Running gags can be the life blood of a decades-old movie or TV series. They pop up with great regularity, reminding us that some things always stay the same. "The Tardis is always going to be bigger on the inside, don't you worry," they say. So here are science fiction's most enduring running jokes.
Often, running gags aren't actually funny. Maybe they were once, but time and repetition have worn away the humor and replaced it with comfort instead. They're like chicken noodle soup when you have the flu. And nowhere is this clearer than with those below.
The Doctor Who Two
A show that's been around for nearly fifty years is bound to have a bunch of extremely long-lived jokes. But there are two that stand out more when they're missing than when they're there. The first is ever-popular description of the TARDIS: It's bigger on the inside. Eleven (or Steven Moffat, more likely) seems to be fond of companions who don't describe the TARDIS properly. Rory correctly guessed that it was in another dimension and Clara preferred "It's smaller on the outside."
The second is the show's title itself: "Doctor Who?" It's a pun. An awful pun. A pun so awful that you almost feel like the show's title exists solely for that joke. It's in the very first episode, and it's so easy to imagine the glee in the writer's face when he wrote it. Yeah, it was given some deep import in later seasons, and is essentially the basis of the last season finale "The Name of the Doctor," but it's a little joke that got way out of hand.
Regardless, there are few things ALL the incarnations of the Doctor have in common. And you can bet that two of them are being told the TARDIS is bigger on the inside and hearing "Doctor who?"
Marvel and Stan Lee
It doesn't matter who is making a film. If it's based on a Marvel property, Stan Lee will show up. He sells hotdogs, gets misidentified by Tony Stark (twice), and is a not-very-alert librarian. In Spider-Man 1 and 2, he saves a girl from falling debris. In Daredevil, he's the one who gets saved. In Avengers, he tells us how ridiculous an idea superheroes fighting in New York City is. In the animated Ultimate Spider-Man, he's Peter Parker's school janitor. It goes all the way back to the early 80s animated Hulk show, where he was the narrator. It would be more distracting to see a Marvel property without him, since you just think you must have missed him and try to remember where he must have shown up.
Star Trek: They're doctors. Just doctors. Nothing else.
Each individual series had their own running gags. Deep Space 9 in particular seemed to enjoy them, with the entire existence of Morn counting. Then there are the ones that fans keep track of, like the never-ending destruction of both red shirts and shuttles. But the one that has most traversed both series and character is the one that should be Starfleet Medical's motto: "I'm a doctor, not anything else." This is a joke first said by Leonard McCoy in the first season of the original series and was most recently said by McCoy's alternate universe counterpart in Into Darkness. It must be ingrained in the minds of everyone in Starfleet, since they managed to program at least two versions of the Emergency Medical Hologram with a reflex for the phrase. For reference, here's a sampling of things Starfleet doctors are not:
- Coal miners
Star Wars has a bad feeling about this
We've all had bad feelings. But maybe everyone in the Star Wars universe has a low-grade sensitivity to the Force, because when they have them, Jedi or not, they're always right. Seriously, it's everyone. This is joke that started in Episode IV (where it was said twice), but spread past the movies into the TV shows, books, and video games. If I were somehow transported to this universe, and I heard anyone say "I have a bad feeling about this," I'd start running in the other direction, and fast. George Lucas also couldn't leave it to Star Wars, since it pops up in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, too.
The expanded universe also took Han Solo's statement in The Empire Strikes Back ("Never tell me the odds!") and turned it into a running gag. Apparently, Han's home system of Corellia is populated entirely by people ignoring the odds. You've got to wonder how they get anything done. One imagines everyone just sits around buying lottery tickets.
The 54 book young adult series made a lot of use alien character Ax for running gags. Ax had two major running gags with other characters. Jake and Ax often had some variation on this exchange:
Jake: Don't call me Prince.
Ax: Yes Prince Jake.
And with Marco, the common exchange would be that there were "x number of your minutes" and Marco would respond, "They're everyone's minutes." Those fish out of water types, always good for running gags.
Stargate loved the Wizard of Oz. Loved it. It got shout-outs in all three series. SG-1, Atlantis, and Universe. There's no place like home, clicking heels together, not being in Kansas – everyone got in on that action. And in SG-1's 200th episode, the writers took it even further, recreating a version of the Wizard of Oz with their characters in their universe.
This started as a Star Trek one. Well, technically, it started in 1964 as a "joke proof" at Pomona College, where Professor Donald Bentley "showed" that all numbers equal 47. This was apparently in service to the college's student project that catalogues sightings of the number. Then Pomona College alum Joe Menosky started writing for The Next Generation, where he put the number in his scripts. And then he explained the importance of the number to the other writers, and 47 stared showing up in almost every Star Trek episode. 47 ships are destroyed. Shields are down to 47%. A database search reveals 47 matches.
47 also shows up in J.J. Abrams' work. Alias characters searched for page 47 of a prophecy, it's in the center of a bulletin board in Fringe, engine number 47 shows up in Revolution, part of Super 8 takes place in Warehouse 47...
It shows up everywhere these days. To the point where it's almost impossible to see its use as unintentional or random. It always seems to be on purpose, turning every instance into something like a conspiracy. Which, to be fair, isn't what the 47 Society wants.