martin Gardner, is both useful and entertaining for modern readers.
  • Mexican poet and writer Amado Nervo. If not his poems or tales, every article written by him included varying themes like theatre, opera, other writers' works, conflicts between other nations, travels and personal anecdotes lived in Paris and New York, among others. He also tended to use quotes in other languages, like English, French or even Latin, most of the time without giving a traduction of what he just said. Understandably, because back then (late 19th and early 20th century) he wrote for weekly newspapers and magazines aimed for upper-middle class cultured people, but now, when anyone can check his works, normal readers might feel this.
  • Melodie Crookshank of Tyrannosaur Canyon is a lab geek who only interacts with one other character. Her perspective is peppered with technical names for equipment and tests as well as her interpretations of this data, with very few laymen's explanations.
  • Pamela Dean's The Secret Country books hold your attention even if you don't know Shakespeare, Chaucer et al., but if you do, you'll discover greater dimensions to the storyline and the characters.
  • Parts of Greer Gilman's Moonwise and Cloud & Ashes may be almost incomprehensible unless you know a little about English folklore and ballads and can catch onto the ancient meanings of the words she's using: wood once meant crazy or eccentric, a crowd is a fiddle, and so on. Like Clavell, she tends to explain these things once. She writes in double and triple meanings and has lots of fun with puns and dialects. She talks about it here.
  • Witchell: A Symphony has a suggested listening selection for each chapter. A great deal of the foreshadowing is in the music and in the (musical) descriptions of the characters' voices. For example, Tavin's older brother is suggested to be unallied by associating him with the piano, which can be very low (evil) or very high (good). Tavin himself is associated with the cello, solidifying him as the protagonist.
  • Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius series contains hundreds of obscure literary and cultural references. Moorcock claimed that he didn't expect that any reader would get them all.
  • The MARZENA series itself is based on a non-fiction book called Outlast the Machine, which is about explaining in understandable English the most intricate mysteries of the brain, and which likely started as a master thesis that decided to switch to the dark side. Transhuman Ambrosia is very pointy on its knowledge of neuroscience, and even comes up with its own theories of how the brain works by measuring the levels of brain activity using glial cells (exchanging bananas for bananas) and goes to great length to explain what consciousness is, how the brain creates it, and how that process could be artificially replicated and harnessed. The number of details is absolutely insane, and yet the book manages to keep things simplistic enough that you could just happily browse through it without realizing all the hidden scientific genius behind it.
  • Ken Kesey decided to write Sometimes a Great Notion fully in first-person. Fair enough. He decided to use multiple narrators. Also fair enough. He also decided never to explicitly tell a reader when the narrative point of view shifted. There are subtle clues, like a mention of the previous narrator in third person, but the reader has to do the work entirely for themselves. It's not as difficult as some of the other examples on this list, but it still counts.
  • Unless you're quite familiar with the Sherlock Holmes stories (simply having seen film/TV adaptations won't help much) and the Cthulhu Mythos, Neil Gaiman's short story "A Study in Emerald" will require multiple readings to make sense. Despite this, it's one of his best loved short stories and won a Hugo Award. Most of Gaiman's other work (American Gods in particular) falls under Genius Bonus instead, as it will still mostly make sense if you don't have a thorough understanding of the background material (Norse Mythology in American Gods' case), but you'll appreciate it even more if you do.
  • Ricky Ricotta's Mighty Robot got a title change because of this trope. The robot was originally called "giant" since he was compared to the rest of the characters in the setting but young readers informed author Dav Pilkey that since the setting is a Mouse World, the robot isn't actually a giant and requested the name be changed to the current. Pilkey has gone on record as being very impressed with this.
  • Masquerade (1979) is ostensibly a children's book in which the illustrations provided clues to the burial location of the jeweled golden hare featured in the story. Kit Williams, the writer, claimed that a child of ten with a good understanding of language, mathematics, and astronomy would be just as likely to solve the puzzle as an Oxbridge don. The puzzle remained unsolved for nearly three years, and the two people who finally cracked it were physics teachers.note  Even now that the method behind the solution has been thoroughly documented and published, it still leaves many readers scratching their heads, wondering "How was anyone supposed to solve this?"
  • The Devil's Dictionary: You need to be very well-educated in order to understand all the entries.
    • There are several puns in Latin.
    • Bierce makes a reference to the croaking chorus of The Frogs by Aristophanes. (Yes, the one referenced in the Major General Song.)
  • The Familiar: Some lines are in untranslated (after the Narrative Construct gives up and says in a footnote: "I'm not your personal Google Translate, bitch") Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, Armenian, Arabic, Hebrew, and C++.
  • 2666: There are references to literary theory, geometry, mythology, psychology, philosophy, morality, art, religious symbolism, Dracula, Communism, Mexican, German, and Russian history and culture, World War II, and many others.
  • That Hideous Strength: Downplayed, but in a few places, the book mentions concepts that the reader wouldn't understand unless they'd taken a college-level history of philosophy course:
    • When discussing the history of Wither's mental breakdown, i.e. how he became more and more detached from objective physical reality, Lewis name-drops some philosophers and philosophies of western Europe: "He had passed from Hegel into Hume, thence through Pragmatism, and thence through Logical Positivism, and out at last into the complete void."
    • When Ransom is explaining to Merlin how he was taken captive to Mars, he uses the phrases "enginry" and "natural philosophy" where we might use "technology" and "science". What we today call science really was once considered a branch of philosophy.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Wire is one of the best examples of the new millennium. You're expected to keep up with multiple plot lines, a dozen-plus characters and their sub-stories, and all their field terminology with no Expospeak provided. It's often cited as one of the reasons for the show's low ratings and being subject to Award Snub despite its enormous critical acclaim.
  • Cheers and Frasier were unafraid to have obscure references and gags because the producers knew that the joke was that the erudite characters (Diane and Frasier in the former, Frasier and Niles in the latter) were confusing the hell out of the down-to-earth characters - and people who got the reference would get more mileage, but those who didn't would laugh at the contrast. Frasier gets a special mention for being one of the shows that pulled it off well while still getting high ratings. Frasier, Niles, and some of their highbrow friends frequently make reference to all manner of obscure, highbrow things, often within the subcultural worlds of opera, wine appreciation, and psychology. They're particularly fun of clever puns or sassy insults that show off their knowledge, though these can be difficult to follow for the un-elite.
  • House is a textbook case. It started out this way, collecting a small but highly intelligent and medically-savvy fanbase on the official site, tended to include lots of Freudian themes and captured the overarching themes of "Everybody lies" and "No one is ever truly happy". Later on though, the writers began to appeal to the Lowest Common Denominator and skimp on the research.
  • Part of the fun of watching a Game Show is shouting out the answers from your couch. It can be difficult, however, when the answers are so unexpectedly obscure.
    • Jeopardy!, which usually crams 61 clues into a single game, is probably one of the most demanding shows for those playing at home.
    • Brits have University Challenge. In a given episode, it's entirely possible for 80 questions to be asked and for a viewer to be able to correctly answer about nine. It's exactly this extreme difficulty that helps make it so popular, though.
    • The BBC also has Only Connect, a game show whose theme is spotting obscure links between brief clues. The website has some example questions from the hardest round of the show, which involves separating 16 clues into four groups of four and explaining the connection in each group. Against the clock, of course. The links could be anything from "fictional spacecraft" to "female British government ministers" to "words with vowels in alphabetical order" to ... well, just about anything you can think of.
    • QI turns it on its ear. Not only do the viewers generally not know the right answer, it's fairly rare that any of the "contestants" have any idea what's going on, even after the answer is explained. But that's kind of the point. For a show about comedians (and the odd political figure) talking about whatever happens to cross their mind, the show is extremely smart. Stephen Fry is a certified genius to begin with, then adding in questions that question common knowledge ("How many moons does the Earth have?"note ), then the fact that the comedians are often specialized geniuses themselves.
  • Alternative 3: A British documentary series decides to have a bit of fun and produces a Mockumentary about British scientists being taken to a secret base on Mars to protect them from a terrible disaster. Twenty years later, the show is now a central part of a great many conspiracy theories by those who failed to get the joke.
  • Carnivàle has Knights Templar and tarot card mythology, obscure symbolism, cultural references from The '30s, fabulous and expensive-looking recreations of the depression-era Midwest, and refusal to provide helpful exposition to the audience. It got cancelled after two seasons.
  • Doctor Who:
    • The show is generally pretty straight-forward, but the Seventh Doctor story "Ghost Light" is an involved meditation on the concept of evolution that probably requires two or three viewings to understand. It also uses literary and scientific allusions as a time-saving substitute for exposition. According to the DVD, "Ghost Light" had to be cut down from four episodes to three due to the show's run being cut. It's most likely that background and explanatory scenes were the first to suffer — something they might have got away with in some stories, but quite obviously didn't here.
    • The E-Space Trilogy was, according to the DVD specials on "Full Circle," partly written to start the show including science that "wouldn't be laughed at" by legitimate scientists. This is especially true in "Warriors' Gate," which takes place in a shrinking universe at coordinate 0 and has some connection to the I-Ching and the nature of randomness. Adric's frequent coin-flipping? Yeah, it means something.
    • Depending who you ask, Steven Moffat's major story arc involving River Song and the Silence is either this or just plain full of Plot Holes. There are fans who insist that everything you need to know about this storyline is obvious from the show, but get them discussing it in detail and it turns out they don't agree among themselves about anything but the broadest strokes of the plot, which isn't the part that confuses people.
    • Most of the 2nd half of series 7 in 2013 is this because of the show's 50th anniversary. To fully understand the plots of many of the episodes, the viewer has to relate the current arc (drawing materials from the Matt Smith years) to various plots/characters/monsters from previous doctors, which means the viewer has to know a few episodes.
    • A lot of "Doctor Who" in the 1980s suffers from this, as it involved a lot of continuity which required the viewers to have a very thorough knowledge of "Doctor Who", down to stories which as major plot points, involve stories from the 1960s. This is often blamed for the decline of the show.
    • The Doctor Who Expanded Universe is notorious for this, often requiring a very good knowledge of "Doctor Who" history for this and referencing other parts of the EU, even if it may take place in a different continuity. Big Finish Doctor Who can be especially hard to follow with its mass of interconnected plots in a series that started in 1999 and has released a new audio every month, not counting the bonus releases and spin-offs. Slightly justified, as the DWEU is aimed at hard-core fans.
  • Firefly, "Objects In Space". Most blatantly the opening, but the whole thing is a philosophical statement on (one kind of) existentialism. Joss Whedon's DVD Commentary might help the viewer to get the point (that objects have the meaning that people choose to give them).
  • While most of the more obscure stuff in Lost falls under Genius Bonus, it does fall under this trope when it comes to the plot, which has become increasingly complicated as the show has gone on, with innumerable callbacks to previous episodes, making it extremely hard for new viewers to understand what the heck is going on. Not to mention flash forwards. The finale requires the viewer to have knowledge of obscure, mostly dead Eastern philosophies (Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism, Stoicism, Manichaeism) or concepts that don't crop up a lot in America. Case in point: everyone knows Karma, but how many Americans know that "dharma" means a divine duty that leads to the "moksha", or "letting go", one of the show's Arc Words and a super-critical concept in the final season?
  • Mystery Science Theater 3000 jokes about everything, from obscure songs most people have forgotten to classical history and famous works of art. Of course the fun of the show is that the riffs are so frequent, you can miss one or two and still get the jokes. Their reference pool is so varied that they won a Peabody. However, they would also frequently indulge in in-jokes that only the writers could possibly get.
  • The Big Bang Theory, at its best, combines this trope with jokes that the average viewer might understand. In one Halloween episode Leonard uses several scientific references to insult Penny's ex, which can be funny if you understand them, though justified in that he didn't want the guy to realize he was being made fun of. Of course, this can fall flat when the writers try too hard to find a way of putting a line to qualify as a statement as a Genius Bonus, when it really just comes across as pretentious to anyone who has even a cursory knowledge of the notion.. On the latter seasons, they have fallen into reciting geek references and hoping you feel smart just because you "get it".
  • The Genius is a shining example of Reality TV game show for smart people. Rules of elimination games are often extremely complex, requiring prolonged explanations of games and plays as they happen. Viewer will be required to keep track of happenings inside each episode (with flashbacks and flashforwards thrown in for good measure) and constantly evolving social standings, and that's on top the fact it's a subtitled Korean variety show with their own, unique sets of customs.
  • Among the reasons that Police Squad! only lasted one season was that ABC thought it was guilty of this trope. According to ABC, the show required the viewer to pay too much attention in order to understand the humor. TV Guide called this "the most stupid reason a network ever gave for ending a series".
  • The Prisoner (1967). Considering that the show only lasted one season, they managed to cram in enough esoterica that to list them here would require a separate page. And most of them happen in the last two episodes.
  • Yes, Minister is a British comedy series about a Politician, an Obstructive Bureaucrat, and a 3rd underling who answers to the second one. Even an adult who isn't well-acquainted with the detailed workings of British government, let alone a non-Brit trying to watch the series, would find himself pausing the video to look up things like "quangos" and "marginal constituencies" on That Other Wiki.
  • It is virtually impossible for a single viewer to correctly identify all of the music and pop culture references made in Gilmore Girls without looking them up. The cast would spend the majority of their readings just trying to figure out what the hell their characters were talking about, and eventually a book of "Gilmorisms" was distributed with the DVD sets to help aid curious fans.
  • Some episodes of Red Dwarf, especially Series 5. Considering it's a comedy, a lot of people would probably just brush it off as Techno Babble.
  • Tony's series 2 episode of Skins makes a lot more sense if you have a very strong understanding of Jungian psychology.
  • The West Wing: If you're not pretty damn well up-to-date on the workings of the United States government, good luck keeping up with some of the storylines, not to mention the jokes.
  • Good Eats: Alton Brown usually calls the secret ingredient's scientific name in Iron Chef America when the timer starts ticking.
  • 30 Rock plays with this a lot. A textbook example is when Cerie mentions how she's upset her fiancé wants a Greek Orthodox wedding because she disagrees with the church's stance on Cyprus. The average American viewer is not going to understand this geopolitics reference, as it's rather niche knowledge to them.
  • When the BBC first aired Rome they felt that British viewers already knew a lot of the Roman history and so much of the exposition was redundant. As such they edited the first three episodes down to just two by trimming a lot of the politics scenes (without telling the director of the episodes). This is the official reasoning, though the fact that this placed much greater focus on the sex and violence may suggest the true motives skewed the other way.
  • Occasionally showed up in the End-of-Episode Silliness on Welcome Back, Kotter, such as the story of one of Kotter's innumerable uncles, a tailor who had a friend he hadn't seen in years named, improbably, Euripides Feldman. One day, the story went, a man who looked like his long lost friend walked into the uncle's shop carrying a torn pair of pants. Uncle Herbie studied him a moment, then asked, "Euripides?" The other man replied, "Yes. Eumenides?"
  • Understanding much of the humor in Monty Python's Flying Circus (and much of their stagework and films) might involve vast knowledge of history, art, science, politics and/or British culture and customs, and in many cases, a lot of topical or cultural humor from the time the show was first aired. (1969-71) Knowing a good deal about British television and comedy shows of the day couldn't hurt, either—almost all of the members of the troupe began as TV comedy writers, and a great deal of the humor was spoofing, lampshading or subverting the customs and clichés of the genre.
  • Through the Wormhole can easily slip right through people's heads like a neutrino if they don't already have a strong background on science. The experts on the show try to make the concepts understandable to normal people through analogy, but this usually confuses viewers further.
  • Parodied in Black Books. Bernard, to win a bet over writing a children's book in one night, writes a 1030 page book involving the Stalinist purges and a complex plot. When Manny points out this might be difficult for the 3-6 age range Bernard says "I don't think we should talk down to children."
  • The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, to more of an extent than most talk shows, anyway; Stephen makes geeky and otherwise fairly obscure allusions in his comedy and tends to assume that his audience is familiar with recent political developments, government procedures, and historical events. While he has the usual rota of celebrities promoting their latest films, he's rarely content to stick to the usual talking points, and the celebrity guests are mixed with less famous but very influential political figures (including Joe Biden, Bill Clinton, Stephen Breyernote , and the Secretary-General of the United Nations) and high-level business folk, including Wall Street analyst Ben Bernanke and multiple CEOs (including those of Apple, Uber, and Airbnb).
  • For assuming that viewers are geniuses, or at least reasonably intelligent, look no further than Star Trek: The Original Series. Gene Roddenberry endeared himself to millions of fans with this: "Star Trek started with the premise that the American television audience is a lot more intelligent and perceptive than the so-called 'experts' insist. We feel you can short-change that audience only at your own peril." He repeated this assertion for the rest of his life.
  • Schitt's Creek: Like Frasier before it, the show's humor often derives from urbane people interacting with working class people and contains many silly jokes that most audience members would understand. However, the show's attention to detail, such as the Rose family wearing authentic designer clothing that was made before the Roses lost their wealth, and the way it often layers references into both plot and dialogue rewards viewers who pay careful attention and/or are keyed into various subcultures.
    • David's ex-boyfriend is a spot-on parody of a specific kind of art world hipster, and the show expects the audience to catch on to his Grey Gardens style intentions to humiliate Moira.
    • Moira is about four decades too old to play Patty Hearst and the wrong race to play Imelda Marcos, something which is never pointed out.
    • Moira pitches an idea for an art park to the town council that sounds an awful lot like Donald Judd's Chinati Foundation.
    • Alexis mentions that Jared Leto was her first kiss, and the character is supposed to be about two decades younger than the actor.
    • David mocks Alexis's college in the following exchange:
    David: This is the same college where Malala gave that devastating commencement speech, right?
    Alexis: I don't know, David, maybe he did.

  • Ravages of Time assumes the viewer is familiar with Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the writings of Mencius, Confucian philosophy and so on. It also demands re-reading and a far amount of concentration to follow the plot due to the sheer amount of Chekhov's Gunman, CallBacks and CallForwards, such as Sun Quan's first appearance being a one-page background character as a child at the end of a chapter in Volume 6.

  • Steely Dan may be the epitome of a band that absolutely lived by this trope, while still managing to be very, very popular. Their lyrics are often abstract and coded, their music full of complex chord changes and voicings.
  • Bob Dylan's voice, music, and overall persona can be off-putting and/or bewildering if one lacks a basic knowledge and appreciation of the history of blues and folk music. Add to this the fact that many of his songs contain very obscure literary and cultural references. He's still a commercially successful and popular songwriter, however.
  • David Bowie's music references everything from art-house movies and underground musicians to Bertolt Brecht and French chansons, and yet he was incredibly commercially successful.
  • The entire nerdcore genre is built around this, from MC Hawking's "Entropy" to MC Lars reinterpreting Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" as a rap song obliquely referencing Vanilla Ice.
  • The Queen song "39" is a very strange surreal sounding story, unless you know the key to its interpretation, not spelled out in the song itself: relativistic time dilation at velocities near that of light (appropriately, band member Brian May is an astrophysicist). The protagonist of the song is an astronaut who has travelled across the "milky seas" (Milky Way — the galaxy) looking for habitable planets. For the crew only one year has passed, but for Earth they have been gone so long that nearly everyone they knew is dead. The protagonist laments that he has his full life ahead, but nobody to share it with.
  • In order to find the classical music parodies of P.D.Q. Bach (a fictional composer "rediscovered" by Peter Schickele) funny, apart from the occasional slapstick bits, the listener needs an Encyclopaedic Knowledge of Baroque, Classical and Romantic music, as well as a grounding in music theory and scholarship. Conversely, listeners who only like classical and ignore popular music will miss many of the jazz, country, and other non classical elements Schickele sneaks in.
    • The classical quotations are far more prevalent, and often the non classical touches are no more than jazzy cadences. Even so, there are many pieces which mix both, like one of the fugues in "The Short-Tempered Clavier" which quotes both "You Are My Sunshine" and "Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche."
    • It's not just obscure music he makes jokes about. In "Iphigenia in Brooklyn," Orestes appears "chased by the Amenities." Cheap laughs... Except that the Eumenides were actual Greek mythological beings more commonly known today as the Furies.
  • In order to even begin to understand what the death metal band Atheist plays, one would need a working knowledge of thrash metal, jazz, progressive rock, funk, and Latin music. Try listening to "Mother Man" from Unquestionable Presence if you don't believe me.
    • To say nothing of what Psyopus and Dysrhytmia do.
      • Indeed, this is by far one of Psyopus' most accessible songs, and it still sounds like complete aural insanity, in spite of being very much the opposite.
    • Meshuggah is another good example. Enjoyment of their music almost requires knowledge of death / thrash metal, free jazz, progressive rock, polyrhythmic song structures, polymeters, and syncopes. Since 1993, they have produced exactly one song that relies on a consistent 4/4 timing, and are regarded as one of the most influential bands in the underground, despite having virtually nil in the way of mainstream recognition.
    • The Dillinger Escape Plan's first record, Calculating Infinity, is definitely a good example of this, although there is a notable exception in the main riff of fan favorite, "43% Burnt," which was named by Decibel Magazine to be the 8th greatest riff of all time.
    • Gorguts, starting with Obscura, are effectively the Technical Death Metal version of Captain Beefheart (see below). To understand their music properly it helps to have a working knowledge of death metal, Progressive Rock, Avant-Garde Music, twentieth-century Classical Music, and several other genres. A thorough background in music theory won't hurt either. (Bandleader Luc Lemay has acknowledged Dmitri Shostakovich and Krzysztof Penderecki as major influences on his writing, if that gives you any indication what you're in for.) To understand their lyrics, it helps to have a detailed understanding of history and various forms of mythology. Even with those under your belt, most of their albums won't even begin to make sense until you've listened to them at least ten times. They'll also be terrifying on the first several listens, even if you already have thorough familiarity with death metal.
    • Similar to Gorguts (and probably influenced by them) are the French Black Metal band Deathspell Omega. Starting with the 75-minute Concept Album Si monumentum reqiures, circumspice, the band began a highly philosophical series of concept albums filled with absurdly complex musical and lyrical concepts. If you haven't made a thorough study of Christian theology and several major schools of philosophy such as existentialism, good luck understanding their lyrics. You'll probably also need to consult a dictionary to understand the English lyrics, and working knowledge of languages like French, Latin, and German won't hurt, either. Additionally, you'll need a thorough grounding in literature in several different languages to fully understand their lyrics, including writers like John Milton, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and especially Georges Bataille; they're fond of throwing in allusions to other authors' works with no indication that they are allusions, and if you don't recognise the allusions, they may make no sense whatsoever. Meanwhile, their songs, which often go on for as long as twenty-two minutes, bear little to no resemblance to traditional metal compositions. Again, working knowledge of genres like Progressive Rock, Avant-Garde Music and twentieth-century Classical Music will help, and again, their music will be terrifying on the first several listens even if you're already familiar with black metal. The fact that "Gorguts are the new Deathspell Omega" has become a Memetic Mutation probably tells you all you need to know about the similarity between the two bands.
  • Frank Zappa trampled this one into the dirt. His music is not only full with quotes from 20th century classical music, but also references to politics and American society, often even going into inside jokes that are incomprehensible to other people.
    • Unsurprisingly, Zappa's classmate/sometimes-friend/protégé Captain Beefheart created music that was at least as incomprehensible as Zappa's, not merely for the fiendishly atonal music and complex arrangements but the often surreal lyrics that often seemed to be cases of Word Salad Lyrics on the surface but often turned out to incorporate Mind Screwy metaphors about things like ecology and animal welfare. Unsurprisingly, commercial success was not forthcoming.
  • Ditto Jethro Tull. An explanation for Jethro Tull's most lyrically complex work, the 1973 Concept Album A Passion Play, can be found here.
  • Subverted by Iron Maiden, who often explain their literary and historical references in the lyrics or even the title alone. (Examples: "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," "Alexander the Great," and "The Trooper.")
    • This is more Genius Bonus: If you know what the Crimean War is or who Tennyson was, all the better, but if not, hey, they still have kickass melodies and you can sing along to "Woah oh oh oh oh oh oh oh!"
  • Many Dream Theater fans need to listen to their songs at least 3 times through to catch all the little details. Deciphering Scenes from a Memory could prove as a real challenge to those inexperienced to reading between the lines.
  • Modernist/Postmodernist composer Alfred Schnittke — in order to REALLY understand his work, you really need to know classical music history, understand his own personal philosophy on music, know music theory, and it would really help if you read Thomas Mann.
  • Rancid's Life Won't Wait requires you to be a near expert in both music and politics. After releasing ...And Out Come the Wolves, a largely straight ahead punk record with a little ska for good measure, Life Won't Wait spanned genres including reggae, dub, hip-hop, ska, rockabilly, calypso, and everything in-between. Lyrically, the band upped the prose level by about 50% and referenced everything from the minutia of the Kennedy Assassination, conflicts in Ireland, Jamaica, Poland, and makes numerous mentions of anarchism and other political theory, even splicing in audio readings of Mikhail Bakunin's essays on anarchism. Oh and the kicker? This is the only Rancid album not to include a lyrics sheet, so even if you know what they're singing about, you have to be used to Tim Armstrong's marble mouthed vocals and Lars Frederiksen's snarl to get even half of it.
  • Possibly the worst example of this is Mohsen Namjoo, an Iranian singer-songwriter, often referred to as the Bob Dylan (read: Frank Zappa) of Iran. Western listeners would be baffled because he writes lyrics in Farsi, uses a traditional Iranian music ensemble, almost never writes in 4/4, and alludes constantly to years of Persian poetic and literary tradition. Iranian listeners are often baffled because he mixes traditional Iranian folk and classical music with Western instruments, jazz, rock, blues, and flamenco influences, covers David Bowie and Nirvana, uses parodies, subversions, and references to poets such as Hafez, Rumi, and Ferdosi, makes fun of the Islamic regime and Khamenei constantly, and occasionally throws in the odd song in Kurdish or some other regional Iranian language.
  • Electronic duo Coil filled their music with lyrical and sonic references to art, highbrow literature, pop culture, the occult, and everything in between, often in the form of highly intellectual puns and jokes (mainly Black Comedy and Surreal Humor). At its essence, their entire catalogue is one giant Genius Bonus.
  • Pretty much every Bad Religion album requires the use of a dictionary to understand the lyrics. Lampshaded by the NOFX song "I'm a Huge Fan of Bad Religion" with the lyric: "I bought Suffer then I bought a thesaurus."
  • Tom Lehrer was a math professor at Harvard during his musical career. Both his songs and his commentary dealt heavily with science, history, and (then) current events. Occasionally it went over his audience's head, as in the case of a bit of banter on the live album An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer:
    "I particularly remember a heartwarming novel of his about a young necrophiliac who finally achieved his boyhood ambition by becoming coroner."
    [tepid laughter]
    "The rest of you can look it up when you get home."
  • The music of Pep Lab. Listing the references is left as an exercise.
  • The Decemberists tend to do this as do R.E.M..
  • The Divine Comedy's songs are about anything Neil Hannon is interested in. Which could be anything: Wordsworth's poems, 20th-century French cinema, stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, architecture, and landscape gardening... All liberally bespattered with quotations from literature, mythological allusions, and musical tips of the hat to Noel Coward and Scott Walker. Also, upbeat songs about hay fever, banking, and traveling by long distance coach.
  • tool's music, while enjoyable to a casual listener, is often laden with polyrhythms, uncommon time signatures ("Schism," anybody?), and several songs deal with themes such as Transcendentalism, Jungian psychology, religion, abuse, and really run the whole gamut lyrically. Take a look at the guitar tabs; they might not sound impressive, but Adam Jones is a more "technical" musician.
    • And then you get into their "jigsaw arrangements." 10,000 Days contains a song that is made by constructing three different songs and Lateralus has an entirely different song order that completely changes the meaning of the album.
  • Pavement's "Conduit for Sale" is about the end of the House of Savoy's rule in Turin. Yeah.
    • And to think that all that most people ever remember is "I'm tryin'..."
  • The third movement of Luciano Berio's Sinfonia takes a movement from a Mahler symphony and layers on top of it musical quotations from composers as diverse as Ravel, Beethoven, Bach, and Boulez. Some of them are very famous, some of them not so much. The piece is often cited as using the widest array of musical techniques of any piece of classical music. It would take an encyclopedic knowledge of classical music to understand all of them, but it's well worth it. Complicating matters is the fact that singers also sometimes recite passages from a Samuel Beckett novel, read graffiti from the May 1968 protests in France, or turn a musical allusion into an Incredibly Lame Pun, among other things.
    • Other movements continue the Mahler references and cut up sections of Claude Levi-Strauss's classic anthropological text The Raw and the Cooked.
  • To understand Schoenberg / Berg/ Webern's 12-tone atonal serialism (where all 12 notes in the western chromatic scale have to be used in a composer determined order before repeating), you pretty much have to study it, which in Western Music Theory, usually comes around the fourth semester. Complete with a 144 square matrix of all possible orders of notes. It's quite unsettling to the ear for many people, although others enjoy it.
    • It's also very difficult to play.
    • The Second Viennese School (the group started by Arnold Schoenberg most noted for 12-tone compositions) also liked to demonstrate the power of their system by creating some traditionally pleasant sounding pieces. One of these was Berg's Violin Concerto, which includes a quotation from a Bach harmonization of a hymn and another from a Carinthian folk song.
  • To an even greater extent, Milton Babbitt took it to the extreme (serializing all notes, volume, and length of note), to the point where EVERYTHING has a formula, and it would take about an hour just get around a 1-minute piece of his music.
  • So, you want to start deciphering the plots of Sound Horizon's Concept Albums and Rock Operas? Well, better learn six languages and start scrutinizing Every. Single. Lyric. for a potential double meaning.
  • Most of Ian Dury's lyrics. Subverted in the sense that they appear intelligent (and for all intents and purposes ARE intelligent on more than a handful of levels) but Dury wrote for the common man so expected everyone to understand at least something. Don't expect The BBC to catch on though...
  • From Ice-T's "Radio Suckers:"
    If you can't take the heat, eject / But I know you can because you're an Ice-T fan"
  • Marilyn Manson might not be assumed to be someone who does obscure references, but yeah, he does. About five people will understand "Slo-Mo-Tion" without having things explained. Lyrics about dead audience applause and laughter and "teenage rape candidates" likely will be completely lost on anyone who doesn't know that the canned laughter and applause used nowadays was recorded in the 1950's or about casting couch accusations. "Overneath the Path of Misery"'s chorus is a Greek mythology reference. The song "Lamb of God" contains references to the death of John Lennon, JFK, and Jesus as well as a spoiler reference to Network. The album Mechanical Animals is a huge shout out to David Bowie. There are references to the Waco, Texas incident in "Cruci-Fiction in Space." The song "My Monkey" has lyrics taken from a song on Charles Manson's album from the 1960's. Multiple songs, like "Kinderfeld" and "Lunchbox" are about his own life, and "Fuck Frankie" is directed at their old tour manager, Frankie, who stole tens of thousands of dollars from them. "s(AINT) contains references to the origin of the word "Ain't," which was British "dandy" slang originally. And after the release of the album The Golden Age of Grotesque, he tried to do a film about Lewis Carroll. When a leaked trailer killed it, well, the Creator Breakdown is quite obvious, due to the Alice obsession oozing out of some parts of Eat Me, Drink Me, not to mention the entirely different sound. Basically, half the stuff that makes no sense to most is references to other things, and rest was written by either one person on drugs (him) or two (him and Twiggy).
  • Jonathan Coulton's music is fully of computer / technology, math, physics, and pop-culture references. For example, how many people (even in New York City) knew that Soterios Johnson was a real (and ostensibly famous) person? (Unless you were a WNYC listener. Used to be their morning announcer and local anchor for NPR's Morning Edition. Teaches at UC Davis now.)
  • Patti Smith's entire career is based on this. You don't notice because she's also rocking your ass off at the same time. Her prose writing is the same way; beautifully accessible and stuffed to the gills with art, literary, mythological, and musical references.
  • Seminal Scottish post-punk band (the) Scars released a single in 1979 called "Horrorshow", that relies on one having previously either watched the film of or read the book of Anthony Burgess's Clockwork Orange, as the song title indicates. The band, as short-lived as they may have been, were very literary-minded and supremely precocious (being a band of teenagers) and assumed their fans/listeners would be as well.
  • Eminem, while different to most of these as he's more concerned with lowbrow topics, uses references and jokes that will baffle anyone who doesn't have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Tabloid Melodrama celebrity gossip from about 1985, American sports, and hip-hop. These references have become increasingly dense and obscure from 2013 onwards, along with hyper-elaborate wordplay that has spawned a cottage industry of YouTube reactors picking out layers and layers of Mondegreen Gags and double meanings. Eminem has complained that he doesn't know how many of his fans actually "go on Genius" and look up the lyrics, and that he feels he spends a lot of time writing things "that nobody else gets".

    Professional Wrestling 
  • Vince Russo's entire run in WCW was based on the idea that Viewers Are Smarks; the whole thing was extremely hard to follow unless you already had a general idea of how the wrestling business works and the goings-on backstage. The problem was, even if you were able to figure out what was going on, it still wasn't very coherent or engaging.
    • In one example, he had Kevin Nash cut a promo alluding to a time in the past when a Canadian wrestler had allegedly refused to put Nash over (lose a match to him.) The intention was presumably to make WCW's dwindling audience think that Nash was talking about Bret Hart, since, apparently, Bret's the only wrestler to come out of Canada and/or the only Canadian wrestler who had ever refused to lose a match to someone. In fact, Nash was most likely referring to Pierre Carl Ouelette, who had been a 3x WWE World Tag Team Champion as a member of the Quebecers w/Jacques Rougeau in 1993-1994, but, aside from a meaningless cup of coffee with the WCW Hardcore Title, had not been involved in anything particularly relevant in years.
    • One wrestling critic noted that Russo's problem was that he seemed to simultaneously believe that Viewers Are Morons and Viewers are Geniuses.
    • It gets worse. Russo wrote for TNA, when Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, Jeff Jarrett, Sting, and Eric Bischoff were all prominent talent. So, naturally, the focus of the main event TNA storyline is the "shadow politics" that were going on in WCW. Meaning, not only did you have to be a smark to know what's going on, you had to have been a smark FOR OVER 10 YEARS. And even then, there were bound to be references you didn't get, considering they're talking about everything up to and including private drunken phone calls from years ago. And no, none of this makes for halfway compelling, or even coherent, television.
    • Russo believes that "all viewers are Smarks," and as far as his opinion goes, a smark is a moron who believes they're a genius. If you think of his logic this way, his entire career is basically spent in a massive attempt to outsmart the smarks. Unfortunately, the only real way to trick people in a story where they usually already know, at the very least, half of what's going to happen before it happens is to make the story incomprehensible with obscurities and inexplicable plot twists.
    • Of course, Russo likely believes he himself is a genius, even when almost everyone else thinks he's a moron.
  • WWE commentator Matt Striker slips a ton of obscure references into his commentary. Most are designed so that they are bonuses for the hardcore fans, such as referencing past names that wrestlers have used. Sometimes, though, he goes for extremely obscure comments such as saying that Ghanian wrestler Kofi Kingston will be bringing his title back home to Prince Nana (a Ring of Honor manager who is the ruler of Ghana in that promotion's Kayfabe).
  • Antonio Cesaro can speak English, German, French, Italian, and his native Swiss-German dialect. Naturally, the WWE was originally promoting him as a smarter than you, high coulter European. Eventually, they decided to put him in the Real Americans stable, which is led by Zeb Colter. Smart marks know that Zeb Colter is played by Dutch Mantel, which prompted JBL to say: "Antonio Cesaro speaks five languages. And now thanks to Zeb, he's learning Dutch."
  • About the only promotion that does it right is CHIKARA, since, rather than talk down to their audience or attempt to confuse them with hopelessly obscure insider information, the wrestlers and announcers will sprinkle the matches with a dizzyingly fun mix of Shout Outs and Take Thats covering pro wrestling and pop culture in general (EVERYTHING from Super Mario Bros. to Yo! MTV Raps to Lady Gaga to RENT and the list goes on and on from there), not to mention naming shows after Talking Heads albums, Ben Folds Five songs and Joni Mitchell lyrics (Through Savage Progress Cuts the Jungle Line), that the combination requires a Mystery Science Theater 3000 meets Quentin Tarantino meets Joey Styles-level of cultural and wrestling awareness and attention span.
  • Once Kenny Omega won the AEW world championship in late 2020, the main event arc pivoted to Omega, now a heel, trying to woo the babyface tag team The Young Bucks, his Bullet Club and The Elite cohorts from New Japan Pro Wrestling, back to his side. In tandem with that angle, Omega began his run as "The [Belt] Collector", pursuing multiple world titles from Japan, Mexico, and Impact Wrestling with long-time wrestling personality Don Callis as his manager. While this could be deeply rewarding to those with an extensive knowledge of the history of the aforementioned parties and the crossovers within — and AEW isn't shy about catering to hardcore smarks — those with a more casual AEW following were left wondering why the AEW world title picture now didn't seem to focus on AEW itself.

  • Eyepiece, a play in Iowa City. If you're familiar with Shakespearian plays, Greek comedies, Modernistic plays (Death of a Salesman), postmodern plays (Waiting for Godot), puns, metaphor, pataphor, medical terminology, Greek culture, theater culture, "disabled" culture, Christian culture/the Bible, and for one particular scene the origins of Fascism and the real meaning of the word "faggot" (A bundle of burnt sticks that had been used to burn an offering), and you're observant, then the play will seem perfectly straightforward and understandable. If not, well, certain scenes will seem rather obscure.
  • Hamilton is overflowing with references to other rap/hip-hop music and other Broadway shows, not to mention the subtle history puns like "I never thought I'd live past twenty/Where I come from some get half as many"—sung by the guy on the 10 dollar bill.
  • Tom Stoppard's play Hapgood initially flopped because so much of the plot exposition is contained within one character's metaphorical double-speak about Quantum Physics. The re-write makes the metaphors easier to understand even if you've never heard of quantum physics, and the plot significance is better signposted. Many people can treat it as a straightforward who's-the-defector spy mystery, missing the revelation (in the first act, in another rambling metaphorical monologue) of who the bad guy is and the idea that the rest of the play is about how they prove it, not about finding out.
    • In fact, Tom Stoppard continually walks the line on this trope, and most of his (theatrical) work can be argued to be either refreshingly intelligent and stimulating, or purposefully obscure and elitist.
      • Although he flips it around in Rock 'N Roll, which makes a lot more sense and has more emotional impact if the audience knows a good deal about '60s counterculture and rock music, specifically Pink Floyd.
  • Bertolt Brecht is perhaps the only playwright in history who considers a piece with a character named Swiss Cheese to be Serious Business. If an audience is unfamiliar with his Verfremdungseffekt, they're likely to be lost from the first line onward. That said, many of Brecht's plays were comprehensible in their day, and The Threepenny Opera was a major commercial success in Germany and abroad.
  • Many stage musicals with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim have this criticism levelled at them. Sondheim and his collaborators avoid pat sentimentality and create complex works of art — perhaps a setback when many audience members are expecting The Sound of Music. Just a few examples:
    • Company is a mediation on contemporary marriage. The show has no plot and reduces character empathy to an absolute minimum; instead, it explores different aspects of marriage through a series of non-linear vignettes and songs. There's an emotional and intellectual journey to be had, but it requires the audience to really invest themselves in the material and pay attention.
    • Pacific Overtures is a historical pageant detailing the opening of Japan to the West in the late 1800's. Again, personal involvement is kept to a minimum, and the events are viewed through a purposefully biased Japanese perspective. The score includes a 9-minute mini-opera detailing American, British, Dutch, Russian and French trading treaties with Japan, and a 7-minute Taoist meditation about observation and memory in which nothing happens.
    • Sunday In The Park With George, despite its minimalist, Britten-like score, can still be enjoyed as a classic tale of an artist (Georges Seurat) who alienates his lover for the sake of his art. Until the end of Act I, at which point the action fast-forwards a whole century to focus on contemporary installation artist George, great-grandson of the original. Repeated viewings help tease out the direct, micro- and macrocosmic parallels between the two Acts to make the whole work serve as a treatise on art and posterity.
  • Something Rotten! contains rapid-fire streams of references to other musicals in songs like "A Musical" as well as the titular song. Theatre-goers unfamiliar with the last fifty years of musical theatre may find little more than dick jokes left for them after so many references fall flat.

    Video Games 
  • Assassin's Creed is fairly accessible, and commercial success, but nonetheless a lot of the stuff depends on Historical Fiction and it's a special treat for History buffs of famous and obscure periods, architecture-buffs who will squee over their recreation of famous monuments and places, and conspiracy and trivia buffs who get the obscure references to various myths, symbols, legends and rumors and how it interweaves into the story.
  • BlazBlue's plot is already pretty difficult to follow due to a "Groundhog Day" Loop, Alternate Timelines and one heck of a Timey-Wimey Ball, but that's just the beginning of your brain's struggle to keep up with the creators: Both characters and the lore include allusions to Christian, Classical, Norse and Japanese Mythology, history and legends. Taxonomies, character names, Significant Birth Dates and character crests all include some level of Genius Bonus and not even the command lists go safe what with the Theme Naming of the special moves (e.g., Mad Scientist-turned-Eldritch Abomination Arakune's command list consists entirely of references to advanced mathematics). Finally, there's also the importance of things like "Observers" and "Phenomena Intervention", which are allusions to Quantum Physics, most importantly stuff like Superposition, Wave Function Collapse, Quantum Entanglement, the Schrödinger's Cat Paradox and the Many-Worlds Interpretation.
  • Not Pron — by step 4, you're already deciphering Morse code.
  • Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty delves into meme theory so deeply that it is used to teach meme theory. (That is, units of cultural transmission, not Internet memes.) Some parts of the plot were explained in later games, but those were the simple parts, not the parts involving Raiden as a deconstructive metaphor of the relationship between player and game, or the parts where the plot deconstructs itself to examine the game's nature as a sequel. Those were not explained at all.
  • Persona 3 and Persona 4 have a rather literal take on this in the form of various pop quizzes throughout the game. They tend to ask you random trivia facts about math, grammar, science, philosophy or Japanese history. Answering correctly gives you a permanent bonus to a particular out of combat stat. There is nothing in the game that tells you the answers, so you have to use your own real-world knowledge (or cheat). There are also midterms where you get a whole bunch of these in a row, but the midterms are composed entirely out of questions that they've already asked you so if you had been paying attention it should be simple to answer.
    • To clarify the original point that was being made, the first time you are asked the questions, when they aren't on the test, they don't give you the answers. It's when the test rolls around that you should already know the answer.
    • The social link's tarot classifications show a shade of this. This comes from the fact that the dev team has produced one of the few instances where they did do the research on the actual meaning behind the major arcana of the Rider-Waite tarot deck. Persona 3 eventually tells the player some of the definitions of the various Arcana about 2/3 of the way through the game, in a long speech many would speed through without reading. Even if a player read the whole speech, most of the given interpretations only scratch the topmost layer of each social link. All the social links become a lot more meaningful if you have any sort of in depth knowledge of the major arcana.
    • The Shin Megami Tensei franchise as a whole really does its research on world mythologies and religion. Your average player might be confused as to why Lucifer and Satan are two separate entities, and why you can find the latter chilling out with YHWH (the true name of God in Judaism) in Shin Megami Tensei 2...unless they know or find out that in certain interpretations, Satan is a separate character who basically acts as the devil on God's shoulder.
    • Persona 4 has a nighttime activity in which you can prepare lunch to share with a school Social Link the next day. You will be asked a multiple-choice question on how to prepare it- one answer gives a good result that gives relationship points, another answer gives a bad result that gives no relationship points and the third results in the food being inedible and the protagonist throwing it out. Unless you're willing to engage in some Save Scumming, you have to know how to best cook certain Japanese dishes if you want the right answer.
  • Scratches has a bottle in the master bedroom labelled Thalidomide. Most players may or may not notice the bottle and the player character can comment on it during the additional chapter, Last Visit. Those who do, will realize that said drug is known to ease morning pain for women, but can cause horrible birth defects, and is likely the reason for Catherine Blackwood's various pains during her pregnancy and why Robin has such horribly severe malformations.
  • Xenogears is mind-screwing, especially on the psychiatry and Kabbalah sides (with the multiple personalities, paradoxical split selves (see Lacan and Grahf), and overlapping selves that have postmodern and poststructuralist resonances). The plot is also impossibly convoluted.
    • Ditto with Xenosaga. It includes numerous references to Jungian psychology, Gnosticism, classic Christianity, Kabbalah, quantum mechanics, etc.
      • At least Xenosaga had the courtesy to include a massive in-game database (which they removed in Episode 2... for some bloody reason).
  • The Legacy of Kain series has an enormously dense storyline. Even after playing all five games, you may not have any idea what's going on. It doesn't help that it involves time travel, multiple timelines, and the mechanics of both are explained in pieces over several games.
  • The first Myst game is like this. You're given no instructions, backstory or reason why you're on a lush yet deserted island, or even what you're supposed to be doing. This actually adds to the immersion of the game, as it encourages you to behave as you would if you inexplicably found yourself on the island in Real Life, and figure it out for yourself. Later games assume that you've completed the first one and become friends with Atrus.
  • Valkyria Chronicles II: Has a fun scene with Zeri and Julianna discussing Galia's world equivalent of Centrism.
  • The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind has the 36 Lessons of Vivec, a series of 36 sermons penned by the Physical God himself. At first glance, they seem like the scribblings of a mad man. However, if the books are cross-referenced with one another and deciphered, one finds a world of Metaphorical Truths, Breaking the Fourth Wall, Anviliciousness, Tropes Are Not Bad, and a sprinkling of In-Joke.
  • La-Mulana doesn't just expect you to know how to solve its increasingly complex puzzles, but also to understand references to ancient history, and MSX games, in order to solve its puzzles.
  • Kuon seems to apply, even though there is no full agreement in the fanbase about what the hell was going on there.
  • Killer7 exists halfway between this and flat-out Mind Screw. Entire papers have been written analyzing every facet of the game and the underlying themes, such as a conflict between American and Japanese values.
  • Batman: Arkham City has an example of this with an Easter Egg. Using the Cryptographic Sequencer, one can find three hidden radio frequencies, each of which has a computer voice reading off a sequence of numbers. The first is a standard "letter number" cypher (1 = A, 2 = B, etc); easy enough. The second is an inverted letter number cypher with all the numbers shifted up by 3 (4 = Z, 5 = Y, etc); a bit tougher, but a reasonably clever player could figure it out. The last, however, requires the player to run the numbers through three separate cyphers (letter number, Atbash, and Vigenére), including guessing the keyword for the latter ("Scarecrow") to decrypt it. Put together, the three messages (plus the aforementioned keyword) make up a giant Sequel Hook teasing Scarecrow being the Big Bad of the next game, Batman: Arkham Knight. The game's director Sefton Hill said that he never thought anyone would crack the codes, only for it to happen about two weeks later.
  • The Civilization series, especially the later games, generally requires you to know the history of a given civ to understand why they get certain benefits or why their AI act in certain ways. That's easy for some of the staple civs - Egypt gets bonuses to building Wonders because of how many of its ancient monuments remain, Montezuma is a warmonger because Aztec religion was big on Human Sacrifice, and so forth. But other entries are more obscure, like the Songhai of Civ V, so you'd have to know the importance of the Niger River to west African kingdoms to understand why Askia has the "River Warlords" ability. Historical knowledge can also add new enjoyment to old memes - the "Nuclear Gandhi" characterization is funny because of how out-of-character it is for Gandhi to be threatening to nuke his neighbors, but modern India is a nuclear power and has been one of the nations that has been more aggressive with its nuclear force in recent history.
  • Touken Ranbu is based around Japanese swords, figures and history, so to the fans who get drawn in by the Bishōnen or the anime adaptions it becomes an Unconventional Learning Experience.
  • To collect the artworks for the museum in Animal Crossing, the player has to distinguish real pieces from the forgeries that Redd is selling, all of which are based on famous real life works. Since there's no side-by-side comparisons in-game, it requires the player to actually know the exact appearances of the real life artworks to distinguish if they are fake or not.
  • My Summer Car basically requires the player to be a Grease Monkey in order to identify all the parts you need, know how to assemble them, and diagnose issues should they arise, in order to get the Satsuma working let alone tuned to be licensed or raced. That's on top of the numerous survival needs, all of which can kill you if you don't pay attention to them. The dev does nothing but make the the game harder with each progressive update, to get as thoroughly realistic an experience as possible.

    Visual Novels 
  • Ace Attorney has a few points where outside knowledge is required to point out a contradiction, such as the fact that a baseball glove is worn on the non-dominant hand, or that the driver's seat is on the right in a British car, or the general concepts of double jeopardy and extraterritoriality. Other times, the game does provide the information necessary to point out a contradiction, but the time between the information being presented and it becoming relevant makes it difficult for the player to remember it, especially with all the other information flying around. For example, one deduction in case 5 of the third game requires the player to remember a specific moment from case 3 which lasts all of 5 seconds.
  • C14 Dating: Hendrik's seldom-encountered sexual orientation is properly depicted, but said depiction assumes that the player is just as informed about it as the game's creators are:
    • The recurring mentions of cake are a nod to a joke within the community that its members would rather eat cake than have sex with another person.
    • The orientation's shortened name is "ace", but that only gets spelled out late in his romantic route, which causes some earlier scenes to be a little obscure for players who don't already know this.
    • His obliviousness to both flirting (his own and that of other people) and the innuendos he makes while talking about geology are meant to be hints to the fact that sex is not a place his brain goes to easily.
    • The mere fact that Hendrik is in love with Melissa, but also not attracted to her in a sexual way in his romantic route flies in the face of a common misconception about the orientation.
    • Even dialogue from after Hendrik and Melissa become a couple beats around the bush when it comes to the orientation's defining element, which is a lacking or outright absent sexual attraction towards other people. The same happens with its most frequent direct consequence and the reason it's a potential issue in a romantic relationship: rarely to never being in the mood to engage in intercourse (even with a romantic partner), and most people considering the lack of sex in a romance a dealbreaker. Because of those things, Melissa's reaction to Hendrik booking them two nights in a high-end hotel catering to couples (which implies he's ready to have sex with her as an affectionate gesture), in his romantic route's epilogue can be hard to understand, as well.
  • Katawa Shoujo:
    • Shizune's route has a very subtle narrative style that requires a lot of reading between the lines in order to truly understand, especially when it comes to the dynamics of Shizune and Hisao's relationship. It also helps to have a working understanding of the subtleties of how sign language works as a medium of communication and how it differs from spoken language. Unless they are really paying attention, a lot of this will go over most players' heads, leading to people complaining about the "lack of romance" in her route.
    • Rin's route is as much a mediation on the nature of genius, philosophy of art, and the question of whether or not it is truly possible for two people to understand one another (as well as whether it really matters), as it is an eroge love story.
  • In Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, several puzzles as well as aspects of the plot involve the use of hexadecimals and base36 in numbers. The first time a puzzle involving it comes up, you're given the chance to work everything out yourself, without the game even explaining how hexadecimals work. Although, if you need it, the game does give you a run down on the basics of it. However, there's a number of times when hexadecimals come up later on in the game after this point: At these moments you're expected to remember everything you learnt about it. If you don't, then you'll be forced to either go back and refresh yourself on it by starting a new playthrough, or research it yourself. Or just try everything until you eventually get it by luck.
    • The game in general makes constant references to obscure scientific and historical trivia (i.e. Ice-9, polymorphic resonance, Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan.) Some of these are actually based on fiction and urban legends, but are treated as true anyway (Ice-9, for example, is a reference to a Kurt Vonnegut novel, but it's falsely claimed in-game that scientists eventually discovered it in real life,) which can make descerning the actual Truth in Television bits from the made-up stuff difficult for those not already in the know.
  • Umineko: When They Cry
    • It has Ryukishi07 go on about the basics of Schrodinger's Cat, Raven Paradox, and Devil's Proof. He also makes lengthy articles about his philosophies of anti-mystery, cultural noise, and chessboard logic. And to top it off, he makes numerous references to famous mystery writers. However, his critics accuse him of not knowing what he's talking about, even when it comes to his own inventions.
    • Counterargument: Shkanonyasutrice. The Second or, possibly, the Third.

  • Dinosaur Comics occasionally becomes this.
  • Achewood is full of obscure references to pop culture, music, history, and foreign languages.
  • Among the Chosen states this as part of its author's writing style. The basic introduction to the story may be read here. Among The Chosen gets confusing in a hurry. The mil-speak, the Technobabble, mythological references, and the tendency to mention important information exactly once all contributes to this.
  • Dresden Codak very much falls into this, frequently covering subjects such as Jungian philosophy and transhumanism.
  • Nearly all xkcd strips make jokes about rather obscure topics. Fortunately, the xkcd fanbase does include plenty of geniuses, and they post explanations on the forums. Lampshaded in the comic's disclaimer: "Warning: this comic occasionally contains advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors)."
    • And again in an early comic.
    • This strip actually links to the appropriate Wikipedia article.
    • Standard operating procedure for xkcd is generally that if you don't get Monday's strip, just wait a couple of days and you'll laugh at Wednesday's strip.
    • Also, this comic has an obscure punchline, based on another joke.
    • The last panel of this comic requires some knowledge of particle physics.
    • Be warned, it'll ruin your life.
  • Similarly, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal frequently has high-level concepts mixed with dead baby and sacrilegious jokes for good measure.
  • As do Irregular Webcomic! and Terror Island, but the more obscure topics are often explained in the annotations of both strips.
  • Freefall is a lot more understandable if you have a working knowledge on physics, cybernetics, mathematics and philosophy. Among other subjects.
  • Lackadaisy has so many historical references regarding not just the prohibition, but pop culture, advertising, slang, and politics during The Roaring '20s (not to mention Rocky's ramblings on physics, mythology, and poetry) that the published first volume has an entire section in the back of the book explaining each and every one.
  • Hark! A Vagrant deals with fairly obscure western history on a pretty regular basis... much of it [shudder] Canadian history, which even those of us who are Canadian aren't too familiar with.
  • Gunnerkrigg Court, being a story that plays on the dichotomy between magic and science with an All Myths Are True premise, focuses on obscure world mythology and... chemical elements. Having a working knowledge of both may help hugely in figuring out its intricate plot. Case in point: the fandom, using a bare minimum of information, figured out that the character Brinnie's "Old Man" is Odin, and shortly after, that Brinnie herself is the Valkyrie Brynhild. The information they had: this page, and nothing more. There hadn't been a single mention of the Norse pantheon in the story so far.
  • Andrew Hussie, on being accused of making Homestuck too convoluted to follow:
    "I believe the reader is well prepared for every shift in the nature of the story's unfolding. There are primers on what to expect along the way. Very early, when we first met Dave, we began a humble exercise in non-linear pacing. Conversations he had with John and Rose, then revisited from an earlier timeframe from his perspective. Some nonlinear revisitations with Jade's story as well. It wasn't just messing around. It established that time was something to be tinkered with in this story, more intensively as we progress. The MC intermission was a primer on complicated time travel dynamics taking center stage in the story. It was a tangent, quite silly and convoluted, but very good preparation for the concepts to follow, which have dominated the story since. The troll arc was a very aggressive primer on completely off the rails nonlinear story progression, which has somewhat extended beyond it into the main story, and will continue to do so. All of these primer concepts are now firing on all cylinders at once. And the word primer is the title of a very complicated time travel movie, which I have not seen yet. I imagine watching it would serve as a decent primer for reading Homestuck."
    • During one off-hand flashback referencing something not all that memorable that did happen in a split second during a long, intense Flash presentation over 1500 pages back, the Lampshade Hanging could not be avoided:
      Remember how that happened? That didn't stop being a thing that happened or anything.
  • The Order of the Stick half averts this, half plays it straight — you can understand all the happenings in the plot without having any knowledge of Dungeons & Dragons, but many of the non-punchline jokes will be completely nonsensical. In fact, they're used so often, and so consistently and savvily, that people who didn't have a knowledge of D&D when they started reading the comic can acquire an understanding of the vernacular over the course of 750+ strips without once searching for D&D information elsewhere, in the manner of the dialect in A Clockwork Orange.
  • In Kevin & Kell, writer Bill Holbrook de facto left it up to the readers to chose Leona's wedding dress from five different options. A month and a half later, when Sheila bemoaned the fact that Leona's wedding dress was chosen by "strangers", the spirit of Leona's mother responded thusly:
    Leona's mom: I know. At least they had good taste...
  • Last Res0rt — the concepts don't require much outside knowledge, but the plot is just that involved (The start of Volume Two, for instance, is complicated by a Reality Warper whose presence is only figured out well after they're raiding a ship and being affected by it), and the Art Evolution gives the comic an experimental feel that makes a few scenes harder to follow than they should be because of the way the camera jumps. About half the readers get it, and the other half will need some help, most likely from the Cast page and New Readers' pages.
  • The Packrat is impossible to get without fundamental knowledge of synthesizers. Fortunately, it is targeted at and hence only known to synth geeks.
  • Schlock Mercenary invited readers to calculate the height of the "Hellavator" lunar space elevator on their own... only to find that sometimes, the viewers really are geniuses.
  • Mountain Time. Yikes. Aside from the blink-and-you'll-miss-them literary and philosophical references, you also face character and plot continuities spaced tens to hundreds of comics apart.
  • Sandra and Woo has several examples so far. Of special mention:
    • Comic number 338, a challenging comic. Apparently some readers complained that the comic wasn't challenging enough, so the author made a challenging comic. The text of the comic required people to translate Bahasa Indian, convert RGB values to ASCII characters, search the HTML source for a linked page, and be able to crack text ciphers. This was invoked though, and the author offered prizes for correct answers. Once all the correct answers were submitted, they posted a deciphered version for the non-genius readers.
    • Comic number 500, titled "The book of woo", was based off of the Voynich manuscript. The author developed a custom set of symbols and text cipher for both English and German. Again invoked, there is a standing offer of cash prize for a correct translation. No one had managed it yet, And the page was posted 2013.
  • Godslave has a tiny bit of foreshadowing that can be easily deciphered if you have more than just passing knowledge of Egyptian mythology. Set was a god of storms, which is how the Blacksmiths refer to the god who's supposed to be Anubis.
  • Poland Ball requires a thorough knowledge of vexillology to even know who is suppose to be who. The jokes are based around the international relations of rather obscure countries as they are the more famous ones.
  • The jokes in Digger are often pitched with the presumption the readers will know as much about geology, anthropology, comparative theology and pre-modern industry, cloth-dyeing/pigment use, lead-smelting, and healing as Ursula. As the comments show, a truly scary amount of the readers do know this stuff.

    Web Original 
  • The Chess-centric YouTube channel agadmator operates under the assumption that anyone watching chess analysis of their own free will is smart enough and well-versed enough in the game to understand some very esoteric chess jargon, and uses such with cheerful abandon.
  • Animated sci-fi/Urban Fantasy series Broken Saints has a sprawling, slow-starting, and enormous plot with numerous characters, deep religious/philosophical themes and motifs, references to obscure works, events, and cultures, and heaps upon heaps of Techno Babble. The creators are themselves of the opinion that these elements are why the series is more popular in Asia and South America more so than North America.
  • The Whateley Universe. Think about an 'ad' for a movie made based on Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum (which see)... as directed by noted conspiracy theorist Oliver Stone. Or a classroom discussion of Lucan's Pharsalia when one of the people in the room is actually the avatar of Juno.
    • Those are pretty much all in the Phase stories, which can have all kinds of genius bonuses, down to the snarky humor and the longterm planning. It turns out that information about epics and Greek mythology in the fourth Ayla novel is important in saving the day in the seventh one.
  • SCP Foundation: While they can all be enjoyed on their own, many SCPs require the reader to be this in order to fully appreciate them.
    • 1348, for example, requires a thorough understanding of Abrahamic culture and mythology. Even the Site Director's name is significant.
    • Or 2280, which is plenty weird but makes more sense if you realize it's a creative reinterpretation of the Egyptian goddess Nut.
    • SCP-2167 contains many advanced mathematical concepts and a reference to a real world document about acoustics.
    • SCP-3966 excepts the reader to understand neuroscience and 4-D geometry to understand the true nature of the anomaly.
  • In Season 1 of "Invention Pioneers of Note", Winston Whitworth declares, "As you already know, Plato once said..." Any idea of the viewers possessing intelligence is dropped for the later seasons.
  • One of Cracked's reasons no one laughed at your joke is "They Didn't Have Enough Information to Get It". It states that the best practice for an In-Joke that relies on knowledge of something obscure like Rocky IV or Battlestar Galactica (1978) is to find a discreet way to explain the reference in the setup.
  • The POYCPAK sketch "'Lectuals" is a trailer for a fake teen drama that would likely have run on this trope.
  • Scary News out of Tokyo-3 is loaded not only with innumerable pop-culture Shout Outs, but with erudite quotes, obscure literary references, and scientific & pseudoscientific jargon.
  • Unsong is full of multilingual puzzles and puns, as well as obscure trivia, history, poetry and kabbalah references. It may have an excuse: before writing it, the author surveyed his fanbase and found an average IQ of 139. Nevertheless, he's been disappointed by how many references people have missed.
  • Mocked with the "To be fair, you have to have a very high IQ to understand Rick and Morty" meme, which calls out fans who treat their series as an example of this, but in reality is just them giving it the Everyone Is Jesus in Purgatory treatment.

    Western Animation 
  • Family Guy eventually degenerated into nothing but this trope, then degenerated even further to the point of parodying itself for having degenerated into nothing but this trope.
    Peter: Yeah, that's what they said about Benjamin Disraeli!
    (Cut to Disraeli working in an office, when he suddenly looks up and glares at the camera)
    Disraeli: You don't even know who I am!
  • American Dad! frequently relies on political history, much of which you would have to have studied the subject to know about. Roger (and to a lesser extent Greg and Terry) will also drop some references that you have to be Genre Savvy of gay culture and icons to understand.
  • The Simpsons, particularly the first ten years or so, managed to do this from time to time while still managing to be hilarious to most people who didn't get the more obscure references. Indeed the show has a considerable Rewatch Bonus for younger people who come back and catch the Genius Bonus that passed them by on first viewing.
    • The show's characterization is so strong a lot of viewers will laugh at jokes despite not completely grasping the subtleties of the underlying gag. For instance, Lionel Hutz hastily changing the punctuation on his business card from saying "Works on contingency — No money down" to "Works on contingency? — No, money down!" is funny simply as evidence of Hutz' shamelessness, even if you don't know what a lawyer working on a contingency basis is.
  • Futurama's writing staff had a combined 3 PHDs and 7 master's degrees, so it's only natural that they slipped in references to their fields of expertise from time to time. Topics such as mathematics, physics, and computer programming pop up from time to time in one-shot visual gags or dialogue. One DVD bonus feature had a mathematics "lecture" pointing out and explaining some of them. The writers also created two "alien" languages to be displayed in the show; reportedly, viewers were able to decipher these within 24 hours of first being shown. Taking the cake is an episode in which one of the writers slipped in his then-unsubmitted complete doctoral thesis in mathematics. In other words, that episode had the writer resolve its conflict by finding the answer to a previously unsolvable math problem.
  • It's debatable whether or not it's a "gross overestimation" of the viewers' intelligence given the Periphery Demographic, but Phineas and Ferb regularly references things like quantum theory and existentialism, throws words like sesquipedalian around and makes occasional (full) use of Layman's Terms. The creators once commented on this; it went along the lines of "We make the show for ourselves but don't exclude anybody from the enjoyment."
  • Ultimate Alien makes accurate statements about biological structures and Darwin's natural selection theory when talking about the alien's artificial evolution and their DNA database system. Psychological issues, such as Stockholm Syndrome and personality disorders, are also current, though in a much lighter way due to the TV ratings. The series also references characters and lines from Greek and Hebrew myths, H.P. Lovercraft's books, and Richard Lovelace's poems, alongside other pop culture elements, the most (in)famous being the character Will Harangue, a journalist whose show is a Frankenstein's Monster of various Fox News programs and a spoof of "Steven Colbert's Colbert Nation".
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender often assumes that its target audience is a lot more familiar with Asian languages, mythology and history than the average 9-year-old is likely to be. This is probably what makes it so popular with college students.
  • Daria constantly made references to older literature and short stories, stuff that only someone who read a lot would know, and unlike most shows aimed at teenagers, it never assumed that the audience was stupid.
  • Full understanding of Animaniacs requires a game-show contestant's depth of knowledge in pop-cultural history, which many children at the time lacked.
    • A fitting example would be the song entitled "When You're Traveling From Nantucket to Saint Paul." It's all about the relativity of time, our planet's closeness to the sun and when you'd arrive if you took a plane from one place to another. The difference is that the trio does not expect to be understood as evidenced by certain lyrics. Examples include:
      Yakko and siblings: Time Is relative, dependent
      You can save it, you can spend it
      Doing things you like to do or learning how.
      You can't see it, you can't taste it
      But you certainly can waste it
      Which is really what we're doing here right now!
    • The last stanza of the song seals the deal even further:
      Yakko and siblings: So remember, when you're traveling
      From Nantucket to St. Paul
      In that airport as you're staring
      At those clocks upon the wall
      You should think about this song, my friend
      And then you will recall...
      That it was mildly amusing
      But then totally confusing
      And we bet you wish we never sung at all!
  • Archer often turns on a dime between sex jokes and references to obscure historical figures.
    Archer: Oh, God, with the curry again. This shirt smells like Indira Gandhi's thong.
    • Particularly in the earlier seasons, there would often be one character making obscure references that are funny with the requisite knowledge, then they would lampshade how unlikely anyone was to get the reference, making it more palatable for non-geniuses.
    Archer: I would prefer not to... (enemies cock their guns) Bartleby the Scrivener? Anybody? Not a big Melville crowd here. Eh, he's not an easy read.
  • Getting the most out of My Gym Partner's a Monkey requires knowing an encyclopedia's worth of animal physiology and behavior. Quite often, some character will behave in a certain way that doesn't make sense unless you already know the animal that character is based on really does act like that in similar circumstances. This may have been the reason the show was not as popular as it could have been. Luckily for its target audience, this was heavily toned down by the time the team did Littlest Pet Shop (2012).note 
  • Rick and Morty: When Morty's parents, Jerry and Beth, are gunning down monsters, Jerry tells Beth that he wishes her shotgun were his penis. Beth responds, "If it were, you could call me Ernest Hemingway!" This is a blowjob joke that will only be understood by people who know that Hemingway killed himself by putting a shotgun in his mouth. Naturally, Jerry doesn't get it.
  • Gravity Falls: It purposely leaves clues for its viewers to solve, sometimes years in advance. Some of the clues include cryptograms in the credits, backwards messages, and details hidden in the background. Creator Alex Hirsch has said that he did this so that if anyone was as weird as him, they would find what they're looking for. Regarding the cryptograms, Season 2's is written in a Vigenère cipher, an encoding process regarded as impenetrable for hundreds of years and which remains extremely difficult to break even in the present day without a key or a computer decryption program. Thankfully, said key is hidden within the episode, both as a word or phrase spoken by the characters and as text hidden within the background.
    • The best known example of this is when Grunkle Stan rescued his twin brother, the author of the journals, from another dimension. Fans had guessed this twist nearly two years in advance of the episode's initial airing.
  • The South Park first season episode "Damien" was about the final confrontation between Jesus and Satan. Early in the episode Damien proves his power by turning Kenny into a duck-billed platypus. The boys go to visit Jesus as he's training, and ask him if he will cure Kenny if he wins. Jesus gets indignant and says: "what do you mean IF I win?" This is a reference to an incident that only occurs in the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus gets angry when someone asks him to cure his daughter "if he can".
  • The Venture Bros. adores obscure references; from rarely-seen superheroes to ancient myths to 80's children's toy advertisments.
    The Alchemist: (holding a character's ear that fell off) Uhh, you dropped your Dino Damage.

    Real Life 
  • Alternate Reality Games all assume the viewers, or at least some of them, are curious, bored, and in some cases masters of Bat Deduction. Valve's ARG involving Portal has some especially heavy shit going on. Strange data-like audio snippets appear in game. Forum members pick apart the game content files and extract audio files for these new snippets. In their analysis, someone has the bright idea of trying to run these sound clips through software that can decrypt digital images through analog ham radio transmissions, and come up with fully-rendered colored images which, themselves, contain clues to the phone number for an old fashioned BBS, calling which gives cryptic ASCII images — but only if you managed to find the other hidden code for the username/password in one of the radio transmission images!
  • Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails did something similar before the release of Year Zero. USB sticks were left at the toilets during/after shows, containing music/audio files (which were different on different USB sticks) then when run through a spectrogram, revealed images and, in one case, a phone number which you could call to hear a new song. Also, there were t-shirts where the highlighted letters formed the words "I am trying to believe", which turned out to be a registered domain name, while the rest of the sites were simply in the same IP range. So in order to find those, you'd have to know how to search domains by IP addresses.
  • Most Unix manual pages are confusing even to people who have doctorates in computer science. And the Unix system itself, where one mislaid command as root can hose your entire system.
  • Everything Bad is Good For You discusses the idea that popular culture has become more complex and that, in turn has made us smarter. This is why 80s TV shows seem simplistic by today's standards, and conversely many of today's shows would have been unwatchable 25 years ago. The author also hypothesises that this is connected to the Flynn Effect, where each generation scores slightly higher on IQ tests than the previous one.
  • Dennis Miller:
    • His short stint as a commentator on Monday Night Football drew ire from fans who found his dry, academic wit hard to understand. Indeed, pretty much anything Dennis Miller says qualifies. The Encyclopedia Britannica website actually had a feature where they attempted to explain his references every Tuesday.
    • He once hosted an episode of WWE Raw, where he had a brief monologue at the start of the show and several backstage segments. While most of the segments were passable, his monologue and one segment that turned into a Dennis Miller Live "I don't wanna get off on a rant here" rant (complete with dimmed lights) contained a series of references and witticisms so dense even by HIS standards, many were left believing he was making fun of himself.
  • Now-disgraced BBC presenter Stuart Hall was a British counterpart of Denis Miller. His football commentaries on BBC radio were classics of literacy, fluency and verbal gymnastics, which deservedly won him many fans and admirers.
  • Wikipedia articles on even slightly technical topics tend towards assuming that the reader has at least a degree in the relevant field.
  • Anything ever produced by The Firesign Theatre. Once described by Robin Williams as the audio equivalent of a Hieronymous Bosch painting, and you're always looking for the little man who's coming out of the ass of a chicken. If you think you even got all of "The Further Adventures of Nick Danger" the first time, for example, you are probably wrong.
  • The MIT Mystery Hunt. According to The Other Wiki, puzzles have involved "arcane or esoteric topics like quantum computing, stereoisomers, ancient Greek, Klingon, Bach preludes, coinage of Africa, and Barbie dolls". And that's not even getting into the actual steps required to solve the puzzles.
  • The University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt, affectionately known as Scav is similar. To complete many of the items on the list you need to already have a working knowledge of odd subfields that can include physics, cooking, a particular website or even certain languages.
  • Patton Oswalt often lampshades this; he'll make a reference to H. P. Lovecraft (or something), then lambaste himself for going over the audience's heads, then start coming up with even more obscure references, like Arthur Machen or Frank Belknap Long.
  • Comedian Daniel Tosh stated that one of his gimmicks is wearing a single joke on and on "until only six people have a clue what [he's] talking about."
  • Eddie Izzard mixes obscure history and references to science and philosophy into her stand-up, and goes so far as to conduct an entire 5 minute sketch in French, in front of American and British audiences. She even lampshades this last bit, telling the audience that they don't understand anything she’s saying, and are only laughing because French sounds funny.
  • Some aspects of TV Tropes aren't exactly newcomer friendly. For instance, some tropes, trope names, and even rules of this wiki can be confusing to some people. This is also the reason why several tropes have their names changed. As an example, the trope "Dropped A Bridget On Him" had its name changed to the (admittedly less creative) Unsettling Gender-Reveal, largely because people who have never heard of the meme or Guilty Gear, where the meme comes from, or the trope Dropped a Bridge on Him would possibly have no clue what that trope is about until they open it. See Fan Myopia.
  • William F Buckley Jr's essays, and show, was loaded with this, along with several helpings of Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness. He tended to include Spanish, French, Latin, and wildly obscure English in his essays, which were generally high-minded "plane of ideas" type pieces about public policy and the theory thereof. Try watching his show Firing Line. If you drift off for a second or aren't well-versed in interventionism, the Federal Reserve, US education, and sexual morality, have fun figuring out what's happening.
  • PBS and NPR are well-known for catering to educated audiences.