The 245-Year-Old Joke Hidden In What We Do In The Shadows Season 2

In the third episode of "What We Do in the Shadows" season 2, entitled "Brain Scramblies" (April 22, 2020), the show's vampire characters Nandor (Kayvan Novak), Nadja (Natasia Dimitriou), and Laszlo (Matt Berry) have been invited to what they assume is a Superb Owl party. Being ancient vampires with no knowledge of modern-day human foibles, they aren't savvy enough to understand that it will be a Super Bowl party. 

They arrive at the home of their neighbor, Sean (Anthony Atamanuik), and only then does Sean realize that he never sees Nandor, Nadja, and Laszlo during the daytime, so he jokingly says they must be vampires. Fearing that their (barely-disguised) vampirism has actually been discovered by their neighbor, Nandor and Laszlo decide to hypnotize him and erase his memories. When Sean is showing off his room of "Ocean's Twelve" memorabilia, they strike.

One of the central jokes of the episode is that the vampires accidentally go too far, and "double hypnotize" him, erasing all his memories of everything. Later in the episode, Sean begins to burble, inflicted with what the vampires call "brain scramblies." As the vampires debate whether or not to put him out of his misery, Sean asks, "No soap? Radio?" 

This may seem like an innocuous piece of gibberish or a mere absurd joke, and it plays perfectly well as a mere piece of silliness from a brain-scramblied human. Those in the know, however, might recognize the phrase "No soap radio" as an old Hollywood in-joke — one stretching back to the 1950s — commonly used by comedians and actors as a prank. Like "The Aristocrats," it's something only insiders typically knew about.

No soap radio

References to the earliest uses of "no soap radio" can be found in the 2012 psychological journal "Social Psychology: Revisiting the Classic Studies" written by Joanne R. Smith and S. Alexander Haslam. Why did it appear in a psychological journal? It seems the authors found the "no soap radio" gag as a perfect way to document social pressures and group mentality. The joke, you see, was wielded as an obscure reference to, as it so happens, nothing at all. 

The way the phrase was used went like this: An actor or a performer, long established in their troupe, would welcome a new initiate into their social circle. While conversing, the established performer would chat with a colleague within earshot of the new initiate, intentionally dropping in "No soap! Radio!," a deliberately meaningless phrase, as the punchline of a joke. The entire room was trained to erupt in laughter at the "reference."  Everyone would then turn to the new initiate to see if they "got" the fake joke. If the initiate giggled, the room knew they had tricked them into pretending the phrase had meaning. If they didn't, sometimes the established performer would force the issue, i.e. "Don't you get it? No soap! Radio!" Sometimes the initiate would be hounded until they admitted that they understood, even though they didn't/couldn't. The pressure felt by the "mark" was an ideal way to study the physiological pressure to conform.

Why the phrase "no soap radio" was selected is unknown, although some scholars have traced the origin of "no soap" as an absurdist joke punchline all the way back to the 1770s.

The Great Panjandrun Himself

It seems "no soap" was used by writer Samuel Foote in the nonsense poem "The Great Panjandrum Himself," published in 1775. The original usage was as follows: "So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage leaf to make an apple pie; and at the same time a great she-bear, coming up the street, pops its head into the shop. 'What! No soap?' So he died, and she very imprudently married the barber."

The story goes that Foote wrote "The Great Panjandrum Himself" as a difficult memory exercise. Foote's friend, the famed 18th-century actor Charles Macklin, noted at the time for playing Shylock in William Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice," claimed that he could memorize any piece of written dialogue instantly, no matter how strange or difficult. Wanting to test this boast, Foote penned "Panjandrum" deliberately to bamboozle him. Whether or not Macklin was successful at memorizing Foote's kooky little poem remains lost to history. Since then, the word Panjandrum has made its way into the English lexicon, meaning someone who claims to have a lot of authority, but actually doesn't. (The name was also eventually given to a bizarre rocket-powered sled used in World War II.)

The fact that "no soap radio" finds its origins in memorization speaks to how cannily the writers of "What We Do in the Shadows" wielded the phrase. They weren't just making a winking reference to an old showbiz prank — a fun piece of trivia in itself — but hauling an old English poem out of mothballs to comment on the fact that the speaker had no memory. That the prank implied a false sense of authority, too, points to Panjandrum himself. 

Ironically, in its very construction, "no soap" was intended to give everyone the brain scramblies.