Just like plumbers, or programmers, or surgeons, being a television writer is, at heart, just a job, and just like plumbers, or programmers, or surgeons, television writers do sometimes take shortcuts.
Jochen Sand/Digital Vision/Getty Images
"Duct tape, please, nurse."
And just as a plumber's shortcut can result in hot shit spraying over your floor, or a surgeon's shortcut can result in hot shit spraying over your floor, a television writer's shortcut can result in hot shit spraying over your floor, via your television. Writing shortcuts typically take the form of ancient jokes, first thought up when the world was young and used so many times that they crumble to ash as soon as they're uttered. Many of them no longer even make sense, as they're based on observational humor of things that can no longer be observed. Here, then, are six ancient gags the world has left behind.
The setup for this one is straightforward. A character, believing something of interest to be going on on the other side of a door, whether it's a lady changing clothes or a group of criminals changing clothes, decides he absolutely must know what's going on. But instead of relying on the power of his imagination, he instead bends down and peers through the door's keyhole. The camera angle changes, presenting the viewer with this:
The problem with this should be clear to anyone who's tried this around their home or workplace. Keyholes don't look like that anymore, and haven't since, I think, the days of ancient Greece.
Nowadays, if you try this, you're not going to see much more than this ...
... which means any attempts to view ladies changing is going to have to involve a little more planning, or, like, an Internet connection.
The basic biological nature of childbirth presents certain advantages in determining maternal parentage. If it came out of you, it's yours, and aside from a few exceptions (surrogate pregnancy, and also if everyone's giving birth in this one big darkened room), it's a pretty easy rule to work with. But the same doesn't hold true for fathers, who, until the invention of Maury, could never be 100 percent sure of their paternity.
And it's this foundation on which the Milkman Joke was laid. (Boom, word play.) You see, back when people didn't have refrigerators, dairy had to be delivered fresh by door-to-door milkmen. And as this was the same time when men were expected to be out of the house and women expected to be very much in it, there was an awful lot of unsupervised contact going on between married women and strange, milk-scented men.
We don't see this joke much anymore, and it's not merely because we've banished milkmen from our civilization.
"I SHOULD NOT BE."
No, the main reason is because women aren't trapped in their homes all day. The idea of their wife meeting men without their supervision is something that husbands just have to get used to now. It's a part of modern life; grown women should be free to adulter with any profession of their choice.
Back in the good old days of air travel, when anyone could walk into the cockpit and offer the pilots a relaxing back rub, hijacking was terrifyingly common. Like dozens of times a year common; one month in 1969 saw eight planes hijacked and redirected to Cuba.
"Leave the meter running, though; I'm just getting some smokes."
And that right there contains a big hint about how this became a running gag -- because hijacking used to involve the plane actually landing somewhere, either "freedom" (well, communism) or someplace where the hijackers would at least attempt to negotiate with authorities, passengers walked away from hijackings all the time. Fatalities happened, but they were far from a guarantee, and that was enough of a survival rate for comedians around the world to start joking about it. Here's a Monty Python sketch featuring a hijacker:
And here's the same gag during an episode of Seinfeld:
To put it mildly, the September 11 attacks changed things. We don't joke about hijacking anymore. That it took a generation-defining moment of horror to make writers give up a tired joke is a bad sign; we've got a lot more tired gags to go, and only so much appetite for generation-defining moments of horror.
How many have to die to finally rid us of "That's what she said"?