I created a part two because the term “running gag” has developed a somewhat broad usage. Originally, I wanted to create a post about comedians reusing old material. Physical comedy is much more “repeatable” than verbal comedy. If you hear a verbal joke once, it’s funny. The second time it is not. But physical comedy has the capacity to get laughs more than once. I found some YouTube videos that suited my purpose, but they referred to their subject as running gags. I didn’t want to confuse the subject, so I broke it into two parts.
Comedy can be funny because it’s surprising and shocking. However, most popular comedy is built on making the audience relax and feel comfortable enough to laugh. We like Bugs Bunny because we have a good idea what he’s going to get up to and we look forward to it. Running gags are one way to maintain a character’s style.
Here is a video of a gag from Looney Tunes that was used four times. You must have seen it more than once, and I’m wagering you laughed every one of those times. Ending with an explosion usually makes for a funny bit.
I want to point out something about the piano gag. The tune gets played at least twice, and the second time the bad guy who wants to demonstrate how it’s supposed to go plays through it much faster. As with the sidecar gag from the Marx Brothers clip in part one, the audience has already sat through the set up once. They can see the joke coming, and accelerating it helps keep it funny.
Reusing a major comic event in its entirety, like the piano act above, is a rare occurrence. Typically, it won’t be so similar to what came before. There have been comedians who became lazy and started reusing old material with little or no changes, and the audience knew it. Reviewers would call the material stale and cliche. Smart comedians will find ways to revitalize old material for new productions. They rework and refresh it.
One team that did that a lot was the Three Stooges. They produced 190 short films, and just think how many of them used eye pokes and head bonks. But it goes beyond those signature gags. I found a YouTube channel that specializes in gathering Three Stooges scenes based on similar ideas. HERE IS THE LINK to that channel. Below is one of the 34 videos from that channel. This one involves a stooge getting a large spring stuck to his ass. Note that each time, they add new variations. Reusing successful comedy can be a way to maintain your style.
Finally, there are specialty acts. Vaudeville was built on specialty acts. Larry Griswold did a drunk springboard diving routine in the ’50s. Basically, this is a circus act, like trapeze or trick horseback riding. Here is a video from The Frank Sinatra TV show.
Below you will see the same act done by a different performer 30 years later. A whole new generation will have come to see it, and older people may have fond memories. Even in such a similar act, there are ways to create new variations. It’s a very clownish display of physical skill.
Diving board comedy is a well-used theme, done by other comedians, but that is a different post.