The legacy of Albert Einstein cannot be overstated — even when we take the scientist’s accomplishments for granted, he’s one of our planet’s most famous pop culture figures, recognizable across generations. The way he’s been depicted on screen has ranged from well-researched takes on the man’s life, such as Nat Geo Channel’s new anthology series “Genius,” premiering today, to, shall we say, somewhat more out-there fare.
Below are some of the most notable examples we found featuring the great scientist depicted in a less-than-serious state. What’s interesting about looking at all of these examples together is how on the one hand, Einstein as an icon has been utilized for the sake of comedy for decades now. But when film or TV choose to engage with the reality of the man himself, the results often reflect a certain lightness as well.
“Another Period” (2016)
Season 2, Episode 7: “Harvard”
Natasha Leggero and Riki Lindhome’s ribald period comedy is set in the year 1902, when the new moneyed families of Newport, Rhode Island were the Kardashians of their day. In reality, Einstein was still working at the Swiss Patent Office in the year 1902, but if you’re coming to Comedy Central in search of historical accuracy, you’re missing the point. In “Harvard,” Beatrice (Lindhome) proves to be a idiot savant at high-level physics, something that has a very young Einstein (played by Matt Gourley) hoping to woo her away to Zurich. Alas, it doesn’t work out.
Streaming on CC.com.
“DC’s Legends of Tomorrow” (2016)
Season 2, Episode 1: “Out of Time”
The CW’s goofy blend of time travel and superheroes launched its second season with some new series regulars and a trip back to 1942 New York to meet Einstein (played by veteran actor John Rubinstein, just recently seen on “Feud: Bette and Joan” playing George Cukor). “Legends of Tomorrow” amps up the scientist’s more piggish qualities, while also supposing that Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Marić, had a massive impact on Einstein’s work. As always with this series, “Out of Time” doesn’t take itself too seriously, even as it shows what happens when Dr. Stein (Victor Garber) gets a chance to meet his scientific hero. Spoiler alert: Never meet your heroes, if you want to avoid punching them.
Streaming on Netflix.
“Einstein and Eddington” (2008)
Come for Andy Serkis’s high-energy take on the famous scientist, stay for the intriguing story of how politics, science and war combined to nearly prevent the discovery of relativity during World War I. It’s technically a drama, and it’s David Tennant, as British scientist Arthur Eddington, who gives the film its beating heart. But Serkis emphasizes Einstein’s wit and humor with his performance.
Streaming on HBO Go/HBO NOW.
Einstein (Walter Matthau) plays matchmaker for his scientist niece Meg Ryan and car mechanic Tim Robbins in this charming and low-key romantic comedy from 1994. Not much for historical accuracy, but it does feature Stephen Fry in a supporting role, which is never a bad thing. “I.Q.” is perhaps most notable for the way it straddles the line between Einstein as a man versus Einstein as an icon, delighting in showcasing his on-the-record goofy side while revealing the man’s romantic side.
Streaming on Hulu and Amazon Prime.
“Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” (2009)
The “Night at the Museum” films did not lack for crazy famous folk portraying great men and women of the past, but while Eugene Levy wasn’t the best known of this particular cast, he’ll always be a favorite of ours for his voice-acting work as the Einstein bobbleheads.
Not currently streaming.
“Rick and Morty” (2015)
Season 2, Episode 1, “A Rickle in Time”
While Albert Einstein’s only appearance of record on the absolutely bonkers Adult Swim series is in the post-credits sequence for this episode, it’s part of a gag in which the scientist is confused for the titular Rick, which is hardly a coincidence. Throughout pop culture, there are countless examples of fictional scientists who might not be known as Einstein, but are definitely meant to invoke memories of the inventor of relativity. Doc Brown from “Back to the Future,” Dr. Know from “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” and Rick Sanchez all emulate Einstein at least physically — though Rick is the most extreme (and intoxicated) play on those sorts of egghead scientist tropes.
Streaming on Hulu and Adult Swim.com.
“Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1991/1993)
Season 4, Episode 19, “The Nth Degree”
Season 6, Episode 1, “Descent, Part 1”
Irish actor Jim Norton (not to be confused with the comedian of the same name) played Einstein in two different episodes, both appearances via the magic of the Holodeck. Einstein first served as a sounding board for Lieutenant Barclay in “The Nth Degree,” Season 4, Episode 19 — he then later found himself playing poker with Lieutenant Data, Sir Isaac Newton, and Stephen Hawking (who appeared in the episode as himself). In both cases, the Einstein scenes offered levity as well as enlightenment for the characters involved.
Streaming on Hulu, Netflix and CBS All Access.
“W/ Bob & David” (2015)
One of the sketches in Bob Odenkirk and David Cross’s fun “Mr. Show” don’t-call-it-a-reunion-except-it-totally-was for Netflix addresses the creation of one of Einstein’s best-known legacies as a pop culture figure: That famous poster. It’s a short sketch, framed as a fake film trailer, but Cross as Einstein works pretty damn well.
Streaming on Netflix.
“Young Einstein” (1988)
And finally — you can’t make an Einstein list without mentioning Yahoo Serious’s seminal comedy about the scientist, which takes some… liberties with his life story. (No, kids, Albert Einstein was not born in Tasmania.) It is definitely worth revisiting the trailer, at the very least. This movie really got made.
Not currently streaming (more’s the pity).