[Note: this is a guest post (the second post of two) by José Roberto Villaseñor, who has been a Gallery Interpreter for several years in both NHMLA and the La Brea Tar Pits. His job is to interact and educate museum guests in both informal and formal capacities. A year ago, he gave a lecture on the human history of Rancho La Brea to the interpretation staff and volunteers. This sparked the idea of creating another lecture focused on the pop culture depictions of the Tar Pits.]
As I mentioned in my last blog post, I set out to look at the pop culture depictions of the La Brea Tar Pits and how they impact the way that public understands what happened/happens here!
The first thing to note is that there isn’t just one way in which La Brea Tar Pits are depicted. Films like The Boys Next Door, Encino Man, and My Girl 2 show the Tar Pits as a tourist destination famous because of its Ice Age fossils. However, Encino Man also very inaccurately shows many Ice Age human remains at the Tar Pits. Many other movies and TV shows just use the Tar Pits as an easy backdrop for identifying Los Angeles. This happened in the shows Dragnet, NCIS: Los Angeles and BoJack Horsemen and in films like Busting and Seven Psycopaths where they don’t mention the Tar Pits too much or at all. I figure that the La Brea Tar Pits appears in pop culture so much because it’s close to Hollywood and it’s an easy place to film a backdrop. If the La Brea Tar Pits were located in Kansas it might not feature so much in pop culture.
Things start to get darker when movies like Bad Influence and The Two Jakes and detective shows Bosch and Scorpion show the Tar Pits as a mysterious and dangerous place. Many of the depictions involve stories dealing with murder and crime, inspired by mystery and detective novels set in 1940s Los Angeles during the Noir period. I think the reason the La Brea Tar Pits gets associated with mystery and danger stems from the fact that most people only know a little about this place. They know that animals died here and might not understand why or how, so it’s easy to think of this place a dangerous scary place.
The next depictions take a more light hearted and comedic slapstick turn. Shows like Laverne and Shirley, The Simpsons, SpongeBob SquarePants and Futurama and movies like 1941 and The Last Action Hero show people getting stuck in the Tar Pits which leads to comical situations. These depictions demonstrate something that a lot people come here thinking – that animals (or people) just disappeared quickly into a tar pit as if it was quicksand. This misrepresentation has a strong impact on people’s minds.
Another very common misconception among visitors is that Tar Pits were prevalent all throughout the prehistoric past where animals were in constant peril. Shows like The Flintstones, and films Caveman, The Land Before Time and Ice Age all show tar pits as hazardous for prehistoric animals. The depictions also make it seem as if there is a very clear distinction between firm land and a tar pit, implying that falling into a tar pit is something that could be avoided were it not for these animals or cavemen being so dumb. Probably one of the biggest misconceptions is that dinosaurs were victims of the Tar Pits and this depiction in films is probably the main reason why so many visitors ask us about dinosaur fossils at Rancho La Brea.
The last category is the most outlandish: the tar pits are often shown as a disaster zone! We see this in probably one of the most famous cameos for the Tar Pits, the film Volcano, which show a volcano erupting from underneath the famous Lake Pit. This is not the only film that depicts an unbelievable scenario: in Birdemic 2: The Resurrection, a strange polluted rain reanimates the dead birds in the Lake Pit (as well as two cavemen). Finally, the film Lavantula shows numerous lava tarantulas emerging from the Lake Pit to later go on to destroy the museum and cause chaos in the rest of Los Angeles. Sure, the area around the Tar Pits is very geologically active…but these stories are really out there. While I don’t imagine many people will believe that long dead birds can be reanimated or that lava tarantulas come from the Lake Pit, the volcano idea has had some staying power. Even though the movie Volcano came out over 20 years ago many visitors continue to mention this movie and some even ask if it has any truth to it.
Pop culture showed us that there are multiple stories being told about the La Brea Tar Pits. They all have some kernel of truth to them but are exaggerated for either dramatic or comedic effect. If a visitor comes in thinking that there dinosaurs here and that they sank immediately and leave thinking the same thing, then we didn’t do our job effectively. Our important job as museum educators is to help the visitors know La Brea Story and leave this place with a better understanding of the La Brea Tar Pits, the Pleistocene (Ice Age), and the work of Paleontology.
So… take a look at the list below with all the references that I found. Have I missed any references to the Tar Pits in pop culture? If so, point them out in the comments below!!
 Only one set of human remains has been found at the Tar Pits, that of a woman who lived in the area roughly 10,000 years before present.
 Instead, it’s likely that animals that become stuck in the Tar Pits die a slow death from starvation or attack by other animals.
 There often isn’t a clear border between a tar pit and firm land, and often the surface of a tar pit is disguised by fallen leaf litter or vegetation growing around the pit.
 Dinosaurs (except for birds!) went extinct 65 million years before the Tar Pits even formed
TV & FILM
- My Bunny Lies Over the Sea, 1948, Chuck Jones, dir.
- Zorro, 1957, “Garcia’s Secret Mission” Season 1, Episode 10. Norman Foster, dir., Guy Williams, Henry Calvin and Britt Lomond. Monastario and Sgt. Garcia (Henry Calvin) come up with a secret plan they are sure will catch Zorro.
- The Flintstones, 1960, “The Monster from the Tar Pits” Season 1, Episode 6. William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, dirs., Alan Reed, Jean Vander Pyl and Mel Blanc. A Hollyrock film company goes on location in Bedrock to film its new feature “The Monster from the Tar Pits,” and gullible Fred is enlisted as stand-in for star Gary Granite. However, Fred’s real problems begin when Wilma and Betty audition for roles in the film and end up going crazy upon meeting movie stars Rock Pile and Wednesday Tuesday.
- Lassie, 1965, “Pitfall” Season 12, Episode 14. Christian Nyby, dir., Robert Bray, Whit Bissell and Charles Seel. In Los Angeles, a lonely pigeon knows he’s found a friend in Lassie—but she may inadvertently lead him into danger when he follows her from the Los Angeles County Museum to the La Brea Tar Pits, where he meets up with a comely female pigeon.
- Dragnet, 1967, “The Bank Jobs” Season 2, Episode 4. Jack Webb dir. Jack Webb, Harry Morgan and Kipp Hamilton. A bank robber forces women to help him while he holds bank employees at gunpoint.
- Busting, 1974, Peter, Hyams dir. Elliott Gould and Robert Blake. This film is interesting because the museum has not been built yet. While the film was not a popular success it was the main inspiration for the television show Starsky & Hutch, launched in 1975.
- Land of the Lost, 1975, “Tar Pit” Season 2, Episode 1. Gordon Wiles dir. Spencer Milligan, Wesley Eure and Kathy Coleman. Beloved pseudo-pet Dopey, a brontosaur, becomes trapped in a tar pit, sinking ever lower, and the stranded Marshalls must find a way to save him.
- 1941, 1979, Steven Spielberg, dir., John Belushi, Nancy Allen and Tim Matheson. (~0:59 min)
- Forbidden Zone, 1980, Richard Elfman, director. This is the Black and White clip that features the song ‘Pico and Sepulveda.’
- Caveman, 1981, Carl Gottlieb, dir. Ringo Starr, Dennis Quaid and Shelly Long. (~0:49 min)
- Laverne and Shirley, 1982, “Love Is the Tar Pits” Season 7, Episode 11. Tom Trbovich dir. Penny Marshall, Cindy Williams, Michael Mc Kean and David L. Lander. Lenny meets a girl at the tar pits and Squiggy begins to feel left out.
- The Boys Next Door, 1985, Penelope Spheeris dir. Charlie Sheen and Maxwell Caulfield.
- The A-Team, 1986, “The Say U.N.C.L.E. Affair” Season 5, Episode 6. Michael O’Herlihy, dir. George Peppard, Dirk Benedict, Dwight Schultz and Mr. T.
- The Land Before Time, 1988, Don Bluth, dir. Gabriel Damon, Candace Hutson, Judith Barsi, and Will Ryan.
- Denver, The Last Dinosaur, 1988, “Pilot” Season 1, Episode 1. Tom Burton dir. Frank Anderson, Adam Clark and Adam Carl. A group of children, Wally, Jeremy, Shades, and Mario, visit the La Brea Tar Pits and discover an egg which hatches to reveal a friendly dinosaur, which they name ‘Denver’.
- Miracle Mile, 1989, Steve DeJarnatt, dir. Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham. This is the longest clip, about 6 minutes and features the entire opening credits which were shot at the museum.
- Bad Influence, 1990, Curtis Hanson, dir., Rob Lowe and James Spader.
- The Two Jakes, 1990, Jack Nicholson, dir., Jack Nicholson and Tracey Walter. Neo-noir mystery film and the sequel to the 1974 film It has an anachronistic Observation Pit, film is set in 1948 while the Observation Pit was built in 1952.
- The Simpsons, 1992, “Black Widower,” Season 3, Episode 21. David Silverman, dir. Voiced by Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright and Yeardley Smith.
- Encino Man, 1992, Les Mayfield, dir. Brendon Frasier, Pauly Shore and Sean Astin.
- The Last Action Hero, 1993, John McTiernan, dir., Arnold Schwarzenegger and Austin O’Brien.
- My Girl 2, 1994, Howard Zieff, dir., Anna Chlumsky and Austin O’Brien. It has an anachronistic scene since the movie is set in 1974 before the museum and observation deck was even built but clearly scene.
- The Simpsons, 1994, “Bart Gets an Elephant,” Season 5, Episode 17. Jim Reardon, dir. Voiced by Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright and Yeardley Smith.
- Dinosaurs, 1994, “Into the Woods,” Season 5, Episode 6. Brian Henson, dir., Stuart Pankin, Jason Willinger and Kevin Jeffrey Clash. Baby Sinclair is taken into the forest for the dinosaurs’ traditional Wilderness Rite of Passage, which teaches the value of the But when Earl, Robbie, and Roy get stuck in a tar pit, their only hope for survival is Baby.
- The Land Before Time III: The Time of the Great Giving, 1995, Roy Allen Smith, dir. Scott McAfee, Candace Hutson, Heather Hogan, Rob Paulsen, John Igle.
- Eye for an Eye, 1996, John Schlesinger, dir. Sally Field, Kiefer Sutherland, Ed Harris, and as Joe Mantegna.
- Volcano, 1997, Mick Jackson, dir. Tommy Lee Jones, Anne Heche, and Don Cheadle.
- Futurama, 2001, “That’s Lobstertainment!” Season 3, Episode 8. Bret Haaland dir. Billy West and Katey Sagal.
- The Simpsons, 2002, “I AM Furious (Yellow),” Season 13, Episode 18. Chuck Sheetz, dir. Voiced by Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright and Yeardley Smith.
- Ice Age, 2002, Chris Wedge, dir. Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, and Denis Leary.
- Sin City, 2005, Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez, dirs. Clive Owen.
- The Closer, 2006, “Serving the King (Part 2)” Season 2, Episode 15. Kevin Bacon, dir. Kyra Sedgwick, J.K. Simmons and Corey Reynolds.
- The Hammer, 2007, Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, dir. Adam Carolla, and Heather Juergensen.
- SpongeBob SquarePants, 2008, “Ditchin” Season 6, Episode 14. Tom Yasumi, dir. Tom Kenny, Bill Fagerbakke and Rodger Bumpass.
- Land of the Lost, 2009, Brad Silberling, dir. Will Ferrell, Danny McBride and Anna Friel.
- The Big Bang Theory, 2009, “The Corn-husker Vortex” Season 3, Episode 6. Mark Cendrowski, dir. Johnny Galecki, Jim Parsons, Kaley Cuoco, Simon Helberg and Kunal Nayyar.
- NCIS: Los Angeles, 2010, “Borderline” Season 2, Episode 3. Terrence O’Hara, dir. Chris O’Donnell and LL Cool J.
- 90210, 2012, “Tis Pity” Season 4, Episode 22. Harry Sinclair, dir. Shenae Grimes and Robert Hoffman.
- Seven Psycopaths, 2012, Martin McDonagh dir. Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson and Christopher Walken.
- Birdemic 2: The Resurrection, 2013, James Nguyen dir. Thomas Favaloro, Chelsea Turnbo, Alan Bagh, and Whitney Moore.
- The Croods, 2013, Kristine Belson and Belson, dirs. Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone and Ryan Reynolds.
- BoJack Horsemen, 2014, “The Telescope” Season 1, Episode 8. Amy Winfrey, dir. Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Will Arnett, Amy Sedaris, Alison Brie.
- Transformers: Rescue Bots, 2014, “Land Before Prime” Season 3, Episode 1. Nicole Dubuc, dir. Peter Cullen.
- The Simpsons, 2014, “Super Franchise Me,” Season 26, Episode 3. Mark Kirland, dir. Voiced by Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright and Yeardley Smith.
- Bosch, 2015, “Blue Religion” Season 1, Episode 3. Kevin Dowling dir. Titus B. Welliver and Adam Rosenberg.
- Bosch, 2015, “Us and Them” Season 1, Episode 10. Thomas Carter dir. Titus B. Welliver and Adam Rosenberg.
- Lavantula, 2015, Mike Mendez, dir. Steve Guttenberg, Nia Peeples, Patrick Renna, Michael Winslow, and Marion Ramsey.
- Scorpion, 2016, “This is the Pits” Season 3, Episode 10. Sam Hill, dir. Elyes Gabel, Katharine McPhee, Eddie Kaye Thomas and Robert Patrick. Scorpion must act quickly with LAFD Fire and Rescue after a woman runs off the road to avoid a cyclist and gets trapped in her car at the bottom of the La Brea Tar Pits.
- Tar, 2018, Aaron Wolf dir. Timothy Bottoms, Graham Greene, and Aaron Wolf.
- Fair Game, 1993. R. M. Krich. Los Angeles: The Mysterious Press.
- Sleeping Bones, 1999. Katherine V. Forrest. Midway, FL: Spinster Ink.
- City of Bones, 2009. Michael Connelly. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.
- Petroplague, 2011. Amy Rogers. Los Angeles: Authorhouse.
- The Tar Pit, 2017. Wolf DeVoon. com.
- Turok Son of Stone, in mortal combat with the earth itself (1957)
- Daredevil Vol 1 #66 (1970)
- Giant-Size Werewolf Vol 1 #4 (1975)
- Tragg and the Sky Gods: Trapped in a Tar Pit, Tragg Faces Sabre-Fang… the Man-Beast! (1975)
- Captain America Vol 2 #9 (1997)
- Civil War: Young Avengers and Runaways Vol 1 #1 (2006)
- Civil War: Young Avengers and Runaways Vol 1 #2 (2006)
- Civil War: Young Avengers and Runaways Vol 1 #3 (2006)
- Runaways Vol 2 #1 (2005)
- Runaways Vol 2 #2 (2005)
- Runaways Vol 2 #4 (2005)
- Runaways Vol 2 #5 (2005)
- Runaways Vol 2 #9 (2006)
- Runaways Vol 2 #13 (2006)
- Runaways Vol 2 #14 (2006)
- Runaways Vol 2 #15 (2006)
- Runaways Vol 2 #16 (2006)
- Runaways Vol 2 #17 (2006)
- Runaways Vol 2 #19 (2006)
- Runaways Vol 2 #21 (2006)
- Runaways Vol 2 #22 (2007)
- Runaways Vol 2 #23 (2007)
- Runaways Vol 2 #24 (2007)
- Runaways Saga Vol 1 #1 (2007)
- What If? Fallen Son Vol 1 1 (2008-2009)
- What If? House of M Vol 1 #1 (2008-2009)
- What If? Secret Wars Vol 1 #1 (2008-2009)
- What If? Spider-Man Back in Black Vol 1 #1 (2008-2009)
- What If? Newer Fantastic Four Vol 1 #1 (2008-2009)
- Ms. Marvel Vol 2 #42 (2009)
- Uncanny X-Men: The Heroic Age #1 (2010)
- Vision Vol 2 #9 (2016)
- A. Noire, 2011, Team Bondi, Brendan McNamara dir. Chee Kin Chan and Ben Brudenell.
- The Simpsons: Tapped Out, 2012, EA Mobile, Fox Digital Entertainment and Gracie Films.
- Pokémon Go, 2016, Niantic and Dennis Hwang.