Catchphrases Rarely Last Long, Or, Did They Do That?

The end of the regular season means the beginning of “summer filler specials” season, and NBC kicks it off tomorrow with a special devoted to “TV’s 50 greatest catchphrases.” (Suit up, sit on it, dy-no-mite, whatchoo talkin’ ’bout, would you believe, I’m Larry, is that your final answer, yada yada yada — that last one is not an actual catchphrase).


05/26/2009 (08:00PM – 10:00PM) (Tuesday) : NBC AND THE PALEY CENTER COUNT DOWN TV’S 50 FUNNIEST CATCH PHRASES — Get ready to laugh your way down memory lane with an array of amazing stars both past and present. Jeremy Piven, Dana Carvey, Neil Patrick Harris, Jean Stapleton, Ron Howard, Andy Griffith, Jackie Gleason, Regis Philbin, Bob Newhart, Penny Marshall, Polly Holliday and Redd Foxx are among some of the legendary stars being featured when NBC and The Paley Center for Media counts down 50 of the all-time funniest catch phrases said on television in a two-hour special. With great scenes from the shows and interviews with the stars who brought the lines to life, this program will celebrate the history and humor of catch phrases.

I talked in an earlier post about how many shows have replaced series-long catchphrases with single-episode catchphrases, which are easier to come up with and easier to treat in a semi-ironic way. Also, even when shows have actual multi-episode catchphrases, they tend to abandon them or at least use them in a self-referential or even self-mocking way. You’ll notice that on How I Met Your Mother, Barney hardly ever says “suit up!” after the first season, and when he does, it’s usually part of a joke about the fact that he uses annoying catchphrases. “Sit On It” was only heard for about two years; even “Would you believe” mostly stopped being a full-on comedy routine and just became a quick throwaway joke. Shows that hang onto a catchphrase and use it, unchanged, in every episode are often left looking kind of desperate.

In TV (or radio, or short film series) a catchphrase is perhaps the ultimate example of how a lot of comedy comes from familiarity rather than wit. People laugh when they hear a catchphrase not because they’re surprised by it, but because they’re not: they’ve heard it before and they’re laughing because they’re happy to hear it again. (“What’s up, doc?” was very funny the first time Bugs Bunny ever said it, because audiences thought it was hilarious that a rabbit would use a colloquial Texas phrase to the hunter who’s trying to kill him. After that, except for occasional variations, it’s not really funny, it’s just something we expect to hear him say.) But that means that after a certain point, the catchphrase is almost unnecessary. We associate a character with a phrase, we know what the phrase says about his character, and it’s done it’s job of making us feel safe and comfortable while watching the show. If the show then goes a long time without actually using the catchphrase, the audience may not even notice, because we already associate the show in our minds with that phrase.

Then there’s the unintentional catchphrase, something that’s not really intended as a catchphrase but nonetheless becomes one because the writers keep repeating it. Star Trek was like that. I don’t think “I’m a doctor, not a…” was ever really meant as a catchphrase; they certainly didn’t try to act like it was; but because there were several episodes where McCoy said it, or something similar, it is one of the most famous catchphrases in television history.

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