A running gag, or running joke, is a literary device that takes the form of an amusing joke or a comical reference and appears repeatedly throughout a work of literature or other form of storytelling. Though they are similar, catchphrases are not considered running gags.
Running gags can begin with an instance of unintentional humor that is repeated in variations as the joke grows familiar and audiences anticipate reappearances of the gag. The humor in a running gag may derive entirely from how often it is repeated, the (in)appropriateness of the situation in which the gag occurs, or setting up the audience to expect another occurrence of the joke and then substituting something else (bait and switch). Running gags are found mostly in television shows, but also appear in other places, such as video games, films, books, and comic strips.
A running gag can be verbal or visual and may "convey social values by echoing belligerent speakers with a barrage of caricatured threats." For example, a character may present others with a proposition that is so ridiculous or outrageous it is likely to be self-mocking to the point where the original request has little or no chance of actually being carried out and results in a humorous effect. Occasionally, the characters themselves may be aware of the running gag and make humorous mention of it.
Examples of running gags
Running gags in animated cartoons
- Avatar: The Last Airbender - A cabbage seller always gets his shop destroyed by the main characters. This carries on into the sequel series The Legend of Korra.
- Bugs Bunny: Whenever Bugs is confronted with an opponent he never loses his cool and asks him nonchalantly: What's up, Doc?.
- Droopy - Droopy remains stoic and phlegmatic, until his opponent crosses a certain line. Then he announces to the audience: "You know, that makes me mad" and gets incredibly aggressive and violent, after which he returns to his former self.
- Donald Duck's trademark Gibberish as well as his notoriously bad temper.
- Happy Tree Friends - Handy pulls a frustrated look and an annoyed grunt at the camera, indicating that he forgot that he doesn't have hands.
- Family Guy - Cleveland Brown is often taking a bath, when suddenly something happens to his house, causing him to slide off - bathtub and all - and crash down. He usually starts screaming: "No. No. NO!". Peter sometimes meets Ernie the Chicken, with whom he has very long fight scenes. Whenever someone trips over (usually Peter Griffin) he starts rubbing his knee in pain for several long seconds.
- Futurama: Professor Farnsworth always announces Good news, everyone, which invariably turns out to be the exact opposite.
- Pokémon - Brock falls in love with every woman the protagonists meet, but is dragged away by Misty, Max, and Croagunk.
- The Ren & Stimpy Show: A horse was frequently asked for his opinion, to which he usually took some time to think it out, but always said: "No sir. I don't like it."
- Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote: The Coyote never manages to catch the Road Runner, whatever he tries. In every cartoon there is at least one gag where he is seen falling down from a cliff from a bird's eye perspective, another part of that gag is that he only starts falling once he looks down. Another running gag is the fact that all his products are made by the same company Acme Corporation. This running gag would eventually spread to other Looney Tunes cartoons as well.
- Shimmer and Shine - The genie Shine has a habit of saying "Its like I always say...", only for her twin sister Shimmer to point out she has never heard her say the saying in question, causing Shine to say the punch line, "that's cause I just made it up". In "Sleep-Over Party" Shine even follows the punch-line by performing rim shot on some drums that their friend Leah had summoned by one of her wishes. In "Welcome to Zahramay Falls", Shine and Shimmer do the gag but their roles are reversed.
- The Simpsons - All episodes start with Bart Simpson writing a sentence on the chalkboard for punishment, which changes every time. In the same opening credits the family runs for their couch in front of the TV set, but always something different happens.. Other running gags are Mr. Burns always forgetting Homer's name and being oblivious to Waylon Smithers' secret love for him. Smithers's homosexual orientation, Barney Gumble's belch, Nelson Muntz's mocking laugh and Maggie Simpson falling over are also frequent recurring gags. In many episodes something goes wrong at school, causing Superintendent Chalmers to run in and shout: "SKINNER?!", much to Principal Skinner's panic. In earlier seasons Bart usually made a prank call to Moe Syzlak using a fake name which is usually a lame pun. Moe only understands he was fooled when he asks other people in the bar whether they know this person and they all laugh at him. The never explained question in which state Springfield is located has also been a running gag for years.
- South Park - In earlier seasons Kenny McCormick died at least once an episode, only to return the next one as if nothing had happened.
- SpongeBob SquarePants - A certain fish in many injury-inducing events that says "my leg" 1-2 times after the event (humorously replaced with "my eyes" to fit a scene in the film based on the series).
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles while all four Turtles have a shared love for Pizza, none have it as intensely as the surfer-dude Michelangelo, this is evident by the many times Mikey is heard describing the deliciousness of pizzas.
- Wacky Races - Muttley the dog always snickers at various points in one episode. The same soundbite is played over and over again during this particular scene.
Running gags in comics
- Agent 327 ) - Agent 327 tries to enter his office in disguise at the start of every album, but he does this so well that nobody recognizes him. Either other people take his disguise too seriously and arrest or hold him up or his colleagues take a long time before they want to let him inside the building. Other running gags are the fact that every company is named Habraken and that the secret identity of Victor Baarn (a thinly disguised jab at Prince Bernhard) needs to be protected.
- Astérix. Many fights errupt in the village because of Unhygienix' rotten fish or because Cacofonix attempts to start singing, in which he is dreadful. Chieftain Vitalstatistix - who is carried around on a shield - often falls off due to the stupidity of his carriers. Whenever Obelix notices something strange about foreign people, particularly the Romans, he mutters: "These [ - ] are crazy!". In almost every story Asterix and Obelix encounter a group of pirates who - because they have been beaten up by the Gauls before - immediately panick and try to sail away. Many albums also end with the Gauls celebrating with a huge dinner, while Cacofonix is always tied up and mouthcuffed to a tree.
- Billy Bunter - All gags end with Billy being caught and caned by his headmaster.
- Blondie: Dagwood Bumstead often tries to hurry outside his house, only to bump into the mailman.
- Donald - Gladstone Gander always manages to be lucky in extremely coincidental series of events that play in his favour.
- Gaston - Mr. Demesmaeker always tries to get some contract signed at Gaston's office, but his attempts keep on failing due to Gaston's stupidity.
- De Generaal - The general in this comic tries to pull off a military coup in every episode, but always fails.
- Gilles de Geus - Admiral Lumey's self-important and clumsy behaviour always backfires on him. Leo, Gilles' best friend, never says anything else but "Hee..."
- Iznogood - Iznogood tries to throw over the regime of the caliph and literally states that he "wants to become caliph in place of the caliph." He never succeeds.
- Johan and Peewit - Peewit often tries to sing while playing the harp, but the others always run away to avoid hearing his terrible noise.
- Jommeke - Filiberke is often playing something and stays in character throughout the entire story, no matter how serious the adventures get.
- De Kiekeboes - Many albums have Kiekeboe's boss, Mr. Van De Kasseien, have an extramarital affair with other women, usually his secretaries. Fernand Goegebuer, Kiekeboe's neighbour, always spits when talking. Then there is Mevrouw Stokvis, a friend of Kiekeboe's mother, who is always mentioned, but never appears on screen. There is also an obese lady in a red T-shirt, nicknamed De Dikke Dame (The Fat Lady) by readers, who has a cameo in every album without ever being mentioned by name.
- Kim Possible - Ron Stoppable always ends up ripping his pants somehow.
- Krazy Kat: Krazy Kat always gets a brick thrown at his head by Ignatz, whereupon Ignatz is taken to jail by Offissa Bull Pupp.
- Lilo & Stitch - Dr Jacques von Hämsterviel's last name is always mispronounced as "Hamsterwheel", whereby he frustratedly keeps correcting the pronunciation.
- Lucky Luke: Rantanplan never understands what is going on around him and makes wrong conclusions. Averell Dalton is usually trying to eat something even if the timing is not appropriate. Whenever Joe Dalton hears or sees Lucky Luke he gets so worked up about it that others have to calm him down.
- Mad magazine – Had many recurring verbal and visual gags, including the curse word Potrezbie.
- Megas XLR - Whenever Coop is angry at an opponent, he always delivers a monologue (called "a roll") whereby he insults the opponent, followed by a "beat-down" and eventual victory.
- The Adventures of Nero: Nero and other characters frequently visit their creator, Marc Sleen, to complain about the way a story progresses but he is always on safari.
- Peanuts: Charlie Brown tries to kick a football, but Lucy van Pelt tricks him every time by pulling it away from him. Lucy also tries to "help" Charlie frequently by offering psychiatric advice for money, but it always turns out to be bad or useless advice, which costs Charlie his dollar. Other recurring failures of Charlie are his kite, which always gets stuck in a tree, and the fact that his baseball team always loses. Pigpen gets instantly dirty whenever he leaves his house. Linus tries to guard his security blanket at all time. Snoopy is often seen trying to write a book, but never manages to get further than the first line.
- Popeye: J. Wellington Wimpy always manages to trick others by taking away their money or having them pay him a hamburger.
- S1NGLE: Nienke often calls her mother to insult her or gets cranky because she is having her menstrual period.
- Suske en Wiske: Tante Sidonia usually stiffens in her nervous breakdown, causing the others to have to calm her down again. Krimson also suffers from nervous breakdowns and orders his servant Achiel to feed hem a heavy dose of pills immediately. Lambik often manages to capture the antagonists, but they always fool him in some way so that they can either escape or hold him hostage instead.
- Spy vs. Spy - One of the spies always manages to outsmart the other.
- The Adventures of Tintin - Characters frequently try to phone people, only to receive the number of Butcher Cutts instead.
- Tom Poes - Bommel always boasts about himself, but nobody takes him seriously, particularly not the vain Marquis de Canteclaer who always insults him. Police officer Bulle Bas always suspects Bommel of crimes he didn't commit. Other running gags are Wammes Waggel's naïvité, Wal Rus mispronouncing Bommel's name and Garmt Grootgrut complaining that small proprietors (like him) are always the victim.
- Urbanus - The characters are always excited to hear that their uncle Fillemon is about to die, which means they'll inherit his fortune. Invariably it turns out he's getting better again.
Running gags in films
- Ghostbusters - In the first film, Louis Tully repeatedly locks himself out of his apartment (and has other troubles with doors), yet he becomes the "Keymaster" in the latter half of the movie after being possessed by Vinz Clortho.
- The Fast and the Furious - Vin Diesel's character Dominic Toretto often does Wheelies whenever he's racing off the start-line in a Muscle car. This was due to the overwhelmingly positive response received by the wheelie he did in his 1970 Dodge Charger at the end if the first film. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's character Luke Hobbs was compared to several Marvel Comics superheroes by Ludacris' character Tej, including Captain America, The Incredible Hulk and Thor (Tej had Luke's contact info on his phone saved under the name "Samoan Thor"). Roman also joked that Luke is using Baby oil to make his muscular physique shimmer in sunlight.
- Fast & Furious 6 - Roman Pierce complains, after having crashed his car (pointing to the massive dent in the top of the windshield and roof), that it could've been his forehead, whereby his teammate Tej immediately jokingly responded with "That ain't big enough for yo forehead". The gag is used again when Luke Hobbs jokingly referenced Roman's forehead.
- The Great Race - Professor Fate says, "Push the button, Max," and always chaos ensues.
- Laurel & Hardy - After Hardy injures himself due to Laurel's stupidity he always looks into the camera with an exasperated look.
- The Marx Brothers - Harpo's muteness is often played for laughs. Many films also have him chase girls with a car horn.
- The Three Stooges - Whenever there's an argument Moe always starts slapping Larry and Curly, after which a huge poking and hitting about scene errupts.
- Young Frankenstein - Horses whinnying in terror at the mention of Frau Blücher's name.
Running gags in radio series
- Fibber McGee and Molly: When McGee tells a bad joke, Molly often answers with the line "T'aint funny, McGee!". The closet was often often opened, but always followed by cacophonous noise, whereupon McGee noticed: "I gotta get that closet cleaned one day."
Running gags in television series
- 'Allo, 'Allo - René Artois embraces his waitress Yvette in every episode, only to have his wife Edith suddenly come in and ask him what was going on. René would always scold her: "You, stupid woman!" and then quickly come up with an excuse that managed to convince her immediately. Leclerc often came in in a paper-thin disguise, only to make the obvious statement: "It is I, Leclerc", while lifting his glasses.
- The Andy Williams Show - In many episodes a black bear rings the door asking for "milk and cookies". Whoever was in the house closes the door in irritation.
- Are You Being Served? - Mrs. Slocombe is always talking about her cat, but uses the word "pussy", which causes much innuendo. Whenever someone asks whether someone is "free" (to come and help) Mr. Humphries also misinterprets the question as if someone is looking for a bachelor and shouts: "I'm frééé!".
- Bassie en Adriaan: Handige Harry's bombs always explode too early, causing him, his boss and his cronies to be the victim. Whenever B100 loses track of Bassie en Adriaan his boss, the Baron, always gets so angry that he destroys his mobile phone.
- Cory in the House - President Richard Martinez always turns his head towards the camera and looks straight into the camera when he states, with pride, the phrase "President of the United States" in an "announcer's voice". Several other characters also did the same thing when referring to him, or the position itself. Hannah Montana added her own flare to it when she met President Martinez in a crossover episode.
- The Big Bang Theory - Several running gags throughout the show deal with Sheldon Cooper's many quirks, including: He always knocks 3 times, then states the person's name 3 times in succession before he enters, even Penny started doing it just to make fun of him; He's very OCD about everything he does, most specifically about "his spot" on the couch. When he is sick, the only thing that makes him feel better is when the person taking care of him sings a lullaby called "Soft Kitty".
- The Dick van Dyke Show - Dick is always tripping over the couch during the opening credits.
- Diff'rent Strokes - Arnold Jackson would often say his catchphrase: "Whatchu talkin' about, Willis?" whenever Willis said something that he didn't understand.
- Doctor Who - The Doctor always introduces himself by stating his name, causing others to ask him: "Doctor who?", to which he replies: "Exactly."
- Fawlty Towers - Whenever Manuel is unable to understand others he asks: "Que?". Either Basil or Sybil usually try to explain any mishaps by blaming Manuel and saying: "I'm sorry, he's from Barcelona."
- F.C. De Kampioenen - DDT's windows are always smashed in by a football, causing him to run outside and shout at the players: "Zal 't gaan, ja?"
- The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air - Jazz is always thrown out of the house by Uncle Phil. To add for comedic effect it was always the same clip as well.
- Hannah Montana - Leading the double life as a normal teenage girl by day who happens to be a pop-superstar by night, Miley's double life as Hannah often gets in the way of her relationships and several times other characters have almost figured out her identity, only to be stopped by Suspension of disbelief. Miley's catchphrase "Say What!" often follows a short description of what/who she's referring to, like for example: "Daddy, Say What!?". These phrases also get longer and longer as the series progresses, like: "Best friend who told me I can't say Say What, Say What!?" and "Oversized-sweatshirt-buying-Daddy-who-just-said-3-time-Academy-Award-winning-director-producer-of-Jaws-Jurassic Park-E.T.-Men in Black I & II-wants-me-to-star-in-his-next-big-Blockbuster-opposite-a-Mission: Impossible-hunky heartthrob SAY WHAT!?". The Stewarts' frequently use country sayings that Californians Lily and Oliver don't understand. Lily seems to like impersonating Miley's dad Robbie's Southern Accent and while Miley does have a less pronounced accent, she enjoys exaggerating it from time-to-time. Jackson is very good at Celebrity impersonations and several times did ones of Elvis Presley and Ozzy Osbourne.
- Happy Days - The Fonz only has to snap his fingers and jukeboxes start playing automatically.
- Keeping Up Appearances: The milkman, postman or one of Hyacinth's neighours is often seen trying to sneak outside to do something necessary, hoping that they'll be able to leave again before Hyacinth notices them. She always does, much to their panic and frustration. Hyacinth herself is also victim of a running gag. Whenever she visits Onslow's house she is surprised by a barking dog in a car, causing her to fall against a hedge. Whenever Onslow watches TV he hits it to get the channel he needs. If he and Daisy drive away in their car the exhaustion pipe always explodes.
- Little Britain: The wheelchair patient is often seen leaving his chair while others are not looking.
- Monty Python's Flying Circus: Many episodes start with Michael Palin playing a shipwreck survivor who mutters: "It's...", where upon the title of the show was announced. Later episodes also featured John Cleese in costume sitting at a desk saying: "And now for something completely different" or Terry Jones (or Terry Gilliam) playing a naked organist during the opening credits.
- Samson en Gert: Among the many running gags are the fact that Samson and Gert's doorbell doesn't work and that the mayor is often seen playing with toy planes until he is surprised by people ringing him or knocking at his door.
- Schalkse Ruiters - The character De Man van Melle (The Man from Melle) always appeared at least once in every episode, usually to complain that he felt lonely and that women could always phone him on his address, "The Koekoekstraat nr. 70 in Melle".
- Sesame Street - Bert and Ernie go to sleep, but while Bert really wants to take a nap Ernie keeps him awake. In the end Bert is either unable to go to sleep due to circumstances caused by Ernie or, when he does fall asleep, Ernie wakes him up again.
- Sjef van Oekel - Many episodes had Van Oekel announce that he "didn't feel so well".
- The Suite Life of Zack & Cody & The Suite Life on Deck - As is expected with identical twins, Zack and Cody are often mistaken for each other, mostly by the dimwitted heiress London Tipton, and they often take each other's places as well, this gag is again explored with British twins Jessica and Janice, when both Zack and Cody fall for them, not knowing they are twins, the sisters then often speak in unison and use the catchphrase "Really, really!". Arwin Hawkhauser repeatedly faints right after he get's a kiss from his crush, the twins' mother Carey. Carey repeatedly uses her old "boyfriend-stories" in an attempt to parent the boys. London repeatedly makes fun of Maddie and Nia for being poor, and Bailey for being a farm-girl and constantly criticizes their fashion and looks, and in a response to her insults, they often make sarcastic remarks about her and lose their patience with her but ultimately make-up when London bribes them with money, which didn't work though with Bailey. Muriel, the lazy, but saucy, red-headed maid shows up right after something breaks, and utters the phrase "I'm not cleanin' that up" and despite her job as a maid, she's never seen doing any actual cleaning, mostly just lying sleeping on a couch with her feet up, or stealing small change from customers. Emma Tutweiller is often over-emotional when it comes to relationships, as she has difficulty landing a permanent one and this is emphasized by her large collection of pet cats, an ode to the Crazy Cat lady. Mr Marion Moseby always seems to catch a particular fragile vase before it breaks.
- Top Gear - Presenters Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May regularly tease each other by nicknames like: The Orangutang (Clarkson), Hamster (Hammond) and Captain Slow (May). During one season, Clarkson apparently found a Teeth whitening set in Hammond's car, and repeatedly teased him about it, to which Hammond responds every time by saying "I have not had my teeth whitened". May's often long-winded explanations about science and engineering has led to the others humorously labelling him dull and then they pretend to fall asleep during one of his "lectures". Clarkson's outspoken behavior and obsession with "horsepower", led him to become the "class-clown". The humorous introductions of The Stig also became a running gag. Another running gag is when Clarkson attempts, and fails, a difficult challenge right after boasting about "How hard could it be?".
- That '70s Show - There are several opportunities where Fez explains what his country of origin is, but the viewer never finds out because loud noises drown him out. In other circumstances someone just interrupts him.
- "The running gag, a staple of broad comedy, depends on the watcher's reference to the passage of time".Byron, Mark S (2007). Samuel Beckett's Endgame. Editions Rodopi B.V. p. 82. ISBN 978-90-420-2288-1.
- "The running gag has long been recognised as a standard ingredient of slapstick comedy ..." Beaver, Frank Eugene (2007). Dictionary of film terms: the aesthetic companion to film art. Peter Lang Publishing Inc. p. 207. ISBN 978-0-8204-7298-0.
- "... the running gag and the catchphrase, both important staples in most situation comedies …" Neale and Krutnik. Popular film and television comedy., quoted in Morgan-Russell, Simon (2004). Jimmy Perry and David Croft. Manchester University Press. p. 2. ISBN 0-7190-6556-9.
- Brunvand, Jan Harold. American Folklore : An Encyclopedia Garland Reference Library of the Humanities ; Vol. 1551. New York Garland, 1998. p. 719; 812. ISBN 978-0-8153-3350-0.