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Repetition & Catch Phrases in Comedy Part 1

October 18, 2010

This week’s theory post is about repetition.  Repetition is the topic for this week.  The use of repetition is what this post is about.


MY BAD, Marilyn 😦

There’s something about phrases getting repeated over and over again which is both annoying and addictive.  Sometimes the annoying overpowers the addiction as is the case with Steve Urkel from the 90s TV show Family Matters:

Other times the repetition can add a dimension of hilarity into an already prescient and funny observation, as is the case in Jim Gaffigan’s hilarious “Hot Pocket” bit:

And it’s not just here in North America that repetition is well-loved.  When I lived in Japan, this guy Kojima Yoshio would literally go on every talk show and do the EXACT SAME THING.  It was like seeing a trained animal doing a trick over and over.

There seems to be a lot of love in Japan for dudes wearing underoos in general…

But I digress…

I guess the idea is we gravitate toward things that are familiar and predictable, like, say, seeing Orson Welles drunk in public:


Sorry for the post-mortem BURN, Orson! Loved Citizen Kaine, Rosebud foreva!

Performance art, in most cases, is all about repetition in one way or another, even if it is not immediately apparent to the audience.  When my band Apple Pi plays a gig, the songs we perform have been played hundreds of times before, in practice and at other shows.  This repetition is a necessary part of sounding polished and professional, but it can wear on your patience and suck away enthusiasm.

Likewise, in stand up comedy I try to find a balance between boredom, and the necessary discipline of repetitive performance it takes to hone a bit.  My personal solution is to “reward myself” after I feel that a five minute set has reached a usable level of quality.  The reward is to file it away for a rainy day, and start on a fresh five.

Most stand-up theory books encourage the “shit-sandwich” approach with new material

Sorry I had to, its illegal to pass by a Spinal Tap reference in my country.

This is where you sneak in a new bit in between two proven ones to give it a fighting chance. If I am working on material at open mics, I will use a brand new fresh five with no “filler.” First, it forces me to edit better before performing the first time – there’s nothing quite like the fear of bombing for five straight minutes to increase motivation to prepare.  Second, it enhances the excitement of the new material.  All the frustration of the last round of development’s repetition is replaced by good old, heart pounding nervousness, resetting the palate as it were.

This penchant for erratic change shows up in the rest of my life which seems to vacillate between periods of stable repetition, and periods of intense new activity, where everything is happening at once.  The back and forth works for me as a human being, and helps me to deal with necessary boredom without losing motivation.  If I ever find myself yawning, a little voice in my head goes “You better enjoy this downtime, punk, there’s madness around the corner…”

I’ll end off part 1 with a hilarious piece of repetition humour from the film Idiocracy.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2 where we look at some more examples of catch phrases and repetition in comedy.

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