They Speak Gilmore, Don't They?

Investigating the whiplash-inducing dialogue that has characterized Gilmore Girls, which returns this week.

November 21, 2016

Soraya Roberts is a writer in Toronto who has contributed to Harper's, Vanity Fair, The L.A. Review of Books and other publications. She is currently...

LORELAI: You know what I just realized? “Oy” is the funniest word in the entire world.
RORY: Hmm.
LORELEI: I mean, think about it, you never hear the word “oy” and not smile. Impossible. Funny, funny word.
EMILY: Oh, dear God.
LORELAI: “Poodle” is another funny word.
EMILY: Please drink your drink, Lorelai.
LORELEI: In fact, if you put “oy” and “poodle” together, in the same sentence, you’d have a great new catchphrase, you know? Like, “Oy with the poodles already.” So from now on, when the perfect circumstances arise, we will use our favorite new catchphrase…

Oy with the poodles already! This is how Gilmore Girls dialogue makes you feel: Exasperated, exhilarated, exhausted. I can’t think of anymore ex- words but throw some coffee on it and you get the picture. “Life’s short, talk fast” is the show’s tagline and it doesn’t give you much time to think but that’s kind of the point. Within the first few minutes of the series, the two main characters allude to Jack Kerouac, RuPaul, Macy Gray and West Side Story—and those are just the references I got. Gilmore Girls’ writing is notoriously dense, sometimes to the point of alienation; the shows’ characters talk incessantly, leaving everyone in their wake confounded by the sheer volume and speed and substance of their speech. “What banter does for me, it says there’s a rhythm between these people, that they know each other,” creator Amy Sherman-Palladino has said. “It’s a connection.”

And it’s not a connection that’s reserved just for mother-daughter best friends Lorelei and Rory Gilmore, but for everyone who watches them . Its cultural references and wordplay “allow Gilmore Girls to build a community with viewers who ‘get’ the references,” says linguist Monika Bednarek, who conducted a case study of the series in 2011 for the journal English Text Construction. “[Viewers] get pleasure out of figuring out the play or untangling the references.”

Gilmore Girls premiered on the WB on October 5, 2000, and Sherman-Palladino remained its most prolific writer (alongside husband Daniel Palladino) for the first six seasons in which, at its apex, the show attracted five million viewers a season. Then, after a dispute with the network—the Palladinos wanted more staff—its final season was left to languish under writer David S. Rosenthal.11Entertainment Weekly awarded every season an A grade except its last, which earned a C.

“[The dialogue is] one of the core things and that’s why it’s so weird when the Palladinos aren’t writing Gilmore Girls,” says Kevin T. Porter, co-host of the podcast Gilmore Guys, “because to me dialogue isn’t just like a flourish, it’s not like the cherry on top of the already delicious sundae, to me it’s like the foundation of what the show is.” Since its finale in 2007, the series’ eminently quotable intertextuality has lent itself to online fan culture, fueling memes and tweets and the other general short spurts of wit that proliferate online. In The New York Times Magazine last year, Haley Mlotek posited that the source of the show’s attraction is its genre, one she dubbed “emotional speculative fiction,” which “takes everything recognizable about life but adds the qualities that remain elusively out of reach in reality, like satisfying endings and triumphant character arcs, where loss is ultimately redemptive and learning experiences are peppered with witty repartee.”

So when it was announced the Gilmores would be returning, in four ninety-minute episodes themed around the seasons, we all started running around like headless poodles. Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life premieres November 25 on Netflix and, according to the trailer, it finds both heroines lost: Rory pulling an aimless On the Road thing, Lorelei her version of a mid-life crisis. In September, Entertainment Weekly released the first page of the new script, in which Rory stands in front of her mother, looking glorious, after, we are told, she has stepped off a plane that in her mom’s mind was flying bedlam. “You’ve been Goop’d,” Lorelei says. The au courant reference to Gwyneth Paltrow’s eponymous website, which launched a year after Gilmore Girls concluded, suggests Sherman-Palladino has picked up right where the show left off, fingers poised to tap out the final four words of the series, words she has known ever since 2006.


LORELAI: You’re getting the eggroll yourself?
RORY: Yes.
LORELAI: No! Ladies never get their own eggrolls. Ladies never get their own anything. They don’t even get their own ideas.
RORY: Oh boy.
LORELAI: They just sit helplessly and wait for some young strong man to come by and assist them. They don’t step in puddles, they don’t step over puddles. They can’t even look at puddles. They actually need to be blindfolded and thrown in a sack and carried over puddles.
RORY: Isn’t there a moratorium on how long ladies are supposed to talk?
LORELAI: Uhh, no. Now repeat after me, I am completely helpless.

“I often think of Gilmore Girls that the special effect is how fast they’re talking,” says Porter. And he’s not wrong. The dialogue is so speedy it wraps up the average one minute of screen time in twenty-five seconds. In the beginning, writers would hand in the typical fifty-five-page hour-long WB script, but Sherman-Palladino found the pacing off. “To me comedy that goes slow is not comedy,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “It is not funny, there’s no energy, there is no life.” In the end, for each episode they would shoot approximately seventy-eight pages over eight days with a walk-and-talk style to keep the dialogue uninterruptedly swift. “We have the same number of [production] days,” she told Daily Variety, “but about 15,000 more words to say.”

The Gilmore Girls weren’t the first motor mouths in television, however—according to the Wall Street Journal, that trophy goes to the show about nothing. In 1989, Larry David’s NBC sitcom Seinfeld introduced shorter scenes and snappy conversations, which were then adopted and ramped up by series such as The West Wing and ER (the latter reportedly worked off scripts that ran around seventy pages). As for the content of all this talk, “literate speak” dates back even earlier to the ’70s and comedies such as All in the Family, M*A*S*H and Taxi. Forced to compete for audiences with a growing number of cable options, wrote Justin Owen Rawlins in Screwball Television: Critical Perspectives on Gilmore Girls, “television companies began to produce a greater number of programs that self-consciously engaged traditional conventions and chose to blend, subvert, or reject them in favor of creating a new kind of cultural production renowned for its quality.”

While complex literary slanguage emerged with cop drama Hill Street Blues in 1981, reference-heavy chatter dropped in 1995 with teen TV network The WB. “The WB recognized the 1990s teen audience’s heightened media and cultural literacy; theirs was a pop-culture awareness built upon an obsession with popular entertainment in its myriad forms,” wrote Valerie Wee in Teen Television: Essays on Programming Fandom. “As a result, many of the WB shows consistently utilized intertextual pop-culture references in an attempt to harness this target audience’s interests.” Despite Dawson’s Creek, The O.C., and Veronica Mars also rattling off pop, as Brinkema explained, “it is the opacity of the totality of allusions in Gilmore Girls that makes it such a unique linguistic case.” In other words, this show’s language is designed to connect its characters first, before even connecting them with us.


RORY: Rory. Me. That’s—that’s me.
DEAN: Rory.
RORY: Well, Lorelai technically.
DEAN: Lorelai. I like that.
RORY: It’s my mother’s name too. She named me after herself. She was lying in the hospital thinking about how men name boys after themselves all the time, you know, so why couldn’t women. She says her feminism just kind of took over. Though personally I think a lot of Demerol also went into that decision.

As a child growing up in Los Angeles, Amy Sherman-Palladino felt that she had no voice—despite having a comic for a dad—until she heard “The 2000 Year Old Man,” a 1961 comedy skit in which Mel Brooks plays the oldest man in the world. “It wasn’t just the words. It was the way he said everything,” she told Vulture. “And then it dawned on me. That was Jewish. That’s how it’s supposed to sound. And feel. It’s fast and furious and human and exhausted and hilarious.” Brooks had been one of the many Jewish comedians—along with big names such as Don Rickles, Lenny Bruce and Joan Rivers—who had entertained New York Jews in the Borscht Belt around the ’60s with a style that was as self-flagellating as it was fast and furious. Brooks once explained that he honed this skill as a child when he had nothing to offer the other kids but his humour. “I became their jester. Also, they were afraid of my tongue. I had it sharpened and I’d stick it in their eye,” he told Playboy. “Words were my equalizer.”

Adopting a New York accent like Brooks, Sherman-Palladino found her “inner Jew.” She now had a voice and, like Brooks, she used it as an equalizer. In her case, however, it appears to make up for a lack of higher education. The showrunner has said that one of her “great regrets” is not going to college (it was not stressed in her showbiz family). “I’ve always felt that college is a wonderful privilege,” she told The New York Times in 2005. “To have four years where your only responsibility is to learn things! I’d give anything.” Instead, Gilmore Girls presents what she has learned beyond the classroom. “The outside world is characterized by a convergence of class, education, and cultural capital that stratifies society,” wrote Rawlins in Screwball Television, “yet Stars Hollow, the fictional Connecticut town where the show is set, provides a utopian sphere where everyone engages in the ceaseless flow of knowledge and exchange of culture, regardless of their socioeconomic status or educational capital.”

Sherman-Palladino’s alter ego, Lorelei Gilmore (Lauren Graham), started out at the top of the socioeconomic hierarchy—both her parents come from money and her father is an insurance company exec—with copious educational capital, but at sixteen she got pregnant and moved out against her parents’ wishes. As a single mother rearing her daughter, Rory, Lorelei spends more than a decade working her way up from maid to manager at the Independence Inn. She lives for her daughter, dates men but doesn’t need them, and is demonstrative but non-confrontational. Porter notes that Lorelai talks “around issues,” as opposed to her mother, Emily (Kelly Bishop), who is crisply direct. “Just by listening to Lorelai’s vocal patterns, it says volumes about this woman: First of all, that she’s bright enough to put that many words together that quickly,” Sherman-Palladino told the Los Angeles Times “and it says a lot about her emotionally, that she’s got a deflection shield that’s sort of the way she gets through the world, which says survivor.”

At the beginning of the series, we watch Rory (Alexis Bledel) acquire class clout as her mother invites her parents back into their lives in order to help pay for Rory’s private school, which will land the studious teen on the Ivy League track Lorelei rejected. Rory is a big reader who prizes education over her social life. She doesn’t need boys—neither Dean nor Jess nor anyone else—to define her, either. And despite their opposing trajectories, she and her mother are united by knowledge. Their equalizer is culture, literature, history, politics—nothing is too high- or too low-brow, not even food, which, for them, is mostly junk.

The one arena in which equality is not prized is gender—women clearly dominate Stars Hollow. Sherman-Palladino was inspired not only by the Borscht Belt but the brisk nimble banter of Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy screwballs in which censorship-approved verbal tension supplanted sex. Women were the alphas in these comedies, and this is doubly true of Gilmore Girls, in which the heroines prioritize work over romance and wit is no longer just for flirting. “The refusal to re-inscribe wit as a weapon between (male-female) figures is met with the insistence that it is indeed the pleasure among (female-female) figures,” wrote Eugenie Brinkema in “A Mother Is a Form of Time: Gilmore Girls and the Elasticity of In-Finitude.” Women reigned on set as well. Sherman-Palladino, who reveres Dorothy Parker’s debauched lifestyle (her production company is called Dorothy Parker Drank Here), hired mainly female writers (92 out of 172) and a number of female directors (67 out of 154 episodes were directed by women). In fact, Luke (Scott Patterson), owner of the local diner and purveyor of Lorelei’s daily coffee fix, was originally supposed to be a woman, until Sherman-Palladino received a note requesting “some more testosterone.”


EMILY: I want to talk about Rory's dance. It's just killing me that she's not going.
LORELAI: Uh-huh.
EMILY: It may seem frivolous and silly to her now but believe me, these are the kind of experiences you regret missing later.
EMILY: And regret can make you bitter. Do you want Rory to be bitter?
LORELAI: Well, sort of.
EMILY: Lorelai.
LORELAI: What, Mom? She can make some cash off of it. Become a crazy Oscar Levant kind of celebrity, go on talk shows, heckle Regis.
EMILY: I wish you would take this seriously.

Though Sherman-Palladino’s references can skew obscure, it wasn’t until the ninth episode that the WB complained —they didn’t know who Oscar Levant was. “Well, tough. He was in An American in Paris, rent a tape,” she told them and, according to her, their response was, “Let the crazy woman dig her own grave.” Since then she has referenced everyone from Milan Kundera to The Go Go’s, using culture like the third-wave feminists, as a form of empowerment. “While we don’t preach to them,” she has said, “I’ve always felt like if I could get one kid to buy an XTC album over a Britney Spears album, we’ve done our job.”

And with her job prematurely cut short, ten years later she is finally able to complete Gilmore Girls the way she wants to. “There’s a real dot dot dot at the series finale because Amy didn’t get to end it,” says Porter, not only referring to the final four words Sherman-Palladino claims she has known for a decade. “The fact that [the episodes are] going to be like ninety minutes long as opposed to forty-two-minute episodes, it’s going to get to breathe,” he says. “We’ve never seen Gilmore Girls without network restrictions and act breaks, and they can use whatever language they want to, if they want to.” And in case you’re trying to guess what those final four words might be, “Oy, with the poodles already” is one word too long.

Soraya Roberts is a writer in Toronto who has contributed to Harper's, Vanity Fair, The L.A. Review of Books and other publications. She is currently working on a memoir as well as a book about My So-Called Life (ECW, 2016).