Monday, January 25, 2021

The Bernie Meme and how it applies to comedy writing

It's always a concern in a comedy writing room -- A joke or a bit or sight gag gets a huge laugh.  So to get the most out of it you bring it back, maybe in a slightly different form.  And that gets a big laugh too.  

So you repeat the process.  

Until you run the joke into the ground.  

Comedy writers have to be vigilant because it's a lot easier to go with the 57th variation of the same joke rather then come up with a brand new one.   My position:  stop it before it even becomes a question of whether the joke has been driven into the ground.  

I bring this up because of the recent Bernie Sanders Meme.  By now we've all seen the shot of him at the Inauguration. 

Later that day a few photoshop posts appeared on social media inserting him into various scenes.   And they were very funny.  I really laughed at the first seven or ten.  And I get that it represented a relief and joy after four years of sheer hell. 

But by the weekend half the posts on my Facebook news feed were Bernie and his mittens. -- inserted into family photos, movie one-sheets, famous paintings, historic scenes, rock concerts, the moon, etc.  

So tell me, do you still find them funny?  They stopped for me.  

Be careful in your writing.  Don't milk every joke for the last drop of comedy.  Don't use the same catchphrase five times in one script.   

When I see that in spec scripts I immediately say, "Lazy writer."  

"Callbacks" are a useful and handy tool.  Trying to get out of the scene?  Think back to one of the things that happened in the scene and make reference to it in the final joke.   

But beware!  Too many callbacks and you suck the life right out of them.  A good example is the Reverend Jim TAXI scene I posted over the weekend.  There is a repetition on "What does the yellow light mean?"  When they were filming, Chris Lloyd (who plays Reverend Jim) got so many laughs he just kept repeating it and repeating it.  But the producers wisely knew that there was a cut off point -- from when it was funny to when you wanted to kill everybody on the screen.

I'll be interested to see just how long this Bernie-mitten/"Where's Waldo?" phenomenon continues to dominate Facebook.  Hopefully, by the middle of June some people will be screaming, "OKAY! WE GET IT!"  

It's a comedy trap.  Don't fall in. 


Pizzagod said...

Agreed. As far as the mechanics go, it's been done to death.

That being said, I posted the Bernie in M.A.S.H. pic on Twitter and even tagged you-not because I thought it was side splitting, but with all the references to George Orwell as of late, I could see where you could almost kinda sorta remember Bernie being there.

Similar to the Rick and Morty parasite adventure where the parasites were being inserted into the family's memories.

With all the deep fakes and manipulation of the media, and of course our recently departed Orange Menace who advised us not to believe our eyes but what he and his propaganda machine were spewing, I'm wondering how long until people actually remember Bernie or the mittens being in photos?

Was J.J. Walker saying "Dy-No-Mite!" at least once an episode an example of lazy writing? Was this something that would come out of the writers room at four in the morning "We need something about....?"

memocartoonist said...

I think it definitely stopped being hilarious around Friday morning - but after all of the stress and chaos, I found it refreshing to laugh and share something that wasn't enraging me. The Mike Pence/Fly meme generated some good laughs but nowhere near the level of hilarity that I found the Bernie meme to be. Given that we have had to wade through endless hate tweeting, I gladly welcome my new Bernie meme overlords. :)

memocartoonist said...

Yes, the Bernie meme wore itself out by Friday but if people still want to post and laugh at them, I'm OK with that. After the hate tweeting/misinformation/ endless conspiracy theories / threats of violence, etc, I'm quite OK if the 'biggest' thing going on is that a meme is being worn out. and Bernie turned it into a fundraising opportunity thus acknowledging and turning the joke into some financial power. That's not a bad thing to come out of it. :)

Yachnoff said...

I am still enjoying some of the new Bernie memes and like some of the new creative ways it's being used. But yes, it is going to get old. Like any meme it has a shelf life of a sliced avocado.

VincentS said...

I still find them funny. In fact, after a dip where, as you say, Bernie was inserted into mundane backgrounds they started to get imaginative again. One recent one superimposed him and AOC into the moment in ET where the bicycle takes off with AOC as Elliot and Bernie as ET. But I think there is a deeper significance in these mega-viral memes, although what it is I haven't a clue. Why did they start the day of the inauguration and why have there been so many for so long and in so many different variations? If it were just relief from the ending of the Trump era they why isn't it a Biden meme (have you seen the one of Biden looking sadly out the window with the caption, "Hey, everybody. I have mittens too?")? Moreover, Bernie (not the memes) was trending #1 on Twitter the day of the inauguration. PS - I think the woman in Vermont who made the mittens is missing a golden opportunity in not mass producing them!

Max said...

I'm amazed that people say they were done with them by Friday. When I awoke on Thursday and saw 12 of them lined up in my news feed, I was done with them. Yet they keep coming.

Josie Ann said...

Agree. It ran its course by late Thursday, in my mind. I tried to share this on my facebook page to help the masses.

It got the most comments in a long time. People not versed in comedy thought it was still funny. I told them that Bernie himself could squeeze out a laugh if he wanted. But to remain relevant as humor it needs to shift again. Or pause and reappear.

I did approve of the Cracker Barrel picture being hung. It was a new take and it is a permanent call back for people who sit in the booth. That was well done!

Troy McClure said...

Friday question for you, Ken. Please excuse the length.

One of the toxic aspects of television as a medium is the power to diminish the serious threat posed by individuals just by virtue of them appearing on a light entertainment show. I'm referring to the tendency of networks to invite controversial politicians onto their shows, as when Sean Spicer appeared on Dancing with the Stars, Sarah Palin appeared on The Masked Singer, and George W Bush went on The Ellen Show. The aim is to present them as just colorful characters who shook things up, so that their legacy is perceived as not really being that bad after all.

Although the late night hosts and the rest of the industry have been condemnatory of Trump, I have a fear that in a year or two, the networks will invite this despicable man onto their shows for a "lightheaded" appearance. I can picture it now. The press will also go along with presenting him as a colorful eccentric who proves he's got a great sense of humor for doing The Masked Singer or whatever show they get him on. And much of the public, I'm sorry to say, will demonstrate the same amnesia as they did when they embraced Spicer, Palin and Bush for their lighthearted appearances.

We know this could happen with Trump, because it already did. Years of movie cameos, TV commercials, comedy show appearances and a reality show served to make Trump appear a benign figure to much of the public. "Hey, he did the Comedy Central Roast! The guy can laugh at himself! He's alright!"

Do you think there's a real chance this will happen? Or am I being too cynical about the entertainment industry being so willing to give rotten politicians rehabilitation via television that they'll do the same for this piece of shit?

We both agree Trump is a soulless, remorseless, corrupt, greedy, abusive, narcissistic, misogynistic, racist, fascist sociopath who has disgraced the office of president like no one before and has emboldened and incited racists and domestic terrorists. But given the history of the entertainment industry in getting notorious public figures for the ratings, and given the tendency of the masses to forgive such heinous figures just because they saw them taking part in a goofy TV show, I believe this will happen with Trump in a year or two. Assuming, of course, he isn't in prison by then.

Anonymous said...

Josie Ann, "people not versed in comedy..." Wondering, what does this mean?

Covarr said...

When it comes to callbacks, one of the best shows is ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT. It's got callback jokes constantly. But what makes it work is that it's not really the same joke as before so much as a reference to the joke before. There might be some key difference that entirely changes the meaning (context is everything), or the fact that it's the same might itself be the joke, or maybe it's a different joke altogether that builds on a joke from much earlier. Not to mention, they vary the callbacks. That show has an absolute ton of jokes to begin with, so you can put six different callbacks to six different things rather than making any one of them grow stale.

The yellow light gag in TAXI, to break it down (which makes it less funny, sorry), is really three jokes: Jim doesn't get it (surface joke), Bobby doesn't get what Jim is doing (first repetition of Bobby's line), and they're both so dense that it will basically go on forever (subsequent repetitions). Personally I think the gag went on too long, but certainly three times is entirely justifiable.

I guess the issue isn't so much in repetition in and of itself, but repetition for no better reason than "it was funny before so it's funny now", because at that point you're just adding something that's already there.

As for Bernie and his mittens? Personally I considered it dead the first time I saw it used for marketing (a local realtor friend of mine did this). Nothing makes a trend lame faster or more effectively than a business trying to cash in on it.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Just last night, a friend of mine on Facebook went into this huge rant about how the Bernie memes have been played to death and enough is enough already.

I'll admit, there have been a number of really hilarious ones out there (one of my personal favorites was inserting him next to Steve Martin and John Candy for PLANES, TRAINS, AND AUTOMOBILES), but I'll agree that year, it's become overkill.

I'm reminded of the time I ad-libbed something very early in my puppeteering career that ended up becoming a running gag for an entire day: when I was performing for a PBS pledge drive, the other on-air personalities mentioned they were going to be discussing a new TV special called THE WORLD'S LARGEST CONCERT when we come back . . . for some reason, I had a little light bulb moment, and when they came back to us, I had my character Steve D'Monster ask, "So tell me more about this world's largest corn dog you guys were talking about!" For the rest of the day, any chance I got, Steve would mention corn dogs - by the end of the day, I had almost everyone in the studio hungry for corn dogs - it was all hilarious. After that, however, I knew that I played with it so much in that one day, that if I kept it up any further, it would be overkill and no longer funny, so Steve never mentioned corn dogs again whenever I did pledge drives . . . even though some people would try to prod me behind the camera the very next day to start up again, I wisely chose not to.

I suppose that's happened with the Bernie meme at this point.

Cory said...

I have a Friday question that may or may not have been covered. Back int he 70's, Mel Brooks put a clause in his Blazing Saddles contract that Warner couldn't make a sequel unless they made a TV series of the movie. When they announced they were making a sequel, he reminded them of the clause, and 6hey showed him they had made four seasons of "Black Bart" with Lou Gosset Jr.

How did they get people to work on that show for so long, knowing it wasn't being broadcast, and did people know about it when it was being made? The whole thing just fascinates me.

Unknown said...

Bob Newhart was the king of callbacks, without killing the joke. Did it best in Newhart. I'm not talking about Larry, Darrel and Darrel, but how they set up a premise at the beginning of say, him not liking chocolate ice cream. it keeps popping up during the 30 minutes, and ends with him knocking down a tray of ice cream, and everyone going, well, he doesn't like chocholate. Of course it was done better in the show than my description

Jeffrey Graebner said...

I remember reading a discussion somewhere (it wasn't here, was it?) about the bit with Sideshow Bob stepping on a rake on "The Simpsons". Basically, the gag starts off as mildly funny, is repeated to the point where it isn't funny anymore, and then they keep repeating it until it reaches a point where the repetition is more funny than the original gag was.

At least for me, I think the Bernie memes have reached the point where the sheer quantity itself is pretty funny. The meme itself really only struck me as mildly amusing, but the amount of effort and, in quite a few cases, the creativity being applied to it is more amusing to me than the meme itself.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I think Twitter, where they have gracefully gone to rest, may be a better venue for such things. The big finish was I think yesterday or Saturday in the form of a crochet pattern to make your own Bernie mittens doll - premade ones are now being sold and auctioned on eBay and Etsy. Crochet Bernie is hella cute.


Michael said...

In my classes, I include in my powerpoint a portrait of the Constitutional Convention and point out the weird stuff--Washington standing so ramrod straight that he MUST have back issues, Hamilton and Franklin whispering to each other as though they're trying to figure out where to find some women, two guys doing what looks like a Nazi salute ... Well, I do intend to include the meme of Bernie at the convention, and say that for a few years in class I've claimed he's so old that he was there, and now I have proof.

About Ken's bigger point, Jack Benny was an expert on this. He was talking with Jack Pearl, whose Baron Munchausen character's big line was, "Vass you dere, Sharlie?" and said, it would go over bigger if he skipped it for a week or two. Pearl said, "But that's my biggest line." Well, like all of the one-note radio comics--i.e., Joe Penner's, "Wanna buy a duck?"--he didn't last long. By contrast, Benny would tell people new to working for him that he only would do each gag once or twice a year--the Maxwell, the vault, etc., so they went over bigger when the time came.

That reminds me of something that may or may not be a question. Ken, you were a story editor for "Temporary Duty," where Hawkeye goes to another unit and George Lindsey is terrific as his "replacement." I wondered how that story came about, in part because Benny did a show where his only line in it was at the end but the rest of the show was his cast talking about him, and it got me thinking about having Alan Alda, the star of the show, being absent for a lot of the plot, though he was central to it. Also, do you recall how Lindsey was to work with?

maxdebryn said...

"Black Bart" was an unsold pilot. It aired once, I believe. It was horrible.

Craig Gustafson said...

There's a Facebook group for fans of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe. There's a Facebook group for pretty much everything. Anyway, Stout died in 1975, and I was griping about the continuation of the books by another author. One of my complaints was the lack of callbacks. The narrator of the books, Archie Goodwin, would hear an odd turn of phrase, stow it in his mind and call it back four or five chapters later and turn it on its head. It would be used a couple of times and then dropped, and it was always funny. The follow-up writer doesn't know or care how to do that, and it's one of the wrinkles that make his books inferior.

Craig Gustafson said...

And, yes, I did a Bernie meme, putting him out in the snow with Laurel and Hardy in "Below Zero."

Buttermilk Sky said...

The photographer who took the Bernie picture, Brendan Smialowski of Agence France-Presse, says it's not going into his portfolio because it's not his best work.

I don't think he's getting paid for the many re-uses, either.

Andrew said...

Maybe I'm strange, but they still aren't old for me. Yes, the meme has been done to death, but new ones show up which are unique and clever.

Something a bit different about this meme was the number of celebrities who placed Bernie into something associated with them. My favorite was Ben Stiller putting Bernie on the couch between the Costanzas.

Andrew said...

Damn, now that is a Friday question. If Ken responds to it the question will take up two thirds of his post.

KB said...

It's a Nakamora.

Todd Everett said...

I remember the first time I saw Andy Kaufman - whom I’d never even heard of - at the Improv in L.A.
In his “foreign man” (prototype of Latka) character, he sort of shuffled onto the stage and hesitantly telling jokes. At first we (well, I) felt sorry for him, then hoping he’d leave the stage, and then started laughing (maybe feeling guilty; he was a person, presumably with feelings. And did I mention, it was fairly late on a weeknight, and the waitresses may have outnumbered the audience),
Finally, he announced, sheepishly, that he was going to do impressions.
As he turned his back to the audience and mussed up his hair, audible groans emanated from the audience.
Then he turned back to us, and...well, everybody knows what happened next.
It may have been the most brilliant piece of comedy I’ve ever seen.
All based on stretching a bit way too long.

blinky said...

Let's face it. The internet is like a bunch of 7 year olds playing soccer. They all run in a bunch after the same ball until they get tired and want a snack.

Troy McClure said...

Lol, Andrew. I'm sure Ken would just edit my question down to make it fit.

Anonymous said...

Blinky, the entire internet? Banking, shopping, blogging, communication, networking? All of this is "like a bunch of 7 year olds playing socccer."

VP81955 said...

George Lindsey was a heckuva character actor. Not long ago, I saw him play a baddie in a 1964 "Gunsmoke" episode whose cast members included Ed Asner and Robert Culp, and George more than held his own. In later years, Lindsey worked with the University of North Alabama's film program, and an annual festival is held there in his honor.

Dan Mnz said...

I think the Yellow Light joke was fine at TWO. Get's the point and joke over and done with. Three is okay I suppose and doesn't overdo it enough to piss anyone off, but maybe catches a few more in on the joke. After three it's just sad.

McAlvie said...

I keep thinking they are old and I’m tired of it, and then someone will share an especially clever one. But I think it’s about done now. But it sure was nice to have something to laugh about that wasn’t mean.

Caleb Martin said...

To Covarr's point, "Well, that was a freebie" is still my favorite running gag from Arrested Development.

It subverted the writing "sin" of letting your character off the hook through sheer coincidence, because the coincidences were always so out of left field and so shocking, and the "that was a freebie" deadpan reaction always subverted your expectation of how whichever character said it should have reacted.

Ere I Saw Elba said...

Forgive me, but I can't resist a FRASIER reference, from the Halloween costume party episode:

Niles: This party is for literary figures. So who are you supposed to be?

Bulldog: I'm Waldo--from "Where's Waldo?" You know, the guy who gets lost in the crowd. Don't you know him?

Niles: No, But I'd love to see a demonstration [pushes Bulldog into the party goers].

Bernie Sanders is pulling off a pretty solid Waldo meme. Mittens instead of the striped shirt, but still...

John in NW Ohio said...

"Sit on it, Potsie!"

Drove me nuts.

blogward said...

Friday question: I've just (from Scotland) been catching up with the Bob Newhart Show - which was never networked in the UK. Don't get me wrong, I LOVED Frasier, best sitcom of its era, but to my eyes, the production similarities with early 'Newhart' are uncannny - even the credits font is the same as Cheers (Cooper Black!).

As for a stuffy, middle-aged, balding psychologist conducting one-handed consultations on the phone - he's kind of Niles Crane crossed with Dick Van Dyke!

How much do you think that Frasier - and maybe its getting greenlit - initially owed to Bob Newhart? I'm not making accusations of plagiarism, it just never occurred to me that the Frasier style is part of what seems to be a (glorious) US sitcom tradition.

Mark said...

It was only a TV pilot called “Black Bart”

JessyS said...

When it comes to catchphrases, I don't care for them and think they are too overdone. Some good examples are FAMILY MATTERS "Did I do that?," FULL HOUSE "You got it, dude!," and THE SIMPSONS.

On the other hand, running gags are great. Some that come to mind are Norm's entrances on CHEERS, Simpsons couch gags, Al Bundy calling his neighbor Marcy a chicken in various ways on MARRIED WITH CHILDREN, and Lucy always managing to get into the show on I LOVE LUCY.

On that note, a Friday question for you. What do you think of the CHEERS scene in the Simpsons episode "Fear of Flying." Also, what about the "Flaming Moe's" theme song in the season 3 episode of the same name. You can get Gary Portney's opinion on the latter.

Barry Rivadue said...

The Bernie meme was funny just once. It became offensively unfunny, no matter how wacky the variation, after that.

Roger Owen Green said...

I didn't "get" the Bernie meme. At all. Or sea shanties.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I think the reason so many people *have* enjoyed the Bernie meme is that it is, somewhat unusually, an affectionate one. A number of posters have commented that the shot reminds them of their father or uncle. It's a rare positive moment. Last year, the Conservative leader in the UK, Jacob Rees-Mogg, draped himself disdainfully on a bench in the House of Commons debating chamber, and while the resulting memes were definitely funny they were scathing in intent.

Sanders himself has sold out of T-shirts and sweatshirts with the image on them, money going to Vermont charities, and the mitten-maker and others like her have also used their moment of fame to benefit others.

As for the sea shanty thing: I'm someone who's been around the folk scene and shanty singers for decades, but I still think this is kind of cool. I like the fact that people are putting in the effort to create their own entertainment.


Brandon in Virginia said...

Social media has made it too easy to run a joke into the ground, very soon after it becomes a thing. Remember the reality show housewife "arguing" with the cat? Facebook had a good time with that, and it stopped being funny after a couple days. Bernie is just another in the long line of memes that people share over and over and over again, with little self-awareness of how dead that horse is.

Around 2013 or so, Beyonce did a Super Bowl halftime show and there's a part where she has a very intense look on her face. Instant meme material. Friend of mine showed me a meme, which I'd already seen. Then another. Then another. Then another. In my mind, I'm thinking exactly what Mr. Levine stated. Enough already.