Cliché-Busters That Became Clichés

by Jaime Weinman

I mentioned this in passing the other day, and then saw someone else mention it (also in passing), so I figured I’d better turn it into a post. I’ve talked before about “clams,” or jokes that aren’t jokes — standard lines that are inserted into scripts in lieu of original jokes. You know the kind: “That went well,” “Who are you and what have you done with [name of character who's acting strangely].” But what I haven’t mentioned much is that at least some of these clams were developed as replacements for, or even subversions of, other clams. Then they became more hackneyed than the jokes they were intended to replace.

The ultimate example of this is a line you all have heard in at least one TV show, “he’s standing right behind me, isn’t he?” (Or “she.”) Through much of the ’90s and ’00s this may have been the single worst cliché in TV comedy writing, given that not only did writers use the same joke, but the literal exact same phrase. It was infuriating because you knew these were professional writers who could come up with a different way of saying it if they wanted to, but they didn’t want to. And the fact that it happened on good and bad shows alike — it’s been on Red Dwarf and Dr. Who and other shows that can’t be dismissed as hack work — was even more frustrating; you couldn’t escape it even on good shows.

But that line was actually a reaction against a comedy writing cliché. Sitcom episodes will often call for a scene where someone is talking smack about another character, not realizing that that character is in the room. Eventually, the audience learned to expect that whenever a character started criticizing someone who wasn’t there, the criticize-ee would pick that moment to enter and stand behind the criticize-er. So, at some point, writers started thinking it would be a fun twist to have the character realize — without turning around or hearing the other person speak — that “he’s standing right behind me.” It was different from the old punchlines (like having the person sarcastically comment on what’s just been said about him, or just saying “hello” and making the criticizer jump), and it had a slight hint of meta-humour in it because the character almost seemed to realize that this is destined to happen when he starts saying bad things about a co-star.

Then, of course, everybody used it so often that viewers started groaning when they heard it, and it fell into the category of easy jokes that aren’t really funny (and that can’t convey character because virtually every kind of TV character has said it at one time or another). So shows have recently started moving back toward older ways of handing the gag, like bringing back sarcastic comments or nervous gestures from the person being talked to. But some shows still do it, and I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of this one completely; like “I said good day!” it’s part of the Clam lexicon.

Are there any other jokes that started out as avoidance of cliché, and wound up becoming even bigger clichés than the ones they tried to supplant?




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Cliché-Busters That Became Clichés

  1. You know what's a weird example of "I said good day!"? There's an episode of The Big Bang Theory (which, of course, never met a cliche it didn't love) where Sheldon is nervous because he has to lie to Leonard in order to keep a secret for Penny (that she never went to community college), and Sheldon says "Good day!" to Leonard, and then again "I said good day!"

    As Sheldon walks away, Leonard gets that patented quizzical Galecki look on his face and asks "Good day?!" like it was the most surprising thing he's ever heard. But not only is it a very common TV gag, it's not at all out-of-character for Sheldon.

  2. Futurama had a nice variation on the gag:

    "… she's standing right behind me, right?" "No, I'm standing right in front of you." (camera reveals the character has been standing there in plain sight all along)

    Does "If we get out of this alive I'll kill you!" count? Although I don't exactly know what was used before it, that's another line that I've seen used in dozens of films and shows with virtually no variation on the punchline.

  3. I am a little late to the party here, but one I see all the time is where Character A badly needs a favor from Character B (often A is a teenager and B is a parent). Character A approaches B and starts laying on the charm and flattery. Get ready for a prolonged crafty dance of manipulation and persuasion, right? No, Character B *immediately* knows what’s up and says “What do you want?” At one time this might have been subverting a cliche, but now we all expect it.

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