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In the dark days of television, when Disney ruled the airwaves, the flashback episode was created when Fonzie refused to act due to a hangover (people speculate that it was after a night of huffing kittens). Instead of fighting with him, the producers recycled what little footage they had, along with clips from previous episodes to create the first flashback episode. Ever since that first flashback, these episodes have been annoying viewers for many years.
What are they?
Flashback episodes are usually comprised of 43% new footage, 56% old footage in the form of flashbacks, and 1% stock footage. They caught on through the 1970’s, and ever since then all American TV shows have a "Flashback" episode.
The second flashback episode was an episode of "Diff'rent Strokes" in 1953, where Willis remembered all the times he was asked what he was talking about. Only to realize that he was remembering the future, since the show didn't actually start for another thirty odd years.
The ALTERNATE Theory about flashback episodes
Below is an alternate theory to the one above. We are required to present this alternate viewpoint.
Flashback episodes were created in the early 1950's, shortly after the Cuban missile crisis, after a famous Government Information Advert telling people what to do in case of a nuclear attack. The advice being "Bear your backside for America and moon the missiles away!"
When Cuba actually launched a missile at Arkansas - 500 Rednecks bore their rear ends and sent the missile plummeting into Japan, covering the country in radioactive ash, thus ending the Second World War. Ever since then all American TV shows have a "Flashback" episode as a tribute to the great plan that saved the world from the cranky Japanese.