And I enjoyed learning about it, however belatedly.
I had never heard of it, possibly because I never watched a minute of something called “St. Elsewhere” back in the ’80s. Nor do I feel compelled to go find it and binge it, as interesting as the hypothesis is. After all, the hypothesis itself tells me the show and its fictional universe are ephemeral things, with which I need not concern myself.
But I do read Alexandra Petri’s humor columns, which I’ve mentioned before. And Alexandra taught me about Tommy Westphall. And she did it in a cool, offhand sort of way. Did she say, “Brad, I’m about to tell you about something interesting, something everyone else already knows, something you will be grateful to have learned.” She did not. She wrote a fun column about the stunning lack of originality of our film and television industries, as evidenced by some of the silly “prequel” shows that keep coming out.
The column was headlined “Our new fantasy show is definitely a prequel to something you love.” And as I say, it was fun. But then, she slipped in the reference. It was just a passing reference, in the course of mocking the prequel madness:
Could we theoretically just make a totally original show and then zoom in on a little grain of sand and watch it get heated and cooled and become glass and zoom out and reveal that, yes, this was the origin story of the iconic “Friends” apartment window? You know, that’s a possibility. Lots of things are possible; most TV takes place inside Tommy Westphall’s snow globe…
Which makes no sense unless you know about Tommy Westphall. And, of course, his snow globe. So I started looking into it. And it was very cool. I learned that Tommy was the young autistic son of one of the lead characters on the show, a physician named Donald Westphall.
The reference is to the end of the last episode of the series. Wikipedia describes it this way:
Tommy Westphall enters the office and runs to the window, where he looks at the snow falling outside St. Eligius. An exterior camera shot of the hospital cuts to Tommy Westphall sitting in the living room of an apartment building alongside his grandfather, now being portrayed by Norman Lloyd (aka “Daniel Auschlander”). Tommy’s father, still being portrayed by Ed Flanders (aka “Donald Westphall”) arrives at the apartment wearing a hard hat. …
Wearing a hard hat, you see. So suddenly, he’s not a doctor. And he starts talking, and says to the grandfather, “I don’t understand this autism thing, Pop. Here’s my son, I talk to him, I don’t even know if he can hear me. He sits there, all day long, in his own world, staring at that toy. What’s he thinking about?” Then, Wikipedia continues:
Tommy, who is shaking a snow globe, is told by his father to come and wash his hands. As they leave the living room, Tommy’s father places the snow globe upon a television set. The camera slowly zooms in on the snow globe, which is revealed to contain a replica of St. Eligius hospital inside of it.
The foremost interpretation of this scene is that the entire series of events in St. Elsewhere were dreamt by Tommy Westphall, and thus, products of his imagination…
So… kind of a cool, creative ending to a TV show, and one that ticked off a lot of fans. Because it told them, Ya know this was all made up, right? But that’s just the beginning of what it means.
As another website explains:
St. Elsewhere didn’t exist in a bubble. Like most shows, there is some degree of crossover between it and various series. Some of these series ran along side of it, some of them ended before it even began, but most simply call back to it, well after St. Elsewhere comes to an end.
Here is where the Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis really kicks in. The concept is simple: if St. Elsewhere is all in the mind of Tommy, then every show connected to it could also be just in his mind. So, taking that into consideration, what all has Tommy dreamed up?
How many such shows are there? Yet another site counts 441. How does that work? Well, think about the overlap between, say, “Cheers” and “Frasier.” Or The “Andy Griffith Show” and “Gomer Pyle, USMC.” And while I never saw the show, I read that “The doctors had visited the bar on Cheers in one St. Elsewhere episode.” And we’re off…
A huge portion of the connection is between fictional characters who appear in multiple shows — as did storekeeper Sam Drucker in “Petticoat Junction,” “Green Acres” and “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Which I noticed at the time and thought was interesting at the time, but people didn’t go around blogging about such silly things back then, because there were no blogs. And no social media.
A lot of that Sam Drucker stuff goes on. Richard Belzer has portrayed cop John Munch on 11 different series — one of them being “Homicide: Life on the Street,” which included some characters from “St. Elsewhere.” So he’s sort of a superspreader of this snow globe virus. So are the guys who played Cliff Clavin and Norm Peterson on “Cheers.” John Ratzenberger and George Wendt appeared as those characters on seven series each, one being, of course, “St. Elsewhere.”
So among the shows that exist only in Tommy’s imagination are “Breaking Bad,” “The Office” (both versions), “Supernatural,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Firefly,” the old ‘60s “Batman,” and about 400 or so more. Including, maybe, this.
You’re probably scoffing at me right now, because I suspect everyone on the planet except me knew all about this. In fact, there seems to be a bit of an industry in other series paying homages to Tommy’s snow globe. I’m sure I saw some of those, and didn’t get them until now.
I may be late to the game, but I’m digging it….
Richard Belzer as John Munch.