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SYFY WIRE Back to the Future

Back to the Future's 12 best, most 'heavy' time travel jokes

By Josh Spiegel

This Independence Day weekend marks the 35th anniversary of one of the best, most influential films of the last few decades: Back to the Future. This fast-paced adventure, in which an ‘80s teenager inadvertently travels back in time to encounter the high school versions of his mother and father before they ever started dating, has stood the test of time thanks to its energetic cast, wit, and snappy direction. But Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, who co-wrote the film (with Zemeckis directing), also filled it with lots of gags that really only work if you’re Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) or someone with enough awareness of the modern world.

A fish-out-of-water story like BTTF only works if the main character has a few bits of knowledge that only help that person out, not those around him. So let’s talk about the 12 best bits in Back to the Future that work if you, like Marty McFly, are in the know.

01. Who’s President in 1985?

Some of the humor in Back to the Future is very much of its time. Here’s a joke that’s both very heavily rooted in the 1980s, and one that could easily work if ever there was a remake of the film. Once Marty is sent back to 1955, he desperately tries to locate his pal Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), who looks mostly the same with a little less of the fright-wig-style hair. Doc is skeptical that Marty’s a time traveler, all the more so when Marty tells Doc that the U.S. President in 1985 is then-actor Ronald Reagan. Doc laughs his head off, unwilling to believe that his fellow Americans would ever elect an actor to the highest role of leadership in the country. Talk about a joke that…definitely would play differently if Marty McFly was now traveling from, say, 2020 to 1990.

02. Having your name on your underwear

When Marty winds up in his own mother’s girlhood house, he’s shocked. He’s even more confused when she keeps calling him Calvin. “It’s all over your underwear,” the future Mrs. Lorraine McFly (Lea Thompson) points out, referring to the Calvin Klein brand underwear he’s sporting. (The brand was founded in the late ‘60s, for the record.) Marty tries to toss it off as being a name he never goes by, but it’s the kind of quickly-thought-up lie that Lorraine chooses to ignore instead of tries to believe. Or, maybe she's just so attracted to him that she’s not too worried about why someone else’s name is on his underwear.  

03. A Pepsi Free

Diners are now a thing of kitsch culture, especially those that double down on the ‘50s-era throwbacks. For Marty, when he arrives in the downtown area of his hometown, Hill Valley, 30 years before he was ever a teenager, he’s stunned to enter an authentic ‘50s diner. In fact, he's so stunned that every method in which he tries to order a drink is met by a flummoxed and annoyed diner owner. “How about a Pepsi Free?,” he asks, not realizing until it’s too late that the Pepsi Free, better known as caffeine-free Pepsi, wasn’t introduced until the 1980s. “You want a Pepsi, kid, you gotta pay for it,” the diner owner snaps at him. Here, as in other cases, Marty takes too long to grasp that his new way of life is a lot different than it was in the ‘80s.

04. Reruns

For kids of the 2020s, some things just come naturally. They’re youth who expect everything to be streaming and can’t even imagine a world without all options on demand. These are kids who would have to be given a brief education on the very concept of Blockbuster Video. But for Marty, traveling back to 1955 meant that he realized too late that he took for granted some of the ways he consumed TV. In the 1980s, you could watch reruns of The Honeymooners any time you want, on one of multiple TVs in your house. In 1955, when he tells his mother’s family that he’s seen an episode of the Jackie Gleason sitcom before, they look baffled. “What’s a rerun?” It’s an awkward situation made doubly so when Marty inadvertently blurts out that his home has two TVs at a time when one TV was seen as a fancy luxury. At least Marty realizes that time he’s said too much.

05. “Johnny B. Goode”

There’s no moment that crystallizes the fish-out-of-water element of Back to the Future more than the musical climax, in which Marty is finally able to perform on stage at his high school...just in the past, by playing an R&B tune that hadn’t yet been created by the legendary Chuck Berry. The cultural appropriation inherent in the song has become more obvious and uncomfortable over time — we see Chuck’s cousin Marvin Berry call the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer to let him listen to Marty riffing, implying that this call will inspire Chuck to create “Johnny B. Goode” for real. In the moment, of course, the horror and confusion comes from the audience — as Marty’s performance devolves into an excessive guitar solo. He has to sheepishly apologize and explain that future generations are going to love the song, even if they don’t.

06. Meeting Darth Vader

When we first meet George McFly (Crispin Glover), he’s a hopeless nerd with a dead-end, white-collar job. Marty isn’t too proud of his old man, but when he encounters George as a teenager, he learns that his dad’s nerdery translates into writing science-fiction stories. As much of a nerd as George is, though, it’s a good thing that he’s a teenager in the 1950s and not the '80s. Why? When Marty has to go undercover, wearing the masked radiation suit he wore when driving the DeLorean to the past, he introduces himself to George as “Darth Vader, from the planet Vulcan.” We can wonder if Marty — who seems like a fairly cool kid — would know references to both Star Wars and Star Trek, but a 17-year old kid in 1955 sure wouldn’t. 

07. Things are getting heavy

Slang is one of those things that’s specific to certain eras. A few years ago, it might have been moderately cool for teenagers to talk about things being “on fleek.” Marty doesn’t just have to figure out his way around how kids in the 1950s talk — he has to deal with a younger version of his pal Doc Brown being utterly befuddled by ‘80s slang. Specifically, every time Marty deals with the latest development in his time traveling adventure, he says it’s heavy, which causes Doc to wonder if there’s an issue with the gravitational pull in the 1980s. Marty can’t really explain it to Doc — who can ever really clarify why slang becomes popular?

08. Unfashionable clothing

Marty is firmly out of place in 1955, from the way he talks to the references he uses, right down to the clothes he wears. Lots of the characters in Hill Valley circa 1955 comment on Marty’s '80s-appropriate wear, with Biff Tannen (Tom Wilson) and his goons particularly finding it to be a source of enjoyment. “Look at the life preserver! Dork thinks he’s gonna drown,” one of the bullies says while roughing Marty up. Marty’s puffed-up orange vest may look cool where he comes from, but everyone he meets in the 1950s looks at him like he’s nuts. (Doc Brown thinks he’s from the Coast Guard.) It’s one thing to have underwear with someone’s name printed on it — it’s another thing entirely when everyone mocks him for what he’s got on the outside.

09. Meeting Peabody and Sherman

You’re really going to have to be in the know about this one. If you recall, when Marty travels back in time, he’s starting in the parking lot of a fancy mall in 1985 and winds up in the middle of a large farm in 1955. That farm is owned by Old Man Peabody, a grumpy sort who doesn’t take well to seeing strange vehicles housing strange, alien-like characters crashing into his barn. Peabody’s son shows him the cover of the schlocky sci-fi magazine he’s reading as proof that the unexpected visitor is from outer space. You’d have to stick through the end credits to realize that this boy is named Sherman. Peabody and Sherman are better known as characters from the Rocky and Bullwinkle universe who… travel through time. It’s a fun little Easter egg for the sharp-eyed.

10. Who the hell is John F. Kennedy?

Marty isn’t exactly a budding historian. But the base-level information he has from his years of school has stuck in his brain, even in ways he’s not expecting. When the family of Lorraine Baines (who will eventually become his mother) takes him in after he gets into a car accident, they invite him to dinner.  But he’s still on the hunt for Doc Brown, and when they point him in the right direction, he realizes the doctor’s house is off of John F. Kennedy Drive. “...Who the hell is John F. Kennedy?,” Lorraine’s dad asks, perplexed. And that is, of course, because in 1955, JFK wasn’t more than a budding senator from Massachusetts instead of a world-renowned leader. It’s just one more way Marty realizes too late that he’s giving away his secret.

11. Run for mayor!

When Marty makes his way to the local diner, he sees a sight that makes him think of his home — a car slowly driving by and blaring campaign slogans for the current mayor, Red Thomas. He then watches a brief argument between the owner of the diner and the young man mopping the floor, Goldie Wilson. Marty then essentially blurts out Goldie's life goal: becoming the next mayor of Hill Valley. “Mayor! I could run for mayor!,” Goldie says, clearly inspired. Zemeckis and Gale don’t exactly have a high opinion of Hill Valley as we initially see it in the present day (which is a whole other can of worms), but when we see the young Goldie, his idealism is admirable. At least Marty was there to point him in the right direction.

12. Taking that kind of rejection

George McFly likes to write science-fiction stories as much as he enjoys reading and watching them. This takes his son Marty by surprise — the dad he knows may be a dweeb, but he doesn’t seem to have any interest in writing. While he’s also encouraging his dad to make a move or two on his mom (so that he can eventually be born, among other things), Marty’s just as adamant that his dad should pursue his passion of writing. George is, at first, the same nervous and shaky character, bleating that he couldn’t “take that kind of rejection” should anyone dislike his work. But the end of Back to the Future proves that Marty knew what he was doing (accidentally): The new and revitalized George McFly receives a shipment of his debut novel, on shelves across the country.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.