On television comedies, the jokes are just as important as character development. And while many sitcoms follow the mantra of quantity over quality, the best shows are able to milk a single gag for all it’s worth. This is two-fold: a truly great joke will be funny the second and third time, but what really makes for a lasting gag is the way that it makes the audience feel — as if they’re in on a secret. Recalling a seemingly subtle comment or situation connects the viewer to the characters, and can even invoke a feeling of nostalgia.
While running gags have been around even longer than TV itself (radio programming made use of this technique, too), it’s only been in recent years that some shows have made callbacks the very center of their writing. The most popular of these have (of course) made this list, along with a few other programs that utilized them less frequently. Whether you prefer your humor to be slapstick, dry, or meta, there’s something for everyone in the 15 Weirdest Running Jokes You Didn’t Notice In Favorite TV Shows.
15. Hidden Pineapples – Psych
USA’s long-running dramedy hit, Psych, went off the air in 2014, but is still beloved by many. Touted as sort of a more lighthearted, American Sherlock Holmes, Shawn Spencer runs a “psychic” detective agency… even though he’s not actually psychic, per se. He solves cases alongside his childhood best friend, Gus, as well as in conjunction with the Santa Barbara Police Department, where his love interest, Jules, works. Numerous running jokes include Shawn’s weird nicknames for Gus and the repeated phrase “C’mon son!”
But no gag is quite as ubiquitous as the hidden pineapple. In (almost) every episode of the show, there’s a pineapple, or an allusion to one. This is reminiscent of the Disney tradition of hidden Mickeys in the company’s films and theme parks, and this likely isn’t a coincidence. Psych’s creator Steve Franks worked at the Enchanted Tiki Room in Disneyland, where the park’s infamous Dole Whips are sold– which he credits as the reason the fruit is such an important one to him. The gag is so beloved by the series’ fans that there’s a website where you can look up every pineapple appearance.
14. All of the Ron Howard references – Arrested Development
Arrested Development is one of the shows that this list couldn’t have been created without. The show is often more callbacks than new jokes, with certain jokes repeated countless times, even in the same episode. One might argue that the show wouldn’t exist without these — after all, it really is just a show about a wealthy Orange County family undergoing financial troubles. The premise itself is tied up in the wacky cast of characters and their strange patterns. As if more proof was needed, there’s a website titled Recurring Developments where you can read about each running gag and which episodes they were featured in.
Former child actor and acclaimed director Ron Howard served as the narrator for all four seasons of the show, as well as appearing as a fictionalized version of himself in several episodes, and serving as an executive producer. Ron and his career are mentioned a few times, with the narrator getting a bit meta and inserting his opinion or a correction when he disagreed with the characters on screen. In addition to the mentions of his roles on The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days, as well as his directorial achievements, Howard has a small but very meta arc in the fourth season, when he meets with Michael to discuss the film rights to the Bluth family story at the offices of Imagine Entertainment, the very company that produces the real show.
13. Incompetent Animal Control – Parks and Recreation
Very few shows can do what Parks and Recreation did. Ron, April, and the rest of the small town Indiana crew managed to warm our hearts while we belly-laughed along for seven seasons. And while Leslie ran a tight ship in her department, she often had to deal with the less-than-competent workers that made up the Pawnee municipal government.
Enter the animal control team, which was comprised of two men, Harris and Brett. The pair are initially recruited by Leslie and Andy to catch a possum in the second season, and manage to do exactly nothing to help. They’re referred to as stoners and idiots, and, like much of Pawnee, resist Leslie’s efforts to make the town better. This tradition continues for years until Leslie becomes a city councilwoman, and one of her many changes involves firing them. Harris showed up a few more times before his portrayer Harris Wittels, a writer and executive producer for the show, passed away in early 2015. The final episode of the series was dedicated to him. A video compilation of his moments on screen can be found here.
12. Rhyming Names – Community
There’s simultaneously so much and so little that can be said about Community. Airing on NBC for five seasons, it was truly the little show that could, making its way to the now-defunct Yahoo Screen to complete the first part of the “six seasons and a movie” war cry heard ’round the Internet. It’s likely that no series ever has (or ever will) experience the same kind of back-and-forth — Everyone loves it. Everyone hates it. Dan Harmon is a genius. Dan Harmon is gone. Dan Harmon is back. It’s canceled. It’s revived. And so on… Its a simple premise (a group of misfits at a community college) spawned a meta-universe so intricate it boggles the mind.
Callbacks were a staple for Jeff, Britta, Annie, and the rest of the Greendale gang. Jokes on top of jokes, some as barebones as they come and others with layer upon layer to them, iced every script (the metaphor would usually be “sprinkled,” but that would be a gross understatement here). One that wasn’t quite so obvious was the characters’ occasional tendency to make an exclamation comprised of a sentence paired with a rhyming celebrity name. While all are OK jokes individually, when you recognize just how many times this has happened on the show, it might blow your mind a little. Here’s a compilation of them, but it was made in 2013, so who’s to say that this is definitive?
11. Kenneth’s Age – 30 Rock
Tina Fey’s NBC comedy hit, 30 Rock, was loosely based on her experiences at Saturday Night Live— very, very loosely. While SNL cast members are known to be a bit kooky, none could even begin to measure up to the characters working at Fey’s fictional 30 Rockefeller Plaza. From the self-centered TV stars to the eccentric writing staff, everyone in Liz Lemon’s world is at least a little off their rocker.
Enter NBC Page Kenneth Parcell. A happy and helpful Christian young man, he is often put up to tasks ranging from demeaning to insane, but he does it all with a smile. However, the longest-running gag involving Kenneth is his possible immortality. Nods range from direct references to his ambiguous age (Real life television personality Suze Orman asks him how old he is, to which he replies “Don’t worry about it”) to old pop culture references (“When I first started working here, an 8-year-old Shirley Temple taught me how to roll a cigarette”).
But the greatest jokes allude to Kenneth as a tool of God (or something else), such as when he addresses Jacob, the “man in charge” on Lost. The series finale shows the (maybe) devil getting his due: many, many years in the future, an unchanged Kenneth runs the network, and meets with Liz Lemon’s great-granddaughter to discuss an idea for a pilot to be named 30 Rock.
10. Dr. Cox Hates Hugh Jackman – Scrubs
Another very unique comedy was Scrubs, the surprisingly accurate medical NBC show starring Zach Braff. Unlike most hospital-based series, Scrubs was less about the excitement and drama and more about people connecting to people, with mundane medical procedures occurring alongside everyday relationship struggles. The humor was wacky, yet down-to-earth at the same time. Despite his wild imagination, J.D. was at his core a normal guy surrounded by a few lovable weirdos.
One such cohort was Dr. Perry Cox. Cox was a hardened, angry man who loved to berate J.D. and relished being the bad guy. But it soon became apparent that he was actually a sensitive, caring individual, and wore a mask to protect himself. His wild and endless rants always involved calling J.D. a girl’s name (or 10), his trademark stretched out words (such as “ree-hee-heeally”), and his face turning a deep shade of red, but what many may not have noticed is that they occasionally included a name-drop. For whatever reason, Cox felt that Hugh Jackman was entirely overrated, and harbored an irrational hatred for the well-respected actor. It seems like a missed opportunity that we didn’t get a cameo during the show’s nine-season run.
9. “Eating a Sandwich” – How I Met Your Mother
The CBS hit sitcom that ran for a legen — wait for — dary nine seasons, How I Met Your Mother featured an updated Friends-like motif with a twist: the entire plot of the show is being told in the year 2030 by main character Ted Mosby. He’s recounting his life from 2005 onward to his children, with frequent flashbacks within the recollection. Confused? Despite its simple premise, the storytelling method made the show complicated, but also a lot of fun for viewers, who relished finding hints dropped seasons prior, from off-handed remarks to actual clues about the identity of the mother.
Because Ted was telling this story to his children, he occasionally replaced what he felt were too-adult references with something more tame. One of the most notable examples of this was recalling the times in college when he, Lily, and Marshall smoked marijuana. In order to not blatantly explain this to his teenage kids, Ted called smoking pot “eating a sandwich,” treating the viewer to a flashback wherein the character is actually consuming the food. Occasionally, Ted and his friends partake in the “present” (his adult years), and the same euphemism is used. While most (if not all) gags in HIMYM are very obvious, including this one, the hilarity and consistency of the device make up for it.
8. Kelso’s Eye – That ’70s Show
The goofy kids on That ’70s Show brought us a lot of laughs during the series’ eight season run. From high moments in the circle to Red’s desire to put his foot up his son’s behind, recurring gags made up much of the show’s era-specific humor. While many jokes were timeless, ’70s pop culture references peppered the dialogue, and everything from the decor to values of the period were featured prominently.
Aside from Fez’s proclamation of “good day!” when ending a conversation and the aforementioned comment from the Foreman patriarch, the dumb but handsome Kelso had the most distinct catchphrases, if you paid close attention. Though probably best known for shouting “BURN!” whenever possible, he had a tendency to provoke Hyde, who would then jump him, and the fight would end with Kelso yelling “my eye!” It’s amazing that the guy even had an eye at the end of the series, as evidenced by this video.
7. Fred the Fish – SpongeBob SquarePants
SpongeBob SquarePants, the long-running Nickelodeon cartoon that spawned a massive franchise, has its share of jokes that have spanned the length of the series. After all, SpongeBob and the rest of his sinful pals are constantly getting into strange predicaments, and interacting with foils like Mr. Krab. However, there are other recurring characters that get their own gags– some of whom are heard a lot more than they’re seen.
Fred the Fish is clearly a resident of Bikini Bottom, as he’s somehow always around every time a disaster occurs. No matter the incident, be it a giant Plankton shooting lasers from his eyes or SpongeBob crashing his boat once again, Fred can always be heard amongst the commotion, screaming “my leg!” at the top of his gills. The bit disappeared for awhile before returning in season six, but Fred got his big break with an actual heaping of screen time in the 2004 feature film, when his repeated line was changed to “my eyes!” drawing the gag even closer to the previous entry. Instances up until 2010 can be found here.
6. Topless Hitchcock – Brooklyn Nine-Nine
With as many cop procedurals as there are on TV today, police comedies can be very hit or miss, depending on your brand of humor. But Brooklyn Nine-Nine, FOX’s Andy Samberg-led sitcom, has shown time and time again that it’s unique. Boasting a talented and diverse cast of seasoned veterans and relative newcomers, the series features hilarious characters that break stereotypes, like the type-A Latina and the strict black leader who just happens to be gay. And all of whom have their own unique gags.
But while actual police work occurs (usually), two older white men lurk in the background and make trouble. Hitchcock and Sully are the doofuses, emblematic of the cop stereotypes of TV’s past. Even when they’re not front and center, they love to draw attention to themselves is strange ways. Enter Hitchcock’s propensity for taking his shirt off, which happened repeatedly in season one. Though the gag disappeared for a while, it made a triumphant return in this month’s “Overmining,” when, in response to Gina’s refusal to abide by his new energy initiative, Terry buys everyone a space heater. Hitchcock celebrates by stripping down and eating a sandwich, much to Gina’s chagrin.
5. “Phrasing” – Archer
Speaking of crime-solving gigs, FX’s acclaimed adult animated series Archer gives itself fully to the stereotype of the stupid spy. In this case, the team in question belongs to Sterling Archer, who, along with the rest of the International Secret Intelligence Service (not coincidentally abbreviated ISIS), are competent, yet utterly incapable of completing a successful mission without disastrous consequences. Peppered with sex, drugs, and so many pop culture references it rivals Gilmore Girls, Archer is also infamous for its many, many repeated jokes.
One standout likely warms the hearts of The Office fans. Remember Michael Scott’s favorite four words? “That’s what she said” became a popular reply when someone unintentionally (or intentionally) said something that could misconstrued as sexual in nature. Archer has his own version of this: He simply says the word “phrasing” every time one of his coworkers (often, his own mother) blurts out a double entendre– which is very often. Occasionally, other characters have adopted the saying, but Archer even manages to fit it in (phrasing) the conversation while drowning.
4. Chandler Bing’s Job – Friends
The epitome of sitcom humor in the 1990s (and early 2000s) was Friends. The New York City-based gang and accompanying laugh track cracked audiences up for 10 years, and continue to do so today with the help of Netflix. Each character brought something different, and all were entertaining in their own way, but none hit the funny bone harder than Chandler Bing, the sarcastic, self-conscious sidekick to actor Joey, who held down a boring corporate gig that none his pals ever seemed to understand.
You see, everyone else’s job was straightforward: Chef Monica, Paleontologist Ross, Waitress Rachel, Masseuse Phoebe, Actor Joey. Though almost all of them held another title at some point in the series, no one else’s occupation was discussed the way Chandler’s was. No one seemed to know, or particularly care, what it is he did all day. All of this came to a head in a season four episode when, while playing a game of personal trivia, Rachel causes her team’s loss because she can’t remember Chandler’s title, shouting out “He’s a transponster!” Chandler eventually quits his dead-end job, and finds that he makes an excellent advertising copywriter, finally discovering a creative outlet for his wit.
3. Crow at the Power Plant – The Simpsons
When a comedy has been on the air as long as The Simpsons, there are bound to be a plethora of gags. In the show’s almost 30 year run, Homer and the residents of Springfield have made a massive cultural impact, even spawning numerous fan theories around how the town and its inhabitants have remained unchanged over such a long period of time.
Despite the ambiguous location of Springfield, its perpetual state allows for many repeated jokes. Though not so much a joke as a nod, almost every time we’re shown an establishing shot of the town’s nuclear power plant, you can hear a crow caw. Though the actual reason for this is unknown, some speculate that, because crows are often thought of as “evil” or symbols of something ominous, this is incorporated to reaffirm the sketchy nature of Mr. Burns and his plant where Homer is employed. And the theories continue…
2. “I have a thing” — Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the hit WB show that put Sarah Michelle Gellar on the map, stands out on this list as the only non-comedy series to make the cut. Joss Whedon’s campy hit certainly made audiences chuckle, make no mistake, but would be categorized as a supernatural/horror series primarily, with a bit of fantasy, and even a little drama. But the humor was always there, from a Buffy one-liner while slaying vampires to Giles’ signature British wit.
The gag in question, however, isn’t exactly laugh-out-loud material, in fitting with the general tone of the series. Due to the secrecy of Buffy’s role as slayer, she had to make excuses a lot, so she adopted the very general retort, “I have a… thing” when trying to avoid questions. And the other Scoobies followed suit, with Xander, Willow, and even hyper-articulate Giles borrowing her signature phrase. Perhaps this was an allusion to Buffy’s “Valley Girl” image, which she eventually grows out of, or maybe it was just Whedon’s way of reminding us that while the girl can save the world (repeatedly), her vocabulary leaves something to be desired.
1. The Literal Running Gag – Happy Endings
Leave it to prematurely axed and critic’s darling Happy Endings to take the phrase “running gag” and make it literal. But first, some backstory: David Caspe’s buddy comedy lasted only three short seasons on ABC, but made a massive impression during that time. Starring six hilarious comedy gems as early 30-somethings living in Chicago, the show took the Friends dynamic to a whole other level, such that we’re still mourning its loss three years later.
Among the many repeated catchphrases and one-liners comes a simple concept: when one of the gang mentions or smells something gross, they start to heave as though they’re about to (or trying not to) throw up. Most of the time, this starts with Damon Wayans Jr.’s character Brad Williams, but once one person gets going, the others almost always join in, resulting in an actual gag fest.
One of the gag occurred in the season two premiere when, after Jane ends up with shellfish (which she’s allergic to) all over her, she begins to heave, causing Max and a recently stabbed Brad to join in, while everyone else is panicking. Surprisingly, usual hot mess Penny jumps into action, and the cold open ends with the rest of the gang in shock while she turns on the TV and starts watching a flick as though nothing happened. Talk about playing it cool.
Did we forget any of your favorite running jokes? Let us know in the comments!
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