Yesterday marked the death of Edward Albee, a playwright whose contributions to the American theater spanned decades, but who will probably always be best remembered for his 1962 hit Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? That’s both because Woolf—and its 1966 film version, directed by Mike Nichols—is legitimately fantastic, a withering portrait of the ways love and ambition can sour, but also because Albee’s put-down filled writing has infiltrated the collective consciousness. Filtered through writers and directors who grew up on Albee’s harsh-tongued dialogue, it’s bled out into children’s shows and a million other strange outlets, the same way kids raised on Hanna-Barbera cartoons know Snagglepuss but not Bert Lahr.
Lines like Elizabeth Taylor’s opening “What a dump”—itself a reference to an old Bette Davis movie, Beyond The Forest—have cropped up in everything from Darkwing Duck to Duckman, always in that same disgusted cadence. Meanwhile, Crow T. Robot—one of the resident wisecrackers on Mystery Science Theater 3000—was a fan of Richard Burton’s George, filling at least half-a-dozen episodes with growls of “Don’t start with me, Martha,” or “Don’t talk about the boy.” (The show’s Burton-love extended to a couple of host segments devoted to his work in an early episode, including an excerpt from the classic Who’s Afraid Of Gamera Turtle?, too.)
Woolf references could range from simple line-drops to elabroately esoteric. The most nested might be from Animaniacs—no stranger to hiding adult-aimed jokes inside its madcap zaniness. The sequence “Home On De-Nile” has a beleagured Mark Antony (Pinky And The Brain star Maurice LeMarche) sing “Who’s Afraid Of Cleopatra?” to his demanding wife, a neat little double-play that manages to reference Burton and Taylor’s roles as Martha and George and Mark and Cleo in one fell swoop.
Other fans of Albee’s work eschewed reference in favor of full parody. The most famous might be Benny Hill’s, which first aired in 1976. Despite the fact that Hill plays both parts—and all the references to “big fat bums”— it’s surprisingly faithful to the original, with meaty lines like, “Doesn’t it ever worry you, him chasing after girls?” “Honey, I’ve got a dog that chases after cars. But if he caught one, he couldn’t drive the damn thing!” dotting the script.
Much more recently, Saturday Night Live did a full-on Woolf parody of its own, in one of the show’s digital extras from 2014. Charlize Theron and Taran Killam star as the disgruntled older couple, pitching barbs back and forth as they guzzle increasingly elaborate drinks. If not for the presence of ice sculptures and giant novelty straws, it’d be a near-note-perfect recreation of Albee’s work.
Meanwhile, The Simpsons—never a show to shie away from a nice, old-school literary reference—has dipped its toes in Albee’s waters multiple times, most notably in “The War Of The Simpsons,” when Marge and Homer run into a growling academic and his “queen of the harpies” at a couple’s retreat.
The show would return to the well a few years later, in “Brother From The Same Planet,” with Homer channeling Burton in vengeful rage mode after Bart spurns him in favor of his cool Bigger Brother Tom. And the show’s Fox animation neighbor, American Dad, went even further, devoting an entire B-plot to housewife Francine and alien Roger hitting all the beats of the play in just a couple of minutes. (Say what you will about Seth MacFarlane: his tight delivery on “Tell them how you killed our baby, Amanda,” is a series highlight.)
But if you really want to find out Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf on the quick, you can’t do better than SCTV’s resident TV huckster, Harvey K-Tel (Dave Thomas). “K-Tel’s Fast-Talking Playhouse” might not nail every line of Albee’s playfully vicious dialogue, but with “four of the fastest talkers in show business today,” it’ll get the job done faster than you can turn to the person you hatefully love and give a heartfelt, “You make me puke.”