Have you ever heard of a TV show with so many pop culture references that you needed a guide to keep track? The 2000s comedy and drama, Gilmore Girls, is that TV show. People have created websites such as the Gilmore Girls Reference Guide and Gilmore Girls Reference Blog to document and explain the thousands of pop culture references made across its 7 seasons.
When I first started watching Gilmore Girls, it was before Netflix, so I used DVD box sets. In each season’s box, there was a booklet called “Gilmore-isms” that lists every single reference made in each episode. From a young age, most of these references went over my head, so I would check the booklet when I didn’t understand a joke made in the show. Now that I, and so many others, have seen the show multiple times, I realize that I’ve learned a lot about history, pop culture, and trends that I probably would have never learned without the quick wit of the Gilmores.
While the show is great for its plot, character development, and small town culture, the creative screenwriting has always been my favorite part. The massive amounts of “coffee bowls” consumed on set certainly indicate why this show is so fast-paced and full of humorous remarks. Without further ado, you should check out these 10 Gilmore Girls episodes for pop culture references. Some are obscure and others are hilarious, but they have my stamp of approval, so you’ll have a blast rewatching.
Warning: There are spoilers ahead if you’ve never seen the show before. This list of episodes appears in chronological order.
This first episode I’ve chosen for pop culture references is from Season 1 and it’s only the fourth episode in the entire show. This means that creator and writer, Amy Sherman-Palladino, is still solidifying the status of the Gilmores as total audiophiles. As a result, there are many, many references made to music in this episode.
First off, Lorelai and the harpist at the inn, Drella, get into a short tiff about the music in the lobby. Lorelai wants to keep the Independence Inn a classy place, so she tells the harpist, “No Black Sabbath, no Steely Dan, no Boston, and no Queen.” Drella then says “Pat Benatar?” Just in those 30 seconds alone, they mention 5 iconic rock groups. They talk at a fast pace and move on so quickly that you really have to pay attention to catch each band name. Also, once you’ve seen the show before, you realize how funny this exchange really is because Lorelai loves rock music, but tries to keep that part of her separate from work.
Then, Lorelai takes a trip to visit Rory’s new private school, Chilton. When she arrives, the air is full of snobbery. This is ironic because she’s wearing a B-52s t-shirt under a blazer. It is clear that any time the Gilmores go anywhere, they’re playing energetic music and clashing with the proper, Hartford parents.
Not only does their music taste become apparent in season one, but Rory’s education brings up many literature references. Her school is in the midst of preparing students for the SATs and English AP test, so Rory’s teacher quotes from Marlowe, Bacon, and Emily Dickinson. While this might seem normal for high-schoolers, Paris quickly distinguishes Chilton’s standards by reciting Shakespeare’s entire “Sonnet 116” from memory to intimidate Rory.
Last, but not least, my favorite reference in this episode is when Lorelai yells at the Headmaster of Chilton and calls him “Il Duce!” This is the nickname given to Benito Mussolini who led the National Fascist Party, so you can see how big of an insult that is.
Next from Season 1, we have Episode 14, which is centered around an old TV show called The Donna Reed Show. Rory and her boyfriend, Dean, get into an argument about Donna Reed because he likes the concept of a woman making dinner for her husband. However, when they watched the show with Lorelai the previous evening, it was clear that the Gilmore women absolutely hated that concept and couldn’t stop mocking it.
In a true Gilmore attempt to make up, Rory dresses up as Donna Reed and plans a night in for her and Dean, recreating the TV show. She visits Lane’s music collection to get the right background music for her role playing dinner. Alphabetized and organized according to genre, Lane shows Rory quite literally every piece of music she owns including: “Punk, new wave, rock, Bon Jovi, Duran Duran, Foo Fighters, Siouxsie and the Banshees reunion tour.”
In another TV moment come to life, Lorelai comes home to find Rory’s test animal for school, a mouse named Stella, missing in their house. Instantly, she cries “STELLA!” at the top of her lungs, which is a popular reference to the play, A Streetcar Named Desire.
3. Sadie, Sadie . . .
Moving onto Season 2, the first episode shows Lorelai debating on whether or not to accept Max’s marriage proposal. Rory is nagging her about it, which leads Lorelai to compare her to Edith from All in the Family who would talk a lot and nag her husband. This is extra funny because the actress who plays Babette in Gilmore Girls also plays Gloria in All in the Family. There’s something self-aware about this reference that makes it stand out among the others.
Next up, we have a reference that also lends itself to the title of the episode. “Sadie, Sadie” is a song that Barbara Streisand sings in Funny Girl when she gets engaged and looks forward to marrying Nicky Arnstein. Sookie starts singing this to Lorelai when she hears that her best friend said yes to Max.
With Lorelai’s wedding coming up, Max gets her an engagement ring and Lorelai says it’s so beautiful that they probably had to pry it off of “Zelda Fitzgerald’s cold dead hand.” Zelda is not the most famous socialite today, so this is definitely more of an obscure reference. She was actually a wealthy novelist and painter that married F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1920.
Some other celebrities referenced in this episode are Cher, Greg Allman, Joan and Melissa Rivers, and J Edgar Hoover. Each of these famous names are brought up as humorous comparisons to characters in the show. If you don’t catch the similarities right away, you might want to pause the show and look it up to fully get the joke.
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Another one of the top Gilmore Girls episodes for pop culture references is from Season 2 when Rory and Lorelai visit Harvard University for the first time. As Lorelai decides to end her engagement, they take to the road in spontaneous Gilmore fashion. This means leaving behind their car tunes, which sparks a scene of banter between her and Rory in the car. They express how much they love ACDC and hate Hootie and the Blowfish. Among their trash talk of bed & breakfasts, Rory shouts “Bella bambina at 2 o’clock,” which is a quote from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, a lesser known Nicolas Cage movie.
Once they arrive at the bed & breakfast called “The Cheshire Cat,” even more references are thrown around. The B&B is named after an Alice in Wonderland character, which scares Lorelai. The vibe is traditional, cutesy, and even a little tacky. Clearly it is not their taste, so Lorelai insults the room saying there are too many flowers, even for Liberace, who she references as a gay icon. She doesn’t stop there either. She tells Rory that arguing in the room would be like playing “Gypsys, Tramps, and Thieves” by Cher, which is “too David Lynch.” Lynch is a filmmaker known for Blue Velvet, a creepy and mysterious movie from the 80s. Are you lost yet? Same here.
After Lorelai and Rory take their long-awaited back packing trip to Europe, the start of season 4 recounts their travels. Lorelai kissed the Pope, but really his car, and stalked Bono in Ireland. This calls upon a recurring theme in the show in which Lorelai is obsessed with U2. They also mention visiting Jim Morrison’s grave who was the lead singer of The Doors and is buried in Paris.
In Stars Hollow, things are business as usual. Sookie is pregnant, Taylor opened up an old fashioned soda shop, and Rory is due to start Yale any day now. Before Rory goes off to college, the mom and daughter duo plan to watch Godfather I, II, and III “with extra showings of the Sofia death scene.” However, they also have to factor in the infamous Friday night dinners with Lorelai’s parents. In typical Emily Gilmore fashion, she wants to keep Rory there as long as possible in revolt of Lorelai skipping dinner. As a result, Rory calls Lorelai and tells her she is taken hostage like the Iran hostage crisis and Jimmy Carter must rescue her. If you feel bad because you missed this joke, you shouldn’t. Lorelai herself doesn’t get the reference until later on and bursts into laughter once she does.
Sticking to Season 4 for a minute, “The Fundamental Things Apply” is another necessary rewatch for the pop culture references. Lorelai gets going on her plans to open an inn with Sookie in Stars Hollow while Rory is trying to navigate the dating scene at Yale.
Lorelai looks to Luke for comfort and company more than ever. She notices that he’s been in a bad mood at the diner lately, so this, of course, elicits several references. My favorite is the scene in which Lorelai references several famous dog movies and TV shows and plays off of the word “bark”:
Lorelai: You’ve been stomping around, barking at people for days.
Luke: I have not.
Lorelai: Yes, Cujo, you have.
Luke: I always talk to people like that.
Lorelai: No, Benji, you don’t.
Luke: I’ll be fine tomorrow.
Lorelai: Really, Lassie? Why is that?
This exchange is so brief and hilarious because she doesn’t ever let Luke’s grumpy behavior go. She piles it on by comparing him to Mel from the TV series, Alice. Both are grumpy, single diner owners who just can’t seem to be pleasant to customers. As true fans know, Luke clearly has a soft side to him, so this is why she pokes so much fun at his behavior.
To cheer him up, Lorelai invites him over for a movie night. However, she is shocked and outraged that Luke has not seen any classic movies. She asks him if he’s seen Bonnie & Clyde, His Girl Friday, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Diner and continues to rattle off movie titles to which he responds “no.” He’s “monk, uber monk,” and Lorelai plans to change that. They hang out and watch Casablanca together at her house that night.
In order to get to the last three and arguably best Gilmore Girls episodes for pop culture references, we have to skip to Season 6. Episode 5 takes place during that weird, interlude period of the show where Lorelai and Rory are not speaking because Rory dropped out of Yale. She plans a fundraising event for Emily’s Daughters of the American Revolution organization. It might be better to call it an immersive experience as Rory looks to history to raise money for the troops. The theme is USO (United Service Organization), which was founded in 1941, so the whole party centers around that era. She hires a band to recreate the Andrews Sisters music and everyone is dressed in period clothing.
During the event, Rory has an assistant as well as Paris helping her out. Her assistant, Lacy, is referred to as Rory’s “gal friday,” which as we know from their movie obsession, is a reference to the 1940s movie, His Girl Friday. Paris doesn’t have much experience as a server, so that makes her presence at the event quite funny. She tells Rory that she wants to excel and fit in with “working folk,” so she watched Working Girl to pick up on some lingo. This is obviously a wisecrack from Paris because its dramatic and from the wrong era.
In Season 6, we’re in the Logan seasons of the show, which means he is actually contributing a lot of pop culture references in addition to Rory. When she throws him a going away party for his move to London, she once again goes all out to throw her friends into an immersive experience. She talks in an English accent referencing Gwenyth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love and Austin Powers. Logan quips back with the lyrics to “Chim Chim Cher-ee” from Mary Poppins. While they are verbally sparring, you almost forget they are even at a party.
In another scene, Lorelai arrives at the usual Friday night dinner with her parents, but this time Christopher, Rory’s father, also attends. Emily tries to set him up with someone she knows from Hartford, making Christopher extremely uncomfortable and he asks Lorelai for help. In order to distract from the match making, she talks about random things and asks their guest many, many questions because she is a therapist. As any true Sopranos fan would know, you can always make a reference to the show when talking about therapy and this happens several times throughout the course of Gilmore Girls. In this particular scene, Lorelai mentions missing “Adriana” who is one of the characters that gets whacked after betraying the mob.
Lastly, in the background, several intriguing references to music are made. The “town troubadour” of Stars Hollow gets discovered by an agent and is asked to play on Neil Young’s tour. Other troubadours flock to Stars Hollow in the hopes of finding success in music, but Taylor and Kirk try to kick them out. Clearly, not everyone knows as much about music as the Gilmores because Kirk says that Neil Young is a band member of the Monkees. I can’t imagine what Lorelai would have said if she heard that incorrect factoid.
Last, but certainly not least, Season 7 brings us to the hospital after Richard Gilmore has a heart attack. There are many sad and scary moments in this episode as Richard’s health hangs in the balance. However, the family tries to band together to help him feel better. Richard himself makes a joke when he wakes up that he would “rather be in Philadelphia” than in the hospital, which explains the name of the episode. This is a reference to Ronald Reagan quoting W.C. Fields after an assassination attempt. Not only that, but it’s also a play on an old vaudeville joke that comedians would rather be dead than play in Philadelphia.
Rory heads back to Richard’s home to pick up many of his favorite things in the hopes that it will comfort him. When she and Logan arrive, she mentions all of his favorite musical artists including Bobby Short, Scott Joplin, George Gershwin, Chuck Berry, and Schubert. None will cheer him up, though, like “When You and I Were Young, Maggie Blues” can, which is a song by Bing Crosby and Gary Crosby that made Richard wish he was a crooner. This trip back to Hartford taught me a lot about music all the way from the classical genre to blues and ragtime.
As they all learn Richard will likely be okay, more jokes and lighthearted moments happen among the family in the hospital. Babette even calls Lorelai and compares Richard to “sexy, strong men” like Warren Beatty, Sean Connery, and Henry Kissinger. Once again, an action-packed episode is made even more attention-grabbing with many pop culture references to unpack.
When I look back at these 10 Gilmore Girls episodes, it makes me realize how much I learned about pop culture by watching this show. It’s where my obsession began and grew. Everyone in the show, whether it be Lorelai, Rory, Luke, Emily, Richard, Logan, or Babette, has a similar knowledge and interest in pop culture that keeps the dialogue quick, funny, and always interesting. The Gilmores have a wide variety of interests that span from music and movies to history and literature.
The show and its references can truly appeal to anyone because they never stay in one era or on one topic. Based on this list, which is a small portion of the show, we see topics brought up from the 1920s all the way to the time when the show aired in the 2000s. You’ll laugh and enjoy the banter in the show while learning a ton. You won’t even realize until you hear one of their one-liners in a movie or famous song and remember it also coming from the mouth of the Gilmore girls.