What if television had been around for the last five thousand years?
Such is the premise of History Bites, a Canadian Sketch Comedy series (1998-2003) created by Rick Green (of The Red Green Show and Prisoners of Gravity) to explore and satirize history through the lens of current pop culture. Each episode opened with Rick explaining the topic and dramatically pushing a button on his remote control, "changing the channel" to begin the meat of the program.
The show proper is presented as what a bored channel surfer sees as he flips through programs like the news, Martha Stewart Living, Jeopardy! and Seinfeld against the backdrop of historical events like the assassination of Julius Caesar, the popularity of the plays of William Shakespeare, the revenge of The Forty Seven Ronin, the rise of Christianity, the invention of agriculture, and the shootout at Fly's Photographic Studio (better known as the gunfight at the OK Corral).
After the series ended, the show did five one-hour specials that removed the channel-surfing idea. Reruns of the series are shown on the Comedy Network and History Television.
The show avoided the Nostalgia Filter: Rick ended each episode claiming that injustice is connected to prejudice and ignorance, that advances in science and medicine make life today so much better than any point in history, and that History... Bites. *click*
A growing number of episodes may be viewed for free on the series' website.
This show contains examples of:
- The Ahnold: Charlemagne is presented in this manner.
- Anachronism Stew: The show's premise is that television (and modern programs) have existed since the invention of agriculture.
- Appeal to Worse Problems: The entire show is guilty of this trope, most notably in the "Neolithic Park" episode, where Rick Green essentially glosses over modern problems such as climate change in favor of stating that we should be grateful that we still have books, eyeglasses, and modern medicine, compared to the people in the past who endured the likes of famine and plagues. Makes one wonder if he really believes that the Black Death is really the only other option to climate-change-induced heat waves.
- Artistic License – History: As a series that leans heavily towards The Dung Ages trope, the writers will occasionally exaggerate for comedic effect.
- In the episode about Charlemagne, the Martha Stewart Expy claims that spices will make rotten meat taste better. By that point it was common knowledge that eating rotten meat was a good way to give yourself food poisoning. Furthermore, in the Middle Ages, only the rich could afford spices, and they were keen on eating the best-quality meat.
- In the episode centering around the Exodus, Rick Green claims that Hebrew slaves built the pyramids at Giza. They did not. In fact, the pyramids were built by free peasant laborers and craftsmen around 2560 BC, more than a thousand years before the Exodus is usually dated to (and it's no longer acknowledged as fact by modern secular historians).
- One episode set in Roman times has the anchormen claim Emperor Claudius has syphilis. Considering syphilis is a New World disease and therefore did not come into Europe until the last decade of the 15th century, it's highly unlikely that Claudius was even exposed to syphilis, much less suffered from it.
- An episode set in the 9th century has a sketch where a cartoon goat describes the type of chevauchee tactics more strongly associated with The Hundred Years War. Rick Green has since owned up to this mistake.
- The episode on the French Revolution, set in 1794, has a priest character say that a man can divorce a woman for any old reason like lack of cleanliness while a woman has to prove that her husband was insane or abusive to a priest and several witnesses. This may have been the case during the Ancien Régime, but beginning in 1792, the Loi autorisant le divorce en France legalized no-fault divorces, thus acknowledging that a marriage can break down through no fault of either spouse.
- Artistic License – Religion: At least two episodes claim that medieval monks and peasants claimed that random bones belonged to Jesus. This never happened because Christian teaching states that Christ ascended into heaven corporeally.
- In an episode set in Spain in the year 1492, there is a Jeopardy!-esque game show where one of the contestants answers one of the questions with "Protestantism". Not only is this answer stated to be incorrect in-universe, but in real life, Protestantism did not get its start until 1517, twenty-five years after the episode takes place.
- Ascended Extra: The show's extremely low budget meant that the writers were often pressed into duty as extras, or as bit part players. Writer Danny DiTata (the diminutive, wild-eyed and usually-bearded redheaded guy) turned out to be pretty funny in a variety of small one-shot roles, and slowly, the roles started to get bigger. By the end of the series run, the now usually-shaven DiTata was often getting nearly as much screen time as the series regulars — and he pretty much runs away with the French Revolution episode, thanks to his killer George Constanza impersonation.
- Bishōnen: Peter Oldring's characters, especially Alexander the Great.
- Blackface: An episode set in the United States in the 1880's features a Parody Commercial for a minstrel show starring Willy White in blackface (as minstrel shows were commonplace in America in the 1880's).
- Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: "... and nookie."
- Broken Aesop: The episode "Xena's Evil Sister" was meant to use the story of Boudica to address violence against women. The trouble is Boudicca's revolt is a textbook example of The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized. She and her daughter admit that they killed Roman women by cutting off their breasts and sewing them to their mouths!
- Cool and Unusual Punishment: When Rollo and his men start attacking France, the French king, Charles the Simple, decides to punish the Vikings by arranging for them to occupy Normandy, essentially forcing them to fight off attacks from their own people.
- Deliberate Values Dissonance / The Dung Ages: A major theme of the series is playing both tropes for Black Comedy.
- Establishing Series Moment: So, you want to do a show about TV shows in days of yore, except you don't have a very high opinion of days of yore. What do you do your first episode on? Why, The Black Death, of course!
- Every Episode Ending: Rick comes back to talk about the subject matter and how it influenced history, and history bites.
- He-Man Woman Hater: There are a few characters of this type, given the nature of the series, but the one that takes the cake is Rick Green's Grumpy Old Man character (in the episode about King David), who argues that All Women Are Lustful, "even the ugly ones!"
- Historical Villain Upgrade: This show, not surprisingly, does this to a number of Historical Domain Characters, most notably:
- In "Saladin's Last Stand", Frederick Barbarossa, known for being a shrewd political figure, is Flanderized as a bloodthirsty warrior who killed all the people of Crema after successfully besieging it. Never mind that most of the civilian victims had actually died of hunger and disease, and that some 20,000 survivors were allowed to leave with whatever they could carry before Crema was burnt to the ground.
- Hospital Gurney Scene: The agriculture episode featured a medical drama. Teresa Pavlinek's doctor character ordered a trepanning for every patient, no matter what the diagnosis.
- Hurricane of Puns: The priest of Pan making an infomercial for lesser-known Greek gods.
- In the Style of: Some episodes had the "main plot" done in a specific style; for example, the investigation and prosecution of the murder of Thomas Beckett was presented as an episode of Law & Order, while Sir Isaac Newton's episode was done like A Beautiful Mind.
- Kent Brockman News: The first two seasons have episodes centered around news broadcasts of various important historical events. Much of it blatantly falls into Strawman News Media.
- The Magnificent: The episode about Leif Erickson has David Letterman list the Top 10 Worst Nicknames for a Viking Leader:Number 10: Leif the Really-Unlucky-to-the-Point-of-Being-Cursed
Number 9: Thor the Queasy
Number 8: Eric the Pink
Number 7: Dennis the Cross-Dresser
Number 6: Bjarni the Lactose-Intolerant
Number 5: Norbert the Nice
Number 4: Thormod the Flatulent
Number 3: Asgard the Dork
Number 2: Ethelred the Idiot-Who-Drills-Holes-In-Ships-at-Sea-When-the-Rest-of-the-Crew-Are-Asleep
Number 1: Debbie
- Man of a Thousand Voices: Ron Pardo. Close your eyes and you'd swear that that's really Don Cherry or Dennis Miller. Pardo credits his skills to watching too much television as a child.
- Medieval Morons: Timmy the Jeopardy! contestant was a dirt-farming village idiot, but he got at least one right answer.
- Nature Is Not Nice: The episode about the invention of farming shows that Rick Green himself believes in this trope, and he claims that most early humans either got old or died by age thirty to try to prove it.note
- No Party Like a Donner Party: The actual Donner Party is the subject of one episode, presented as a parody of Survivor.
- Of Corpse He's Alive: Qin Shi Huangdi's advisers tried to fool the media with this ploy, covering his head with a burlap sack with a face drawn on it and (historically) covering up the smell of his decomposition with rotting fish. It looked like it worked.
- Old-Timey Ankle Taboo: In one episode, Mary Queen of Scots shows off her bare ankles, complete with the TV blurring out her ankles and the audience calling her an "ankle-whore."
- Onion Tears:Alex Trebek: This ancient statue made Michelangelo weep uncontrollably. (Timmy pushes his buzzer) Timmy.
Timmy: What are the Three... Onions?
(we hear a wrong answer sound effect)
Alex Trebek: No!
- Overly-Long Gag: The episode about Isaac Newton involves Dr. Phil giving many synonyms for prostitute when one of his clients declares that she doesn't want her sister to become a prostitute.
- Parody Commercial: Given the premise, commercials showcasing music albums, medicine, and commemorative items are a constant.
- Pride Before a Fall: Leonard the Jeopardy! contestant always responded with a smug grin and condescension in his voice, which evaporated quickly when the host rejected his response.
- Pun: The TV Guide listings during the show.
- Punny Name:
- The Zamboni family cleaned the Colosseum's arena floor between bouts in one episode; puns were rare among episode titles, but there were some, like "Bjarney & Friends" (Norse settlers in North America), "Cleo Can Kiss My Asp" (Cleopatra/Marc Antony/Octavian triangle), and "My Pharaoh Lady" (Pharaoh Hatshepsut).
- In the episode on the Donner Party, a recently-deceased wagon driver is named Berger. Which naturally leads to his on-camera eulogy being a long string of food puns.
- Sidetracked by the Analogy: A journalist interviewing an early Christian misinterprets the metaphors in play and concludes that Christianity is a cannibal cult.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Definitely on the cynical side.
- Strawman News Media: One notable example is the Black Death episode, where one of the anchormen claims that Jewish rabbis are spreading the plague by poisoning the wells. Terrible news reporting! If History Bites were real, medieval anchormen would never have been allowed to admit that they believe conspiracy theories about the Black Death, even if they did.
- Suicide as Comedy: "Love and Death" takes place in 1780 and focuses on the Werther fandom, which is treated like the Star Trek fandom. "Live long... posthumously."
- Take That!: "And the number one easiest foe of Odysseus: The Toronto Maple Leafs."
- Tangled Family Tree: In "The Filthy Stinking Rich", the penchant of the Rothschild family for marrying within the family throughout the 1800s to keep their wealth from being scattered among countless sons-in-law and daughters-in-law is depicted in a sketch in which Charlotte Rothschild shows her family album to her fiance and first cousin Anselm Rothschild - while he rolls his eyes and repeatedly points out that they're also his family.Charlotte: If we're gonna be married, you'll have to know my family. And here are miniature paintings of some of them! (flips through book) Now there is my uncle Amschel...
Anselm: (sighs) I know, he's my uncle too, oh my God...
Charlotte: Oh, wait 'til you meet him, you'll love him!
Anselm: Met him, hate him, oh my God, he's my uncle too...
Charlotte: He lives in...
Anselm: Frankfurt, go there all the time, hate it, oh my God...
Charlotte: (turns to another page) Oh, my cousin Mayer! Oh, that little face... (turns to next page) And my cousin Edmond...
Anselm: My cousins, my nephews, oh my God, (begins slapping himself across the face in despair) cousins, nephews, cousins, nephews, oh my God...
Charlotte: (furrows her brow in confusion) Wait... who is this funny-looking little guy? 'S one of my cousins?
Anselm: Uh... it's me, okay? Oh my God...
Charlotte: (disappointed) Oh... yeah. (gasps in delight) And this is Sal!
Anselm: Your uncle, my dad...
Charlotte: Oh, and Nathan!
Anselm: My uncle, your dad, oh my God, so stupid...
Charlotte: And there is my uncle James!
Anselm: Uh, yeah, uncle James, I know, uncle James, he's got the maid Elsa, favourite colour blue, he's got that stupid yappy little dog, oh my God...
Charlotte: He's married to my cousin!
Anselm: My sister...
Charlotte: Ew! He married his niece!? Why do families do that sort of thing?
Anselm: (voice rising in anger) Maybe because their parents don't give them any choice!!
- That Came Out Wrong: From David Letterman's Top 10 Rejected Brand Names for Roasted Dormice:David Letterman: At Number 7, Dijon Mouse-turd!
Paul: (disgusted) Oh! No! You wouldn't wanna eat that!
Larry King: You know, as a young boy, I was very interested in the process of building these mastabas.
- And when Larry King is interviewing an Egyptian architect on pyramids and mastabas:
Egyptian Architect: Mmm... mastaba-tion.
Larry King: (Beat) Mm-hm. You can see why we got away from building those.
- Unfortunate Names: Bob Bainborough's anchorman characters tended to these, such as "Intellectus Minimus".
- Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: Rick Green at the end of the episode about Shakespeare: "History... verily... doth bite."