The Jokes That Get Told Over and Over Again on TV

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As part of Vulture’s weeklong 100 More Jokes series, Jesse David Fox joined the Vulture TV Podcast to break down the many ways humor is deployed on TV today. We talked about what is considered “funny” nowadays, what differentiates a writer’s joke from a joke written specifically for a character, and the jokes that get told over and over again. Listen to the episode, which also includes an interview with Sneaky Pete’s Giovanni Ribisi, and read an excerpt of our discussion below.

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Gazelle Emami: Jesse, there’s a moment on Atlanta you’ve talked about that feels quintessentially sitcom-y, where Earn is at dinner with Van, and he doesn’t have enough money for it.

Jesse David Fox: That is the most sitcom-y thing they’ve ever done

Matt Zoller Seitz: In in my review I think I compared it to I Love Lucy. That’s how old it is.

JDF: That episode was almost to remind people that they’re subverting the form enough. It’s a reminder that they’re still in that wheelhouse. Probably every five years a show does that, but it’s interesting how we revisit that joke.

MZS: There are certain classic situations that have been done a million-zillion times, but I never am sad to see them because if they’re done even reasonably well, they’re going to make me laugh. Like the guy who somehow ends up going out on a date with two women simultaneously, in the same restaurant or like a restaurant across the street.

JDF: The “I have two plans on the same night,” right?

MZS: Yes, that never fails to slay me. And there’s always the moment where they forget which situation they’re in.

Jen Chaney: It’s funny, I’m probably the only one of us who actively watches the Disney Channel because I kind of have to because of my son. These kinds of situations on those comedies that they have, geared at children, that’s a classic thing that you would see in a Liv and Maddie or any of those shows. I think kids respond to it instinctively because it’s very easy to understand and it’s funny and there’s often physical comedy involved in it. That’s why family sitcoms were like that, because you were trying to engage everybody.

MZS: There’s another one I just thought of, which is the attempting to retrieve an incriminating item from someplace that you don’t have access to, and I think one of the great memorable examples of that recently was on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — the text-mergency episode — where I guess she’s trying to break into Josh’s house to get his cell phone. The number of contrivances necessary to set up her breaking into the house are great, but it turns into a little absurdist masterpiece with her trying to explain why there’s glass on the floor, all of these things.

GE: That’s the most sitcom-y episode of that show.

JDF: What’s interesting is that joke can still work even though ten years ago, Arrested Development hypothetically subverted it to the point where you’d think it’d be dead. They had the episode where Michael was going into the house to get legal documents and Julia Louis-Dreyfus had to pretend to be blind.

JC: And Tobias was there also.

JDF: There’s constantly a well that people can go to. It’s almost like The Simpsons have probably done every single trope that ever existed, but then made it fair game.

MZS: They did. But now that I think about it, the first time I ever saw a situation like that, and I’m sure somebody else did it before, was on I Love Lucy, where she sends a letter. The second she puts that letter in the mailbox she realizes that the situation’s been resolved and the letter is only going to make things worse, and she has to get the letter out of that mailbox, and its federal crime to break into a mailbox. But of course she’s Lucy.

JDF: Yes, and whoever the person is that wrote the joke didn’t know that they were going to be ripped off, like, forever. To the point where no one owns the joke anymore. Fibber McGee and Molly has the closet joke, which is essentially is Molly saying, “Don’t open that closet!” and then he opens it and you hear the noise of a lot of things crashing, which is a joke that we now just know as a joke. The art of these jokes is you don’t know where they started, but they just become tropes. My personal favorite is two little kids on top of each other’s shoulders in a trench coat.

The Jokes That Get Told Over and Over Again on TV