When we’re watching a film or a television show, our eyes are typically held by the main action. It’s usually only when we rewatch something that we pay attention to the lesser-seen details, such as what’s going on in the background. Every so often, a show or a film will embed jokes behind the main action, a little gag for those of us who are watching more than once, or an unexpected treat for those who weren’t paying attention to the foreground action in the first place. There have been a few shows and film franchises that have taken background jokes to an entirely different level. We’ll include some of these master craftsmen in the list, so we won’t spoil them here in the introduction.
There are people who say that watching a film or a television show for the second time or more is pointless. They say that the intended effect is lost after you’ve already seen it once. Hogwash. There are multiple effects contained in the best films and shows. The pieces included in this list are perfect examples of this. Sure, many of these jokes are capable of being caught during one viewing, but it’s unlikely to work out that way. Even if many of the jokes are designed to steal attention away from the foreground, that doesn’t mean everyone sees them. Some are even mistakes, so the chances of someone catching them on their first viewing are slim to none. With that in mind, we set out to find the best background shots in film and television. We bring them to you as gifts. Here are the 15 Funniest Things You Never Noticed in the Background of TV and Films.
15. The Background Nerd
Back in 2001, Jessie Heiman was 23 years old when he got his first role in a film—Petey in American Pie 2. At that time, no one would have guessed that Heiman would become the star he is today. Hell, most people don’t know how big of a star Heiman even is. You probably don’t know his name, but you’ve seen him in the background of countless films and TV shows. Even today, at 39 years of age, Heiman is still cast as a teenager. He often plays a nerd of some sort. In fact, his credited character has been a nerd (or some variation of that) eight times in his career. Basically, whenever there’s been a need for a nerdy-looking student in the last decade plus, Heiman’s been there.
14. Airplane Laundry And Signs
Spoof movies like Airplane have been doing background gags for years and years. Perhaps, out of all the films like it, Airplane did it the best, so we decided to use it as the catch-all. Of all the background jokes, the one we loved the most was the guy doing his laundry in the air traffic control room. Although it’s just a simple sight gag, it’s bloody hilarious. Airplane also had other visual jokes like the various signs posted around. There were ridiculous translations like the Spanish versions of instructions “El no a you smoko” and “Putana da seatbeltz” and the seat instructions for no smoking between aisles 11 to 21 and no fornication between the aisles of 13 to 51. There are too many to name them all, but we wanted to at least give Airplane some love.
13. The Family In How I Met Your Mother
Like another entry on this list, How I Met Your Mother placed an entire story in the background of an episode. This story, which covers an entire lifetime, takes place in real time during a short conversation between the main cast. It’s found in the episode “The Rehearsal Dinner.” Really, the entire joke is made by the background, so it’s hard to miss. But still, we’ll hold your hand through it. So, the gang make a Canada joke, and Robin comments, “Two mitten jokes in a row, so you’re pretty much done then?” Ted then says in a voice over, “Kids, we weren’t even close.” Then, to show how long they made Canada jokes for, a couple in the background goes through a lifetime of changes. We see a date, then a proposal, pregnancy, their child graduating college, and then the son dying. It’s pretty good.
12. Ronald The Intern
Cabin in the Woods is the film that just keeps on giving. While there are revisionists making an effort to take away from the movie’s achievements in recent years, it’s one of the better meta-horror films that we’ve been gifted in the last two decades. One of the best parts of the film is in its re-watchability. There are countless Easter eggs and little references that are almost impossible to catch all in one go. One of the funniest, at least the funniest background joke that is difficult to spot, comes from Ronald the Intern. When the carnage is taking place, a shot in the headquarters shows all the TVs, each with a different shot of death and destruction taking place. On one of the TVS, we see Ronald the intern. That’s the easy part. The hard part is reading the signs he holds up. We know and we’ll tell you. They read, “Help me! A dragonbat has my scent. I’m the intern.”
11. Cloudy With A Chance Of What?
There was a time when we expected the foulest and most disgusting humor from animated films. It seemed like the animators at the major studios were daring each other to see how much they could get away with. Times have changed, though. We no longer get the dirty jokes hidden in films. Well, not all the time. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs did include a pretty funny joke in its frames. When Flint connects his “Flint Lockwood Diatonic Super Mutating Dynamic Food Replicator” (FLDSMDFR) to a power plant, it rockets through town with him on it. In one sequence during this flight, we get a slow motion shot of him passing by his father and some other spectators. One of those people mouth and say, in slow motion, “What The F#*k?” The director admitted to this afterward and claimed that the producer was not happy but they left it in because it’s so hard to spot.
10. Going Nuts On The Last Samurai
There’s a lot that gets overlooked in The Last Samurai. The film is often mocked because of the implication that the very white Tom Cruise is any kind of samurai, let alone the last of them. But this is unfair. Not only is Cruise not the samurai the title refers to, but the term is plural, referring to the army and not one person. Another thing that gets overlooked in this film is an accident that takes place in the background. Obviously, this little event was not meant to happen, but it might be the best part of the film. The moment in question takes place when Cruise approaches his army on horseback. As he pulls up, he halts his horse, and the army encroaches around. Then, as swift as lightning, the horse kicks an unsuspecting extra right in the groin. The poor bugger is clearly in pain, and he is knocked back. Grimacing under his helmet, this newly-neutered man stands there desperately trying to pretend that a giant horse didn’t just kick him in the crotch. Considering how many people missed this moment, it’s safe to say that he hid his ailment incredibly well.
9. Graffiti In Wreck It Ralph
Wreck it Ralph was as close to fan service for video game nerds as it gets. There are an incredible number of references that only gamers would grasp; many of these were hidden in the background. There was one scene in particular that had two graffiti tags on the wall, which read, “Aerith Lives” and “All Your Base Are Belong To Us.” Now, the first is a double-layered reference to Final Fantasy and Tron: Legacy. Aerith is a much-loved controllable character from Final Fantasy VII who dies tragically in the storyline. The other side of the reference connects it to Tron: Legacy, playing on the “Flynn Lives” phrase. Since the Tron film franchise is largely entwined with video games as well, the reference hits hard. The other quote is the hilariously poor translation from the game Zero Drive. This was an actual quote in the game and one that became an internet meme in later years.
8. The Periwinkle Man In Joe’s Apartment
Joe’s Apartment might be one of the strangest films ever made, one of the grossest, and one of the most off-putting, but there are some great moments in it. The best actually takes place in the background. Walter, Joe’s artist friend, is experimenting with a new type of art. Basically, he just dumps periwinkle paint on Joe and says that he created the world’s smallest minority race. As Joe yells at Walter and tries to explain why this is a stupid idea, you can see in the background a random man walking away just dripping in periwinkle paint. It appears that Joe wasn’t the only one to be experimented on.
7. The Plane Crash In Idiocracy
In what might be better considered as a running gag or an extended joke, the plane bit in Idiocracy is one of the funnier moments in the film and one that isn’t really caught all that often. Considering how popular the film has become in recent years, you would think more people would be talking about this joke, but here we are. It starts with the main character, Joe Bauers, speaking to the Doctor, played by Justin Long. The Doctor tells Joe that he’s retarded, but he explains that that’s not all that bad. The Doctor’s first wife was “tarded” as well, and she became a pilot. Not long after that, we see the police shooting and destroying Frito’s vehicle. When one of the policemen shoots a rocket launcher backwards, the rocket downs an airplane. While, admittedly, there has to be a leap of faith here, we can guess that the plane is piloted by the Doctor’s ex-wife or another retarded person. We can also assume that the downed plane is the same one that is lodged into the side of Costco later on in the film.
6. The Bad Butcher In Raiders
Raiders of the Lost Ark is a treasure trove of jokes and high-octane action. Honestly and truly, it’s one of the best movies of that generation. Still, there are some hilarious oversights in it. The best, by far, takes place during one of the film’s most iconic scenes. It’s the scene in which the swordsman showcases his talent with a blade and then Indy shoots him. You may have heard the story here. Apparently, Harrison Ford was quite ill and couldn’t shoot for long stretches at a time, so they made this scene quick for some comedy and so that Ford wouldn’t poop himself. But, the real comedy is going on in the background. Although we are so distracted by what’s happening in front of us, the butcher behind Indy is just the worst at his craft. Watch the way he lazily chops at the meat, not even coming close to breaking the skin. Pull it together, man.
5. Scully Running In The X-Files
The “Hollywood A.D.” episode in The X-Files is a treat, plain and simple. The episode revolves around a film project being made based on The X-Files team, and Mulder and Scully are asked to help the actors who will be portraying them. In an earlier scene, Tea Leoni, who is playing Scully, asks her how she runs in heels. Later, while Garry Shandling probes Mulder on his dressing habits in the foreground, we see Scully hightailing by in the background. We also hear the click-clacking of her high heels. A second or two later, she comes whipping back in the other direction, all the while, Leoni stands by watching. The scene is just hilarious and is only aided by the ridiculous conversation and dialogue delivery between Mulder and Shandling. The best part is in how fast Scully is moving.
4. Community And Beetlejuice
Few shows would ever build up a simple joke over the course of three seasons like Community did. This type of dedication to humor is what makes the show so great. As we said, in three different episodes in three different seasons, one of the cast members said the name Beetlejuice. When Annie delivers it the third and final time, Beetlejuice himself can be seen walking by in the background. Not only is this joke hard to spot in this final scene, but catching each of the three occurrences and tracking them over three seasons was even harder. This was a joke that showed just how subtle much of the humor was on Community.
3. Chin Music In Willy Wonka
This one is quite possibly the greatest mistake in film history. It all took place in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. The Candy Store Owner, Bill (Aubrey Woods), is singing his way through the song “The Candy Man.” As the children crowd around all hoping to get a tasty treat, Bill opens up the door on the counter to allow the children back to his private stash. With our modern eyes, it’s genuinely a creepy scene. But back then, it was sweet and genuine. But hidden among all this joy and glee is a tale of tragedy. One of these extras, a little blonde girl who has been lost to history, was a victim in this scene. When Bill opens the counter up, this poor little girl gets smashed in the chin with the door. You may not think it’s funny, but you’d be a sourpuss if you didn’t. This is pure and unadulterated comedy.
2. Patton Oswalt Standing Still On King Of Queens
For whatever reason, King of Queens is one of the forgotten sitcoms. Sure, it had its fans, but it’s rarely considered one of the greats in the genre. Either way, the show was a lot of fun, and the cast and crew apparently had a lot of fun making it. The episode we’re most interested in is called “Emotional Rollercoaster.” It’s the episode that Doug turns 40 in. So, in this episode, something goes on in the background that is easy to miss in its entirety and even easier to miss the best parts. During the gift-giving scene in the episode, Patton Oswalt is seen behind the couch. After about a minute in, it becomes clear that Oswalt has not moved a muscle. He doesn’t move at all the entire time the cameras are on him. The action then shifts to the kitchen, and most people think the gag (which was later found out to be a prank) is over. However, whenever the camera gets a shot out of the opening in the kitchen wall, we can see Oswalt in the living room, still standing still. In total, he stood there not moving for three minutes.
1. Abed’s Baby Delivery In Community
When you think of shows that mastered the art of background jokes, Community has to be high on the list. They had several gags that were executed really well, but none better than Abed delivering a baby. While many fans noticed Abed delivering a baby in the background in one episode, few caught the entire story. It all came in the episode called “The Psychology of Letting Go.” Abed was hardly ever seen in the foreground on this one, but he is present in the background almost the entire time. Amazingly, an entire story is told, one that begins with a couple throwing their c*ndom away, then the girl becomes pregnant, the father gets angry with Abed, a fight breaks out, Abed consoles the expecting mother, and then, he delivers the baby. It’s honestly the only episode we can think of in which the background is almost more important than the foreground.
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