24 July 2008

When comedy starts to depend entirely on catchphrases, it's time to hang it up. I've been watching a couple British comedy shows lately on Netflix; Extras does a good job (particularly in the second season) of horribly maligning catchphrase comedy, while Little Britain is arguably the epitome thereof. I wanted to like Little Britain, I really did. It was recommended by a friend with good taste, it's sodding British to the core, and it's a sketch comedy; all good reasons for me to enjoy it. But strip away the catchphrases, and there is nothing but silly costumes. Take the following catchphrases as examples:

"No but yeah but no but yeah but no but..."

"That'd be a right kerfuffle."

"I WANT THAT ONE."

"I DON'T LIKE IT."

"Yesssssssssss!"

"I'm a LADY!"

"Look into my eyes", etc.

"Computer says 'no'."

"Eh-eh-ehhhh."

"Margeret! Margaret!"

And, what apparently was voted the best catchphrase of all time, for some inexplicable reason:

"I'm the only gay in the village."

I doubt any one of those, on their own, are making you all reel over in painful, medically hazardous bouts of laughter. Have them uttered in virtually every single episode of a show, by a pair of predominantly cross-dressed comics, and it becomes a wildly popular thing. Beats me as to why. Ricky Gervais in the second season of Extras did a wonderful job parodying the catchphrase comedy genre, with his show-within-a-show, When the Whistle Blows, with the horribly annoying "Is he havin' a laugh...is he havin' a laugh? He's havin' a laugh!!!".

I'm not averse to catchphrase comedy, or numb to its effects. Some might call the NBC Office classic "That's what she said" an example of catchphrase comedy, and to some extent it is, but as the show progresses, the laughs are not resulting from the catchphrase itself, but from the increasingly strange contexts in which it is used...culminating in its use (alongside "yesh" and "abso-fruitly") in a legal deposition. One could analyse this further than it warrants by saying that Michael's use of "that's what she said" is a biting criticism of catchphrase comedy itself, since Michael, who tries perpetually to be seen as funny by those around him, is depending on a silly catchphrase joke himself. But the show never depends on a catchphrase, as Little Britain does to the extreme. The Office thrives comedically for the opposite reason; the viewer is never quite sure what weirdness is going to come out of the mouths of Dwight or Michael or Andy, and the shock value is there when they say something absurdly inappropriate. If they were reduced to flat characters focused around a catchphrase or two, the show would have become immensely boring halfway into the first season.

I will admit, I like Blackadder. I will be the first to admit it is a bit thick with catchphrases...from the formulaic "the something-est something since somebody somethinged something" bits, as well as "I have a cunning plan". And other shows seem to sometimes use catchphrases in an ironic way. I realize I should be smitten down by the gods for the pretentious phrasing of that last sentence, but take A Bit of Fry and Laurie, for example. The weird, unexplained, recurring vox pops ("I wouldn't suck it!" in season 1, and "Oh Christ I've left the iron on!" in season 2) are more there for a surreal bit of silly weirdness than to cash in on catchphrase humour, and the recurring characters of Peter and John overuse the word "damn" in diverse and strange ways, not because the lines they repeat are particularly funny on their own. They're not even really catchphrases.

Where was I? But there are classics like Oliver Hardy's "Here's Another Fine Mess You've Gotten Me Into". Even there, the comedy of Laurel and Hardy was entirely independent of the appeal of such a catchphrase; the catchphrase existed just to tie a bit of familiarity and continuity between their different movies and shows. They couldn't walk onto a stage, say that line, and that be the crux of their humour. But for the shallow catchphrase-dependent comedies, that is essentially all they do!

Is he havin' a laugh? Is he havin' a laugh?

...He's havin' a laugh!!!

5 comments:

The Angry Coder said...

All that reminds me of the Simpson's episode where Bart became wildly popular for saying "I didn't do it!" for about a week. Then it was over and he was instantly shuttled to a back lot and returned to obscurity.

The Irascible Neufonzola said...

Ohhh, forgot one other fantastic show that does do catchphrases...the Goon Show...Sellers as Bluebottle was classic: "you rotten swines! you dedded me!"

But it depends more on surreal wordplay and goofy jokes, and the catchphrases are sort of a background to the humor, not the humor itself.

The Unabashed Blogger said...

Hugh Could you pass the marmalade, darling?

Stephen What?

Hugh The marmalade, could you pass it?

Stephen You want me to arse the parlourmaid?

Hugh No darling, there's a pot of marmalade at your
elbow, I want you to pass it.

Stephen A potty marinade in my dildo, have you gone mad?

Hugh Darling I want you to pass the marmalade.

Stephen (Amazed) You want me to fart the hit parade?

Hugh Pass the marmalade.

Stephen Smile at Roy Hattersley? You want me to smile
at Roy Hattersley?

Hugh That doesn't sound anything like "pass the
marmalade".

Stephen Roy Hattersley hasn't found anyone to pass the
marmalade? You're babbling, woman.

Hugh No dear. I want you to pass the marmalade.

Stephen Roy Hattersley wants me to pass the marmalade?

Hugh No, I do darling.

Stephen An eiderdown? I'm not going to pass Roy Hattersley
an eiderdown.

Hugh If you'll just listen.

Stephen He can get his own damned eiderdown like
everyone else.

Hugh The marmalade dear, can you pass it?

Stephen Expecting people to pass him eiderdown as if he
was someone special. No one's ever passed me an
eiderdown.

Hugh Will you pass the marmalade?

Stephen No I will not go to bed with Geoffrey Howe. Not
at any price. I think you must be off your head.

Hugh gets up, walks down the table and picks up
the marmalade.

Stephen buries his head in the paper.

Stephen The Substantial Tide's Indebt smell by more
quoits?

Hugh No dear, the Financial Times Index fell by four points.

Stephen Oh. Pass the marmalade will you?

The Irascible Neufonzola said...

I love how he converts "arse" to a verb!

The Unabashed Blogger said...

Eider down

or

Eiderdown