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Repetition & Catch Phrases in Comedy Part 2

October 19, 2010

Hey, welcome to part 2 of our discussion of catch phrases and repetition in comedy. Yesterday we looked at some of the benefits and drawbacks of repetition. Today we will ruminate on that most double-edged of comedic swords, the humorous catch phrase.

Specifically in stand-up comedy, the catch phrase is wildly successful. There will always be stream-of-thought comedians who rely very little on scripted material like

Robin Williams

or Jonathan Winters

However, most comics build up a storehouse of material over time for use at professional gigs, competitions, and festivals. In some cases, the lure of the guaranteed laugh might prove difficult to fight, and the development of new material suffers.

It must be extra hard for a comic to walk away from a successful catch phrase. As far as I can tell, in stand-up comedy, catch phrases are one of the fastest, most powerful ways to brand oneself.

There is no denying the power of a repeated phrase, just look at the grunt of Tim Allen’s primitive inspired tool-man.

Jeff Foxworthy’s “You May Be a Redneck” line of jokes create a predictability and structure that audiences just absolutely eat up. Like seriously, the guy’s filthy rich over these redneck jokes. At this point it’s become a social phenomenon, like knock knock jokes, where people make up their own.

And of course, some comics seem to appreciate the value of repetition without bothering to put much thought into execution, as seen in this example of some breathtakingly unfunny stand-up comedy by Alonzo “Hamburger” Jones:

Sorry Alonzo, a hamburger is delicious, but not if it’s BURNED!

I’m not sure how I feel about catch phrases. On the one hand, I find myself enjoying them as an audience member, and I can’t deny their incredible success. In fact, some of my comedy heroes relied on catch phrases, like the venerable Rodney Dangerfield’s “No Respect” line:

On the other hand, catch-phrase humour makes me feel like a robot, as if I’m programmed to respond to a silly tone of voice repeated over and over. Not to mention that the kind of people that really get on board and obsessed with catch phrases are often kind of stupid:

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant take a shot at our lust for easily packaged and repeatable comedy in his sublime BBC television show Extras, where in the second season his character becomes famous of the line “Is he having a laugh?” (which is amazing satire because I actually enjoy that catchphrase for and of itself).

Gervais had a lot to work with creating his satire, because it is a common event in pop culture, the Hollywood cliché of the has-been comic or actor, sheepishly repeating their catchphrase on command for money. I bet every time Gary Coleman

walked by someone and they shouted “Whatchoo talkin’ Bout Willis,” he wanted to strangle them with their own hands. If I was Gary, I would have walked around with an iPad strapped to my belly with this video on repeat:

In my own travels in stand-up comedy, I have experimented a little with catchphrase, most recently in a bit I wrote about Facebook about the “like” feature.

The results were encouraging, but also a bit of a bummer. The bit went over pretty well, but then I started to get people coming up to me after sets, flashing their thumbs and shouting “Joel likes this!” at me. Don’t get me wrong, having people respond to something you’ve made is just a wonderful feeling.  But I was caught off guard. How do you react when someone repeats a line you said five minutes ago and stands there waiting for your reply?

It really sunk in then how awful it must be for celebrities to forever be approached in public and have lines they no longer enjoy (or make money from) being repeated over and over. As a nobody, over the period of a couple months I found it annoying. For a washed up child actor it must be a nightmare.

So I dunno – it didn’t totally scare me off, but I felt like a kid playing with matches who burned his finger. I took some time away from the idea of incorporating catch lines into bits. In the last month or so I have dusted off the idea, but with a greater understanding of what’s involved. And certainly when push comes to shove, it’s nice to know that the Facebook bit is there in my back pocket, and will get a decent response.

What are your thoughts on repeated catchphrases? Is it an easy sell-out, or a valid structural element like a punchline or tag that can and should be explored by comedians?  Post your thoughts in the comments area.  (It would be nice to get some dialogue going, I’m not trying to create lectures here, rather a community of shared ideas.  So speak up and you will be heard, yo).

We’ll end things off with another clip from the film Idiocracy, which lampoons this a little in their dullard-infested vision of the future where an entire successful TV series involves nothing more than a man getting hit repeatedly in the balls. As much as I hate to admit it, I kind of wish this show was real.

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