TV shows nowadays refer to each other all the time. A character on 30 Rock mentions Community. A character on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air mentions Saved by the Bell. Characters on The Simpsons and Family Guy mention other shows on a regular basis.
Society has become saturated with pop culture, and TV simply reflects that reality. But it hasn’t always been this way.
Go back further— past the last twenty years— and these references become much more rare (at least if we exclude stuff like parody sketches on variety shows). In vintage television, a character might watch TV or talk about a TV show, but it’ll almost invariably be a non-existent show. Even a station’s call letters are fictional. Why? I can understand why phone numbers in Televisionland always begin with 555, but why is it so wrong to mention an actual show that viewers might recognize?
There are exceptions to the rule. The most conspicuous is probably I Love Lucy (6:13, “Lucy and Superman,” January 1957) with George Reeves, which is all the more unusual because his The Adventures of Superman was still on the air, and not on the same network. Another familiar reference can be found on The Honeymooners (1:01, “TV or Not TV,” October 1955), in which Norton watches Captain Video. The Honeymooners was on CBS, and Captain Video was on DuMont… or at least it had been. The dying DuMont had cancelled the show six months before Norton turned his set on, but I guess that’s the magic of television for you.
On The Patty Duke Show (1:7, “The Babysitters,” October 1963), Patty babysits a little brat who keeps shouting “I wanna watch Wagon Train! I wanna watch Wagon Train!” That venerable western was still on the air at the time, but without Ward Bond it was lumbering toward cancellation. Patty was whipping it in the ratings, and it had moved over to her network (ABC) anyway, so mentioning it on her show wasn’t exactly plugging the competition.
On Emergency! (1:10, “Hang-Up,” April 1972), the guys at Station 51 are seen enjoying Adam-12 on their TV— and it’s not just a dummy voice-over, but a lengthy clip from the climax of a recent episode (4:08, “Ambush,” November 1971). An emergency call comes in and the guys have to rush away, leaving woebegone Fireman Gage to spend the rest of the show wondering how that Adam-12 episode ended. Ultimately, in a moment of tranquil enlightenment worthy of Kung Fu‘s Kwai Chang Caine, he resigns himself to the need to just wait for the re-run.
Both shows were produced by Jack Webb’s Mark VII Limited and aired on NBC, so the plug makes sense from a business standpoint. Oddly, though, the stars of Adam-12 had already appeared (in character) in the Emergency! pilot. Months later, everyone from Emergency! would appear (in character) on Adam-12 (5:4, “Lost and Found,” October 1972). The fact that these shows exist in overlapping fictional and real-life universes is something even Kwai Chang Caine couldn’t have wrapped his head around.
More straightforward is an episode of CHiPs (1:09, “Hustle,” November 1977) in which highway patrolmen Jon and Ponch pull over a driver who turns out to be Broderick Crawford, star of Highway Patrol from twenty years earlier. It’s not Crawford’s character who gets pulled over (fat chance of that ever happening), but the actor who played him. Ponch is overjoyed and peppers the visibly annoyed Crawford with old Highway Patrol dialogue. “I don’t believe it! ‘Twenty-one-fifty, over!’ Right? Right?… Boy oh boy… I’ve watched you for years, over and over and over…”
Crawford tries to ignore Ponch, turns to Jon and drawls, “You know, I was making those Highway Patrol shows long before you were born.” Jon replies, “Yeah, they don’t make TV shows like that anymore.” As an in-joke it falls a little flat, because CHiPs isn’t Highway Patrol on motorcycles— it’s Adam-12 on motorcycles with a dash of Car 54, Where Are You? thrown in.
‘Fifties nostalgia was the bread and butter of Happy Days (at least in its early seasons, when the show was worth watching). That included several nods to the TV of the era, most conspicuously the time You Asked for It comes to town to televise Fonzie’s motorcycle stunt (3:3, “Fearless Fonzarelli,” September 1975), and the time Richie attends a Howdy Doody telecast (2:17, “The Howdy Doody Show,” February 1975). Happy Days gets bonus points for bringing in Jack Smith and Buffalo Bob Smith to appear as themselves, but I’d have liked to see Broderick Crawford confront Fonzie even better.
The references I like best are oblique, unspoken. There’s a late episode of Dallas (I think it’s 14:13, “90265,” February 1991) in which a character disdainfully drops hints about a TV show with a backwards-talking dwarf. That’s obviously Twin Peaks, which was waging a doomed struggle to avoid cancellation at the time. Perhaps the fact that Dallas and Twin Peaks were on competing networks (CBS and ABC respectively) explains why the title remained unspoken.
Later, Dallas itself would be subtly referenced, on Walker, Texas Ranger (3:17, “Blue Movies,” February 1995). One character mentions J.R. Ewing in passing, but there are other clues suggesting that this was almost a tribute episode. Making one-shot guest appearances were Howard Keel and Cathy Podewell, former Dallas stars, and the skyscraper housing the office of Dallas’ perennial gadfly Cliff Barnes is prominently seen. Since Walker was produced by longtime Dallas showrunner Leonard Katzman— and this episode was directed by veteran Dallas director Michael Preece— it was inevitable that a little homage would be paid.
Oblique references aren’t always so sentimental. There’s an early episode of Vega$ (1:08, “The Pageant,” November 1978), in which the central character, detective Dan Tanna, is hired by a man who wants to find the thug who beat and raped his daughter. The man is played by Robert Reed, the father of The Brady Bunch; the daughter is played by Maureen McCormick, his Brady daughter. There’s no way that was just a crazy coincidence. Maybe someone in the casting office had a sick sense of humor, but we can at least be grateful that Reed wasn’t hired to play the rapist.