Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Mr. Show

The running gag

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The Story of Everest

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What are your favorite running gags?”

In comedy, there’s a type of joke known as the rake gag, as best described by Mike Scully of The Simpsons: “Sam Simon had a theory that if you repeat a joke too many times, it stops being funny, but if you keep on repeating it, it might get really funny.” (I’m paraphrasing here, but the original observation comes from his commentary track on the episode “Cape Feare,” in which the rake gag itself was born.) The protracted repetition of a joke—which was often only marginally funny in the first place—is fascinating because it seems to violate a basic principle of comedy, which is based on surprise. It’s a form of metahumor, or antihumor, that breaks an unstated contract between the writer and the audience, and it forces us to watch ourselves as much as the joke itself. In a sketch like “The Story of Everest” on Mr. Show, our anticipation of every new variation, or the lack thereof, of the underlying pratfall turns us into active participants. Since we know what the next beat will be, we’re placed in the position of authors or collaborators, and most of the suspense comes from how long it can be sustained.

The rake gag is only a highly compressed version of the running gag, a joke that recurs in various forms over the course of a show or story at longer intervals, but which also depends on a weird kind of intimacy between the narrative and its viewers. Any particular instance of a running gag isn’t all that funny in itself; the humor lies in our memory of the previous occurrences, and the anticipation that each subsequent setup creates. We laugh as much out of recognition as anything else, and the effect is subtly flattering. If it’s a running joke on a television series, it assumes that we have a memory that extends beyond the boundaries of the episode we’re currently watching, and our appreciation of the gag can feel like insider knowledge. A casual viewer of Community—if such a thing exists—probably has no idea what to make of the repeated references to the Dean’s fondness for dalmatians or why Beetlejuice casually walks by in the background of one scene, and that flicker of understanding both tickles us and makes us feel like a member of, well, a community.

Michael Cera and Mae Whitman on Arrested Development

This may be why the best running gags are subtle ones, and a poorly handled example can feel like a rake to the head. When a show tries too hard to create a running gag for its own sake—as Parks and Recreation arguably does with the cast’s mistreatment of Jerry or Gary—it can seem forced, an attempt to artificially create the kind of intimacy that can only emerge over time. Like the original rake gag in “Cape Feare,” which was designed solely to prolong an episode that was running short, a great running gag often has the feel of an accident, or a serendipitous return to material that worked unexpectedly well the first time around. After all, a lot of the humor we find in our own lives comes from this kind of organic repetition: we return to the same jokes with our friends because they trigger happy memories, until the original incident has been long forgotten. And like a running gag on a favorite television series, when we try to unpack an inside joke for an outsider, it falls apart, as if we were trying to explain one of our dreams. In the end, you just had to be there.

The closest a show has ever come to willing that kind of familiarity into existence, even before it had much of an audience to work with, is in Arrested Development. The Simpsons is often cited as the first freeze-frame series, which utilized the new technology of home video recording to insert sign gags and almost subliminal jokes that went by too quickly to be processed on first viewing, and Arrested Development was arguably the first show designed to be watched as part of a box set. (If anything, the fourth season took that tendency a little too far, which implies that the key to great comedy lies somewhere in the tension between sustaining a story week by week and in delivering it in one huge binge.) The list of the show’s running gags is insanely long, but if I’d had to pick a favorite…well, I don’t think I will. Explanation kills comedy, as I’ve been doing throughout this post, and that’s especially true of something so fragile, yet oddly resilient, as the running gag. Out of context, it may not seem like much, but at the right place and time, it’s as plain as the nose on Ann’s face.

Written by nevalalee

June 13, 2014 at 9:42 am

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