Sunday 22 April 2018

D'oh! Secrets of the perfect catchphrase

'You're fired!' and 'Let's have this week's Countdown Conundrum': two of the most iconic TV catchphrases ever. And today, Nick Hewer links the two.

Nick is Alan Sugar's former right-hand man on The Apprentice -- source of the first quote -- and he begins a new life as host of Countdown, now entering its 30th year.

Those two phrases did much to make both programmes as successful and enduring as they've been.

Everyone loves a catchphrase. They're a crucial factor in TV psychology: they embed programmes in the collective consciousness and become part of the fabric of pop culture.

But what makes a catchphrase iconic -- and where do they come from? David Coffey wrote, directed and starred in RTÉ's docu-style comedy Dan and Becs, and is currently writing a pilot script for NBC in America.

He says: "Catchphrases can be a bit lazy sometimes, particularly in sketch shows, but at the same time a lot of the older British sitcoms that I loved as a kid did have them, and used them well, and were very funny.

"If I watched them back now, it'd still be funny. And I remember things like 'Book 'em, Danno' off Hawaii Five-0, and 'What you talking' 'bout, Willis?' off Diff'rent Strokes.

"A lot of phrases just creep up on the audience; they didn't set out to create an iconic catchphrase. And some are actually misremembered.

"That famous line from Star Trek -- 'Beam me up, Scotty' -- was never said. It was misremembered by the audience.

"Personally, I like when a show has a comic device that gets reused, more than a specific catchphrase. Say in Arrested Development, the in-joke about Tobias who's gay but doesn't realise it, and the constant double entendres that everyone but him gets.

"Or on the American version of The Office, Michael Scott constantly uses a line, 'That's what she said'. The way they repeatedly use it in the show, it actually does become funny again, just because it's so lame.

"A good example of great writing in modern Irish comedy is Hardy Bucks. What's brilliant about it is there are new catchphrases in every episode, but they don't even need to repeat them: they're such great lines that viewers will pick up on them and repeat them in the pub next day. And then the week after, they'll have a new one."

The stories behind the creation of some iconic catchphrases can be almost as interesting as the shows themselves.

Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer Simpson, came up with the character's famous "D'oh!" thus: "It was written into the script as a 'frustrated grunt', and I thought of that old Laurel and Hardy character who had a grunt like 'D'owww'. Matt Groening (the show creator) said, 'Great, but shorten it'."

Similarly, the voice of Fred Flintstone invented the iconic "Yabba-dabba-doo". While first recording the show, actor Alan Reed asked producers: "Where it says 'yahoo', can I say 'yabba-dabba-doo?'" The phrase had come from his mother, who used to say to Reed as a child, "A little dab'll do ya".

When writing Dan and Becs, David Coffey says: "I wasn't trying to coin a catchphrase. I suppose I was aware, as well, that within the sort of 'Dublin 4' spectrum, the Ross O'Carroll-Kelly books use a lot of the slang terms and so on. So I wanted to stay away from that, to avoid comparisons."

Great catchphrases are legion -- and burned into our brains. Who can forget Captain Picard gravely intoning "Make it so" in Star Trek, Bugs Bunny's drawling "What's up, Doc?", Hannibal's classic "I love it when a plan comes together" on The A-Team, Gaybo portentously asking "Is that your final answer?" on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, or Victor Meldrew's grumpy "I don't believe it" on One Foot in the Grave.

Of course, The Simpsons is rife with catchphrases -- though interestingly, it's the ones that have evolved organically that we remember more than the gimmicky slogans from its early days.

David says, "Bart had a lot of 'wacky catchphrases' at the start, like 'Eat my shorts'. Either this was the writers' intention from the outset, or it was a thing that the toymakers put 'Ay caramba' on everything. Maybe if you look back, he didn't actually say it in every episode.

"But those early ones definitely died a death pretty quickly, whereas there are hundreds of others which have lasted. And a lot of them have now worked their way into modern parlance: you'll hear people saying, Mr Burns-like, 'Excellent' and immediately get the joke."

Irish Independent

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