Running Gags: Part One

Monsters Inc. Mike Wazowski magazine cover.

Running gags are bits of comedy that get repeated throughout a show or series, and derive some of their power from audience familiarity. To qualify as a running gag, it needs to be played out at least three times. Running gags are very common. For thirty years The Simpsons TV show has started every episode with two running gags; what Bart writes on the blackboard and how the family ends up on the couch. Monster’s Inc. has a running gag where Mike Wazowki’s face gets covered up in print. It has even found its way into the real world. The TV Tropes page for running gags in western animation has an enormous number of entries. Let’s see what we can learn from some animated and live productions.

Here is a good example of a running gag in the movie Inside Out.

The Tripledent jingle is introduced quite innocently, but every appearance after that it’s an unexpected surprise. It’s funny to watch the characters also be surprised and react to the song.

One of my favorite running gags is in the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup. I edited together the three uses of the sidecar gag and will discuss it below.

This is a perfect example of a pattern variation type of gag. The first two times the gag happens, it’s exactly the same thing. Having it happen twice causes the audience to begin to see a pattern. That creates an expectation that the pattern will continue. Groucho sees the same thing. So when he comes to Harpo on the bike the third time, he attempts to thwart the gag. That’s when the trickster Harpo completely reverses it.

I also want to point out something about the timing. The first time it happens, they run through it carefully. There is some build-up, Groucho throws in some jokes. They milk what they can out it. The second time, they get to and through the gag quickly. The audience as seen it, so speeding it up actually helps keep it funny. This speed-up of the second presentation will come up again in part two of this post.

Next is a compilation of telephone gags from the Muppet Show. Kermit the Frog turns to the audience and explicitly calls it a running gag. Each occurrence of the joke follows a formula. Phone rings, Fozzy answers, physical gag, punchline.

This type of running gag has the potential to be an animation exercise. You could set up a recurring situation similar to the telephone ringing. Then create multiple takes for how to get comedy out of it. It would demonstrate your comic creativity.

Next is a video titled “Tex Avery’s Strangest Running Gag.” It may be strange now, but it probably wasn’t back in Tex’s day. Remember I said audience familiarity is a part of the comedy? In the 40’s audiences still remembered vaudeville and burlesque acts. This “sexy girl animal” dance is an obvious indicator that cartoons were not necessarily aimed at kids.

Tomorrow I will broaden the concept of running gags to cover even more visual comedy.

Comedy for Animators on Amazon

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