Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s question is from reader Ian Federgreen: Charlie’s illiteracy on It’s Always Sunny. Dean Pelton’s insane crush on Jeff in Community. These things make me laugh every time they pop up. What are your favorite running gags?
I’m a firm believer that a show should reward its longtime viewers. Thus, I’m a huge fan of The Colbert Report, which is almost just one big in-joke at this point. While the show is full of all sorts of running gags (Esteban Colberto, pronouncing everything that ends in an “-rt” with a soft “r,” the idea that Stephen can’t “see race,” and so on), my favorite one is Colbert’s frequent penchant for making interview subjects choose between whether some hated subject or topic is just “great” or “the greatest.” For instance, was George W. Bush a great president, or was he the greatest president? It reminds me of something my friend Scott would do in college when he’d ask me to choose if I either loved or hated something. Did I love the book I was reading or did I hate it? Did I love my car or did I hate it? It’s an interesting way to get rid of gray areas, and one that really shines a light on just how little gray Colbert’s character sees in the world at large.
There’s probably no modern comedy more reliant on running gags than Arrested Development, to the point where its initial cancellation—while tragic—makes a certain degree of sense. Imagine a virgin viewer trying to leap into the series during, say, the middle of its second season. Half of the jokes would fly over their heads. Hell, even waiting a week between new episodes wasn’t conducive to getting on the show’s wavelength, unless viewers happened to possess photographic recall. (Arrested Development is very much the sitcom of the DVD era.) Picking a favorite among AD’s cornucopia of running gags is almost as hard as deciding on a favorite episode or character. Is it Oscar’s cryptic references to Buster’s true parentage, invariably accompanied by that afterschool special tinkle of music? The family’s unusual impersonations of a chicken? “Annyong”? For me, the cream of the crop is probably Michael’s inability to mask his intense dislike of his son’s girlfriend, Ann—a problem that manifests through cruel nicknames, neglect for her well-being, and the perfectly dismissive way that he asks “Her?” The Michael/George Michael relationship is arguably the heart of the show, and this inspired, reoccurring bit is a reminder that—as good as his intentions may be—Michael’s failures as a father are as Ann as the nose on Plain’s face.
Arrested Development’s gags are the literal and absolute best (personal favorite: the musical cue whenever Oscar intimates that he is Buster’s father), but Alex already took that. So I’ll go with another recurring joy: Tina Belcher’s obsession with butts. It’s kind of weird, but mostly just amazing. And Tina’s love of butts is incredibly equal-opportunity—she welcomes zombie butts, touching butts, horse butts, dentist butts, baseball butts, beach butts, and, obviously, Jimmy Jr.’s butt. Bob’s Burgers wouldn’t be the same without it.
I started my first post-college office job less than a year after the theatrical release of Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan, so I witnessed firsthand the slow and painful death of that film’s catchphrases. Hearing that every workplace victory is “Very nice!” or deserving of a “High five!” has a strange effect on a person’s sense of humor, but that only partially explains the giddy kick I receive from the Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast’s appropriation of another piece of Borat dialogue: “My wife!” Scott Aukerman and friends have turned a simple scrap of biographical information into the show’s most potent running anti-joke, restoring humor to the catchphrase by pretending like it never fell out of the lexicon. As heard in the 7-minute “My wife!” super cut assembled by some insane SoundCloud user, four years of Comedy Bang! Bang! have tortured the joke beyond recognition (Internet Borat is my favorite variation: “My wi-fi!”), but that’s only made it funnier to me. Many is the time I’ve been performing some silent task while listening to the show, only to disrupt that silence by cackling at a joke that now belongs more to Comedy Bang! Bang! than it does to Sacha Baron Cohen. If you don’t believe me, just ask my wife.
I wasn’t much of a fan of Golden Girls while it was originally on the air, but in spite of the show’s many faults, I’ve found myself warming to it quite a bit lately. That has almost everything to do with Betty White’s character, Rose Nylund—and specifically her fictional, Scandinavian-rooted hometown of St. Olaf. The sleepy Minnesota village is mentioned in almost every episode of Golden Girls, usually in the form of some absurd, surrealist anecdote that Rose recounts about her life in St. Olaf, where the local hospital is haunted by the ghost of a man who was mistakenly euthanized thanks to an evil ventriloquist and the town’s bitter dentist-slash-librarian only allows people to check books out for one hour. The entire running gag borders on homespun magic realism—like A Prairie Home Companion as ghostwritten by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Rose’s St. Olaf stories even come with their pidgin North Germanic dialect that only adds to the eye-rolling exasperation the rest of the Golden Girls feel when having to sit through yet another of her meandering, outrageous yarns. Little do they realize that Rose might not just be a native of St. Olaf; she might be a visitor from another plane of reality entirely.
First off, let’s not call the Dean’s crush on Jeff Winger “insane,” because come on. That is one tall drink of beautiful snark. To answer the question, though, no running gag list would be complete without mentioning Archer, the current reigning champion of callbacks. Just about every character has an in-joke that recurs throughout the series, and so many of them are aces (yes, “aces”—let me have this, no one on that show knows what year it is, anyway). Malory has her Rolodex of silver foxes over enemy lines and preoccupation with ants. Cyril greets most people with a sheepish “Hello!” and says goodbye with an accidental spray of bullets. Cheryl gets turned on by disturbing violence and believes everything happens “just like the gypsy woman said.” Pam has her feral approach to bear claws (“BEAR CLAW!”), and Krieger his unspeakable experiments that probably involve a whole lot of murder. Ray can’t stop getting paralyzed, intern Brett will never stop bleeding out, and Archer is physically incapable of letting a “Danger Zone!” reference slide. And everyone gets caught in the innuendos of their own “phrasing.” All of these make me laugh, but the one that makes me howl is the sporadic appearance of Cheryl’s piss-reeking ocelot, Babou. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t help but feel Archer’s pure joy whenever that fox-eared asshole shows up.
Friends immediately pops into my mind for this question because after 10 years of hanging out with these people (and near constant repeat viewings), these running gags began to feel more like inside jokes for me than other shows with similar jokes. There are a million to reference but there is only one that has bled into my everyday life: the secret fuck off. It began in the season four, episode five (“The One With Joey’s New Girlfriend”), when Monica explains that Ross used the gesture of banging the outer portion of his fists together twice to flip Monica off so their parents wouldn’t notice (“It’s a way of giving the finger without actually giving it”). It’s best accomplished while accompanied by a self-satisfied facial expression. My favorite instance? During “The One With The Embryos” when the two opposing teams use it as part of their trash-talking. I do this with my actual friends far too regularly. Bonus: Phoebe’s alias Regina Phalange, which sends me into a fit of giggles every time I hear it.
The cult comedy show Snuff Box has a number of running sketches, but none tickle me so much as the “boyfriend” series. Explaining the joke basically ruins it, but the premise involves Matt Berry (Douglas Reynholm in The IT Crowd and owner of one of the most operatic voices in existence) helping a young woman with an errand in the hopes of getting to know her a little bit better. Using all his dashing charm and wit, Berry seems to be making progress—until the woman mentions having a significant other. Without so much as a double take, Berry drops whatever he’s carrying, shouts “Fuck you!” to his intended conquest, and storms off. It’s unbelievably stupid, but gets funnier every time I watch it.
My top three would all come from Arrested Development, but in the interest of branching out, I love Happy Endings’ literal running gag. I believe it starts in the season two cold open when Jane starts gagging from an allergic reaction to shellfish and then Brad starts gagging just because she did, and then Max can’t help himself either. For the rest of the series, any time someone in the cast gags, the others start gagging too. So it’s a running gag running gag, which is exactly the kind of wordplay the Happy Endings characters would appreciate if they weren’t doubled over, heaving air.
I hated to go with the first one that came to mind—the blanket in the oven on The Middle—because I know the only reason I thought of it is because I review the show every week. So I pondered on it for a bit and came up with a better one, if only because it’s one that took me years to even notice: Les Nessman’s constantly rotating Band-Aid on WKRP In Cincinnati. I no longer remember when I first realized that Les was wearing a Band-Aid in every episode, and that it moved from episode to episode, but it’s just one of many reasons why I still love that series (and why I’m beside myself with joy that Shout! Factory is finally working on releasing a complete-series set with as much music as it can afford to clear). Per an interview with Richard Sanders, who played Les, the Band-Aid thing came about because he cut his head on a lighting fixture backstage as they were about to film the WKRP pilot, but he refused to be taken to the hospital. So their only real option was to put a bandage over the wound, which—in a scene ultimately left on the cutting-room floor—was explained as having happened as a result of Les falling down on the way to work. From everything I’ve read, it seems like Sanders was the one who had the idea of Les’ constant clumsiness resulting in rotating Band-Aid locations, so kudos to him. It’s a tiny thing, and it’s almost never referenced in the episodes, but it’s given me something to look for every time and get a quick giggle when I find it. (You can spot it pretty easily in the below clip, though: It’s right on his wrist.)
I can’t claim this is the cleverest or most sophisticated running gag out there, but it’s certainly the one that most instantly made the jump from TV to people I know: How I Met Your Mother’s “salute” gag. On the show, any combination of words that sounds like the name of someone in the military—“That was a major disaster,” “I’ve got some private concerns,” “I’m looking for general agreement,” etc.—makes Ted and Robin smirk and toss off a unison salute to Major Disaster or whomever. The episode that introduced the gag underlined that it’s hacky, one of those stupid things couples do that gets on their friends’ nerves. And the show repeated the joke until it really was annoying. But once it was in the lexicon, it became something that could be quietly pulled out at odd moments to remind viewers that Ted and Robin were once a couple, and they still have a similar sense of humor—their closeness didn’t end with their relationship. It’s a nice shorthand for that sense of having a past together—and a nice shorthand for the general way even stupid jokes can live on among people who know each other well. It’s also simple enough to be dumbly catchy. General Way? [Salutes.]
Running gags are a building block for Parks And Recreation, which relies heavily on callbacks to render Pawnee, Indiana as a surreal “real America” clinging to arcane superstitions and woefully lagging behind the times culturally. There are plenty of examples of running Parks gags meant to demonstrate Pawnee’s general ass-backwardness—the offensive City Hall murals and Li’l Sebastian mania immediately come to mind—but there’s one joke in particular that has popped up less frequently, and slays me every time. That’s Pawnee’s inexplicable reliance on AltaVista, the early search engine that’s a good two decades past its saturation point, suggesting a town so neophobic its residents just never cottoned to that newfangled Google thing everyone’s talking about. The joke first popped up in “Media Blitz,” which revealed Ben Wyatt’s inauspicious beginnings as a teen mayor and gave the character his first real bout of Pawnee bafflement. “Why does everyone in this town use AltaVista? Is it 1997?” he asks. But I have to say, judging by how quickly Ben’s past was uncovered, the AltaVista of Parks returns thorough, reliable information.
One of Cheers’ signature lines was “Norm!,” the joyful shout that greeted everyone’s favorite barfly upon his entry to the bar. But the show’s best running gag was what usually followed—a quick bit of banter between Norm and whichever bartender was on duty. “How’s life treating you, Norm?” “Like it caught me in bed with its wife.” “What’re you up to, Norm?” “My ideal weight, if I were eleven feet tall.” Eventually, in one of the later seasons, Woody calls Norm on the phone. “How’s it going, Mr. Peterson?” He waits a beat, shakes his head, and laughs. “How does he come up with them?” Clearly, that was a setup the writers were never able to find a punchline for, and that phone call was them finally admitting defeat. Sometimes even the best running gags eventually run out of material. (Also, that hilarious running gag on 24 where they set up a perimeter to catch a villain, and he escapes immediately, every single time? Classic.)
I think my favorite running gags are the ones I take up with my friends afterward, to the irritation of anyone who comes within earshot of us. To that end, I’ll go with the “Chief? McCloud!” runner from Mystery Science Theater 3000. So far as I know, the gag only appears in one episode—season three’s “Pod People”—and it’s a simple one: Any time anyone goes wandering around shouting out someone’s name (which happens a lot in this movie), Joel and the bots start calling out different names in response, always ending on “Chief?” “McCloud!” It’s a reference to a Dennis Weaver cop show from ’70s, but the context—like with many of MST3K’s most memorable jokes (“I thought I was Dale!”)—doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the call and response happens so many times over the course of the episode that it quickly goes from obscure bit to running gag to something like an existential Pavlovian response. And a decade and a half after first seeing the episode, I still go into the routine whenever anyone in a movie or show starts shouting for someone.
Leaving aside the first season when he was something of a crafty conniver, Blackadder’s imbecilic, scabrous servant Baldrick made a centuries-spanning habit of trying to solve his disdainful master’s perpetual problems with the far-too-optimistic announcement “I have a cunning plan…” It’s the utter sincerity of Tony Robinson’s delivery that does it. Regardless of how badly Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder treats him, Baldrick genuinely wants to help and beamingly thinks his schemes are cunning, even though they’re significantly less well thought out than he imagines. (Dressing up a mad, wild killer bull as a chicken in order to fix a cockfight comes to mind.) When Blackadder invariably deflates said plan with precise, Atkinson disdain, Baldrick’s disappointment is always touchingly genuine—no more so than in the devastating season four finale when, their WWI squad about to make a suicidal charge against the entrenched German position, Baldrick hesitantly gives his signature preamble again. Blackadder, knowing that all their machinations are finally futile against the insanity of the war, plays along one last time, asking if Baldrick’s cunning plan is “as cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed professor of Cunning at Oxford University?” before conceding that their combative gamesmanship is finally, irrevocably over.
I have a soft spot in my heart for odd-couple friendships, and few are better than the begrudging bromance between Legolas and Gimli in The Lord Of The Rings. J.R.R Tolkien created the dynamic in his novels, but I’m more familiar with the chemistry between John Rhys-Davies and Orlando Bloom in Peter Jackson’s films. During the Battle Of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers, Legolas and Gimli strike up an orc-killing competition. Their friendly rivalry adds some much needed comic relief as they shout their scores back and forth during the siege. When the duo appears in The Return Of The King they are still keeping track of kills. Admittedly the gag is slightly corny: After Legolas manages to take down a giant Oliphant and its riders, Gimli gruffly proclaims, “That still only counts as one!” Still, the running competition is a nice way to track an antagonistic distrust that blooms into a loving friendship (and probably a romantic pairing in plenty of fan fiction).
Like Dennis, I’ll look across the pond for my answer. The ’80s Britcom Yes Minister (and its sequel series, Yes, Prime Minister) isn’t just one of the best political satires in television history, it’s also a solid contender for the most absurdly language-driven show ever. Words are the chief weapons in the ongoing war of wills between a pair of ridiculously over-educated civil servants and the distinctly non-over-educated politician Jim Hacker, who continually makes their lives difficult by wanting to get things done. A pair of language-based running gags stand out: The more well-meaning junior civil servant Bernard Woolley has a pedantic insistence on correcting any faulty metaphors and mixed metaphors he may come across, while the more devious senior man Sir Humphrey Appleby gets my pick for his insanely long-winded, intentionally baffling monologues, full of unnecessarily flowery verbiage and deliberately obfuscatory digressions. These speeches were a running gag of the series from the very beginning, and became one of its signature bits—so much so that actor Nigel Hawthorne had to go on anxiety medication to deal with the stress of learning the damn things. What made them even funnier over time was the changing nature of the reaction from Paul Eddington’s Hacker, as his initial confusion gave way to nonplussed amusement at having to listen to one of these things again. To get a sense of what we’re dealing with, here’s Sir Humphrey taking 30 seconds to tell Hacker that he lied, and here’s a rather more frantic explanation of the bonkers thinking behind mutually assured destruction.