Besides having diehard fanbases, long-time running TV comedies share another commonality: the Running Gag. The Running Gag is defined as “a joke whose humor derives from repetition, ideally becoming funnier each time it is repeated.”
Throughout the decades, there have been a myriad of TV shows that utilize the Running Gag. Besides having an occasional throwback that attracts the community, it could give the viewer incentive to keep watching the series in hopes that there might be a reference to the gag. After all, when you’re watching a TV show with others that are not familiar with the work and a reference arises that only you understand it is a nice, superior feeling, isn’t it? (Or is that just me…?)
Why Do We Enjoy The Running Gag?
There are many possible answers to this question, however I choose to go with a rather simple one: human beings love when they feel belonged. There is nothing wrong with it, it is human nature to want to be accepted by others as these bonds that develop from close relationships “are a major part of human behavior.” So much so, that when you feel close to others, “our thoughts change such that a cognitive ‘merging’ effect occurs.”
You can relate this idea to the Running Gag when attempting to figure out why writers take the time and effort to construct gags that are sprinkled through a series when they know they don’t have to necessarily stay on a linear storytelling path… I mean, Zack and Tori basically loved each other in Saved By The Bell until she was never heard from again. Sticking to continuity for certain shows isn’t exactly priority #1.
Essentially, there is a reason why television forums and subreddits exist and thrive on a consistent basis. People love discussing TV shows and if you take a peek at certain forums, there are a bunch of discussions created where viewers ask what Running Gags/Jokes are the community’s favorites:
What Makes A Good Running Gag?
Running a gag into the ground is a possibility that exists and is a writer’s worst nightmare. Arguably one of the most difficult things a television writer can accomplish is creating a gag that not only appeals to the regular viewers, but isn’t used to the point where regulars become fatigued and roll their eyes when said gag is used.
Knowing When To Use A Running Gag Is Key
In my humble opinion, the Queen Bee of the television Running Gag is Arrested Development (2003-2006; 2013-Present). The series ran for three seasons on Fox until its cancellation and was rebooted in 2013 by the Saviour Gods, Netflix. It follows the lives of the Bluth family as middle son, Michael (Jason Bateman) attempts to save the family business when their father (Jeffrey Tambor) goes to prison. Arrested Development could make entirely separate seasons focused solely on gags threaded throughout the series, yet they never feel forced or annoying.
Tobias Is A Never Nude
Michael’s brother-in-law, Tobias (David Cross) is a balding middle-aged man who suffers from being a Never Nude, a debilitating syndrome not recognized by DSM-IV. Essentially he cannot be fully nude and compensates by wearing jean cutoffs. This entire gag could have easily become redundant because of how ridiculous the idea is, yet because it is utilized perfectly when the situation calls for it, it feels fresh and hilarious every single time.
Trusting Your Audience Will Understand The Gag
The worst thing a writer can do is beat it over the head of the audience that the gag you are currently seeing in this episode happened in a previous one so let’s just make sure you’re all caught up with it before we continue. CBS’ How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014) ran for nine seasons and one of the most popular Running Gags the series had was The Slap Bet.
The Slap Bet was a right given to Marshall (Jason Segel) after winning a bet against Barney (Neil Patrick Harris). The Slap Bet originated in Season 2 and managed to weave its way through for the entire series run. A total of eight slaps were commissioned and had the writers placed a disclaimer by a matter of forced exposition following every single slap, the Running Gag would have lost its value. The very nature of the randomness of the slap adds said value to it.
When a random viewer tunes into an episode one day and witnesses a man slapping another man while declaring “that’s #___”, intrigue immediately follows which allows the viewer to delve deeper into the lore of the series and wonder where said slap originated from… Maybe they will continue the series in order to see when a slap will occur!
If you’re intrigued to know when Marshall cashes in each precious slap is cashed in, click this link to the HIMYM Wiki (Spoilers Are Present In The Link)
Some Of Television’s Best Running Gags
It is an impossible feat to list every single spectacular Running Gag throughout the history of comedy television so I will settle with listing just a few.
Arrested Development’s Trademark Revelation Of Regret
Parks And Rec’s Confusion Of Jerry/Larry/Terry
Archer Raising Awareness About Tinnitus With MAWP
H. Jon Benjamin (the voice of Archer) and Amber Nash (Pam Poovey) both agree that this Running Gag is one of their favorites.
Michael Scott’s Obsessive Love For Ryan Howard In The Office
The Ones With Rachel And Her Pre-Nose Job
In Season 9, Episode 8’s “The One With Rachel’s Other Sister”, Amy (Christina Applegate) asks Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) if she ever worries about Emma getting “her real nose” to which Rachel hesitantly replies:
“Amy! … Yes I do, I really do.”
THEY WERE ON A BREAK.
Frank’s Vast Array Of Trucker Hats In 30 Rock
J.D. Getting A New Girl Name From Dr. Cox In Scrubs
… Plus hundreds of more gags from a variety of shows that have made viewers laugh upon every watch. Although a Running Gag isn’t a necessity to have in a series, when executed correctly, it can enhance the experience immensely and again… That tiny feeling of superiority isn’t always a bad thing 😉
Make sure to include any of your favorites in the comments!