6 Famous Television Gags We'll Never See Again
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.
"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.
Peering Through a Keyhole
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"?
Hare Krishnas in Airports
Hare Krishna is a sect of a movement of a branch of Hinduism. Most notably, it's one of the few branches that encourage preaching and spreading Krishna consciousness, and the Krishnas of the 1960s and 1970s took that to fucking heart. Street corners, bus stations, and airports all had Hare Krishnas in their distinctive robes and shaved heads, chanting and singing and generally just getting up in everyone's grill about Krishna.
This is most famously depicted in the classic comedy Airplane, in which the gag is turned on its head when two Hare Krishnas are approached by Christian missionaries and brush them off with rolled eyes. It's also more hilariously depicted in the same film when the superbly named Rex Kramer is approached by a variety of airport missionaries and politely declines their advances:
We're unlikely to see this joke too much (although here it is mentioned in House M.D.) because Krishnas have been banned from airports for years now. Also, the movement itself has massively toned down its public proselytizing. They sing and chant and quietly do their own thing and there's no point referencing them because no one's seen them in 20 years and holy shit what if they're turning invisible!?
You know something, I've changed my mind. We must keep making Hare Krishna jokes, if only to raise awareness of this terrifying possibility. Carry on, hacks.
Cartoon Characters Committing Suicide
Suicide is one of those things that sound funny on paper, but in ... wait a second. No it doesn't. Suicide never sounds funny. It's an awful, gut-wrenching tragedy, the terrible conclusion to what must have been a series of smaller awful, gut-wrenching tragedies. It's one of the least funny things ever, and you'd have to be a complete maniac to find humor in it.
Maniacs, it turns out, easily found employment in the 1940s as cartoon writers. Warner Bros. cartoons in particular featured tons of characters killing themselves as the punchline to various bits. And not just bit characters. Have you heard of a guy called Daffy Duck? Yeah, he's dead now.
Here's Pepe Le Pew, the famous sexual predator (another hilarious character type that hasn't aged well), threatening suicide to get a girl to love him.
One of the most insane forms of this gag had a character (typically a bystander to the action) see something really zany. A dancing frog or something like that.
Or that specifically.
And then this character turns to the camera and says, "Well, now I've seen everything." And then, having nothing left to live for, he puts a gun to his head and, holy shit, kills himself.
I can't pretend that watching this kind of cartoon violence ruins a person. I watched Warner Bros. cartoons featuring gags like this all the time growing up, and I've managed to survive to this day. (Although I had one close call due to a mix-up between rabbit season and duck season.) But, you know, I think we can live with a lack of suicide jokes in our entertainment options. I think that's something we can safely tuck away in our past.
For anyone who wasn't alive to know what one is, a VCR was basically a tape-based DVD player. Which was itself a kind of disk-based Netflix device that required you to first drive to a Blockbuster. Which was itself a kind of horse-powered ... you know what, forget it. A VCR was a magic box that granted wishes.
But only if those wishes were for the chance to see grainy recorded episodes of Murphy Brown.
A recurring gag in film and television from this era was how hard VCRs were to program, in particular the clocks on them. A flashing "12:00" became the universal sign that someone found their VCR too difficult to program. There have probably been billions of jokes made about how difficult it was to set the clock on a VCR, with the implication being that the butt of the joke was a helpless simpleton.
"So this VCR box somehow steals the soul of these actors and forces them to react to these scenes for eternity? Super!"
The thing that always pissed me off about this joke, aside from the fact that I heard it a billion times, is how it was utter nonsense. VCRs were not hard to program. They were annoying to program. More importantly, there was no need to program them -- we all had better, more usable clocks everywhere else in the household, and resetting the clock on the VCR every time the power went out was pointless. That's why these clocks stayed blinking. Because people couldn't rightfully be bothered.
The intent of these jokes -- making fun of old people -- is fine and admirable. We, as a society, need to mock the elderly more. But if someone didn't set the time on their VCR, that wasn't a sign of stupidity. It was a sign of someone who had set their priorities perfectly.
"Ehhh. I'll just ask my kids to do it. I've been looking for a way to instill in them a false sense of superiority."