You’re in the middle of enjoying an episode of your favorite sitcom, when all of a sudden a character says, “Remember the time …?” and everything turns sour. Oh no, it’s a clip show! A popular yet despised tradition for decades, the clip show — an episode that features highlights from past installments, rather than anything new — was a TV mainstay for its ability to save money, catch up on a tight production schedule, and acknowledge a show’s milestone moments. The most popular sitcoms of all time, like I Love Lucy, Leave It to Beaver, All in the Family, and Friends, all indulged in the clip show. The Simpsons has done five.
Before the days of reruns, syndication, and home-video releases, these clip shows were the only ways to see highlights from old episodes. It’s no surprise, then, that the traditional clip show almost completely disappeared from sitcoms after the advent of DVR, streaming services, and the rise of homemade supercuts on YouTube. When fans are pretty much making their own, who needs a clip show anymore?
But these advancements also twisted the format into something postmodern that’s meant to challenge the medium. The straight clip show is dead — The Office’s reviled “The Banker” from 2010 is almost certainly the last example in a sitcom — and the format is now reserved for self-referential parodies. The clip show is no longer a strict celebration of what makes a show good, but rather an opportunity to experiment with what a show can be, which is why these more ambitious takes on the concept so often revisit a show’s history and reshape everything as its creators see fit. (Just last month, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia had its own unconventional take on the form.) Unshackled from its origins, the clip show has become the sort of boundary-pushing experiment that keeps TV fresh. Here are the 14 best examples of the sitcom clip show as a parody, and what makes them great.
Dinosaurs, “The Clip Show” and “The Clip Show II”
Dinosaurs, the bizarre Henson-produced sitcom about the everyday lives of anthropomorphized puppet dinosaurs, was always a little ahead of the curve. All the way back in 1992, the show was finding unusual ways to subvert the traditional clip-show trope. At their core, these Dinosaurs episodes are still traditional clip shows, but it’s remarkable how much work is put into the episodes’ framing devices and that there’s a considerable amount of new content included.
“The Clip Show” adopts a mockumentary format that’s about the habits of dinosaurs, but it features something that the series has never had before: actual humans and a modern setting! A fictitious paleontologist guides the audience as he attempts to debunk the myths and figure out the truth behind dinosaurs, juxtaposing the wondrous and terrifying nature of dinosaurs with the silliness and banality of the everyday lives of the Sinclair family. A year later, Dinosaurs would again mess with the format in “The Clip Show II,” an episode that adopts the structure of an infomercial, complete with fake customer testimonials, receptionists who are on hold, and ancillary products that are also for sale.
Duckman, “Clip Job”
In 1995, the animated series Duckman took an early, adventurous approach toward what clip shows could achieve. “Clip Job” operates as a traditional clip show, but it’s also one of the first major deconstructions of the format. This experiment doesn’t reinvent the clips themselves, but it does try something bold for the era: A disgruntled TV critic who’s fed up with vile shows decides to kidnaps Duckman — because his show is the “most immoral” of the lot — and attempts to kill him by presenting him with the series’ most corrupt acts. Refusing to totally break the fourth wall, Duckman questions how this man can have access to “clips” from his life and denies that his life is some sort of TV show.
South Park, “City on the Edge of Forever”
Another animated series from the ’90s that wasn’t afraid to rage against the machine was South Park — and just a few years after Duckman’s riff on the genre, Matt Stone and Trey Parker too would stoop to a clip show. “City on the Edge of Forever” puts its characters in a life-or-death situation, which prompts them to think back to the past. However, what starts out as a conventional clip show quickly turns into a surreal blend of fact and fiction: The boys of South Park start to misremember real clips from past episodes, each clip soon veers off into nonsense, and it even reaches the point where the characters insert themselves into a Happy Days scene with the Fonz. Then, just to push all of this one step further, the episode throws an outrageous “it was all a dream” twist to make the proceedings make even less sense and feel more disposable.
Clerks: The Animated Series, “The Clipshow Wherein Dante and Randal Are Locked in the Freezer and Remember Some of the Great Moments in Their Lives”
If clip shows were considered to be lazy endeavors by the late ’90s — and they largely were, what with the format reaching its fourth decade on TV — then the goal became clear: Why not play into that stale idea as much as possible? Clerks: The Animated Series pulled an especially rebellious move in 2000 when it made its second episode a clip show. “The Clipshow Wherein…” flashes back to moments the episode has shown minutes earlier, as well as repeatedly returning to the same scene from the show’s only previous installment. (But unfortunately, the joke didn’t fully land at the time because ABC aired the wrong episode ahead of it.) Eventually Clerks’ clip show turns to new footage from episodes that never happened due to the sheer lack of old material to pull from. It faces the opposite problem that most clip shows do.
Frasier, “Crock Tales” and “Daphne Returns”
The long-running Frasier has technically resorted to two clip-show-type episodes, but both of them go against the grain, whether it’s with new clips from the past or deconstructions of old ones. The 2004 penultimate episode, “Crock Tales,” makes the nostalgic choice to return to a handful of moments throughout the course of the series, via a piece of kitchenware. However, these clips are all previously unseen moments, used to celebrate character arcs from the past and lovingly replicate production elements from previous seasons. “Crock Tales” tells a story through these “flashbacks” to reflect on how much these characters have changed and what elements have remained evergreen through the years.
Three years earlier, “Daphne Returns” took a different approach: After Niles and Daphne have a huge blowout, he stops to think back on key moments from their relationship. The episode has Niles and Frasier readdress pivotal scenes from Niles’s courtship of Daphne, but a current-day Frasier and Niles are edited into this old footage to break it down and look at it from a fresh perspective. It’s an inspired way to actually comment on the nature of memory and how love will cause you view things through rose-colored glasses. The purpose of these clips isn’t to reminisce, but to inspire change.
Scrubs, “My Déjà Vu, My Déjà Vu”
In 2006, Scrubs would also push the form forward with a clip show that attempts to reflect the cyclical malaise that people can feel when they’ve been stuck in the same place for too long, much like the characters in the series. “My Déjà Vu, My Déjà Vu” is an unusual variant on the standard clip show because it refilms old scenes from the series. In this sense, the episode still subscribes to the format and presents “old” footage, but the rerecorded scenes feature minor differences from their original episodes and are treated like fresh sequences. Not only does the episode find a unique way to present recycled material, but the miniscule differences in the performances and dialogue speak to how the little details in our memories are truly what’s important.
Community, “Paradigms of Human Memory” and “Curriculum Unavailable”
Community was always game to break down the foundations of the sitcom genre, and it hit gold when it put the clip show in its crosshairs with 2011’s “Paradigms of Human Memory,” an episode that consists of a slew of fake clips from events that didn’t happen in the series. The 22-minute episode features a whopping 75 scenes (an average episode features something closer to 20 to 30 scenes), 72 of which happen in new locations and feature elaborate setups and props, like a locomotive. If the point of a clip show is to save money, “Paradigms of Human Memory” blew up that notion; Dan Harmon says he even spent $30,000 of his own money to secure the rights to the Sara Bareilles song “Gravity” in order generate the desired satirical effect for a “love montage.”
The series would explore a similar concept in the following season’s “Curriculum Unavailable,” which is once again a fake clip show, but one that’s much more character-driven and fueled through the guise of therapy than the previous endeavor. By using the structure of a clip show as an opportunity to dig into new chapters of these characters’ lives, as well as explore old adventures from fresh perspectives, Community used its reflexive take on the antiquated idea to make television work harder, not become lazier. It simultaneously looked back to the past and forward to the future.
Rick and Morty: “Total Rickall” and “Morty’s Mind Blowers”
Taking a page from out of his Community handbook, Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland’s Rick and Morty turn to the same fake-clip-show device, but take a decidedly more sci-fi approach to the concept. “Total Rickall” looks at the frightening idea of implanting false memories into people and what happens when those memories become dangerous. Clips — or “memories” — are the threat here. This isn’t about characters thinking back to moments that the audience isn’t privy to, but rather it’s about them being tricked. “Total Rickall” gains a sort of tension that other clip shows don’t, because with each new clip this parasite grows stronger. After the revelation that this invading parasite only creates good memories, the episode shifts to a more somber tone, but in doing so it examines the nature of clips that tend to dominate clip shows in the first place and offers up the alternative. These are memories that you want to forget.
“Morty’s Mind Blowers” is much more interested in delivering as many jokes as possible, though it also wears its self-awareness on its sleeve. As the episode reveals its reflexive conceit, Rick even declares to Morty, “It’s not a Simpsons Halloween special! It’s more like a clip show made of … clips you never sawww!” The episode plays around with the concept of memory deletion and features original footage from Morty’s past memories, which he had asked Rick to erase from his mind. The idea grows increasingly complex and these renegade lost traumas push Rick and Morty to rock bottom.
Mike Tyson Mysteries, “My Favorite Mystery”
The idea of an 11-minute comedy that resorts to a clip show of old material is depressing, but Adult Swim’s Mike Tyson Mysteries finds an inventive spin on the antiquated device. “My Favorite Mystery” sees the mystery-solving gang stuck in an elevator — a situation that’s especially common in clip shows and bottle episodes alike — and reminiscing back to past cases. But the twist is that all of their memories are solely based on the show’s action-packed parody of a title sequence. The joke up until this point is that this theme song is supposed to feature clips from the series, but they’re all far too extreme to have ever taken place. However, “My Favorite Mystery” manages to provide ridiculous backstories for each of the segments featured in the show’s opening credits and connect them in a Rube Goldberg–like way. Tiny details that were never meant to make sense get fully fleshed out and justified. The show uses one clichéd television device to explain another, and it makes these silly ideas deeper in the process.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, “The Gang Does a Clip Show”
Now in its 13th season, if any show deserves the right to do a clip show, it’s Sunny — but “The Gang Does a Clip Show” takes especially bold swings meant to puncture the format’s legacy. It begins as a by-the-book clip show that revisits hilarious past moments, but it’s almost insultingly old-fashioned. There’s a montage for all the times that Dee has gotten hurt, another of the gang’s weirdest moments, and a supercut of times when the group’s actions cause mass confusion. Of course, none of this feels challenging or different.
Thankfully, the episode winds up pulling a fast one on the audience: The gang’s memories pollute each other as they misremember events and struggle to determine what’s the truth. One of the flashbacks that the gang “remembers” is actually an iconic scene from Seinfeld’s “The Contest.” The episode then goes one step further, where misremembered flashbacks actually change the nature of the gang’s current reality. “The Gang Does a Clip Show” takes on Inception-like levels of depth, where memories within memories are explored and the characters can’t even tell if they’re in a memory anymore, let alone whose.