Happy as a Clam

DMc has a poll up on what’s the worst “clam” (a non-joke that’s put into scripts as filler when the writers can’t think of an actual joke). “Did I Say That Out Loud?” is currently beating “I have a bad feeling about this”; I voted for DISTOL? and am strongly rooting for it to win. “I have a bad feeling about this” at least can be used just as a throwaway line; it’s a terrible cliche, but at least it doesn’t screw up a scene. DISTOL?, on the other hand, is only used as a punchline, even though it’s a) been overused and b) was never very funny even when it was new. It has the essential quality of a truly horrible clam: it isn’t funny, but is used in a spot where something funny is called for, because the writer didn’t have a joke for that spot.

I wonder where DISTOL? first started — I mean, when was it actually a joke, as opposed to a clam? It’s sometimes interesting to try and figure out the origin of a clam, and it’s frequently quite difficult; these things are like ancient myths, with conflicting accounts of their origin. Jane Espenson frequently writes about clams, and it seems like every time she tries to pinpoint the origin of a clam, somebody writes in with an even earlier variant. For example, one of the worst clams of modern times, which may be even worse than DISTOL?, is “I said good day, sir!” She originally thought this came from Seinfeld, but a reader pointed out that it actually originated in Tootsie.

When you do find the origins of a clam, you usually find that in the original context, this very unnatural-sounding line made sense for some reason. In Tootsie, the line “I said good day, sir!” was a line from the soap opera that Dustin Hoffman was appearing on (disguised as a woman). It was a parody of terrible soap-opera dialogue, in particular the tendency for soap operas to end every scene with a pause followed by a little “kicker” line. (“Good day, Dr. Brewster.” [PAUSE] “I said good day, sir!”) Somehow, in the ’90s, this line got transmogrified into a standard joke, eventually becoming something that any character said at the end of any scene. It started as a parody of bad “exit” dialogue, and wound up as the very thing it parodied — a meaningless line that characters say to end the scene.

But DISTOL? — that one I have trouble figuring out where that one came from. (In the early ’90s Homer Simpson once said “Did I say that or just think it?” but that isn’t the same thing, and besides, DISTOL? had been used by then.) I recall it getting a lot of attention when Friends used it in an early season, but David Blum wrote in the New York Times that it originated with Cliff Clavin on Cheers. I don’t remember Cliff saying it, but he might have.

By the way, last week we got this from veteran TV executive Robert Greenblatt, president of Showtime:

— During a discussion of the graphic, simulated sex in the HBO series “Tell Me You Love Me,” Showtime chief Matthew C. Blank said, “Simulated sometimes works better, I think.”

“Even in your own life,” interjected Showtime Entertainment president Robert Greenblatt, adding, “Did I say that out loud?”

Somebody shoot me. (That’s also a clam.)