I’ve forgotten most of my elementary school classmates, the subjects I studied in high school, and the names of some of my college roommates, but I can still remember lines from cheesy TV shows I watched 35 years ago. A couple of syllables of Dick Emery’s “Ooh you are awful …” elicits a Pavlovian “but I like you!” The question “Are you free, Mr. Humphries?” has only one possible answer: “I’m free!” And if I were ever greeted with the words “Nice to see you,” I doubt I could restrain myself from answering, “To see you nice.” Admittedly, those are catchphrases more than “lines,” but they’ve been lodged in my head for decades.
In the late 1970s, when I was at my adolescent TV-watching peak, it seemed that every British show boasted a whole slate of slogans. In Britain, it was also the heyday of impressionists like Mike Yarwood, whose imitations of TV characters and comedians were facilitated by the repetition of a catchphrase, so being cast as a sitcom character with a familiar saying was as reliable a path to fame as a sex tape is today. The writing team of Jimmy Perry and David Croft created a slew of British sitcoms—Dad’s Army, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, and Hi-de-Hi!—that were little more than a string of catchphrases linked together by a few slender sinews of script.
That decade was also a golden age of catchphrases here in the United States, from Kojak’s “Who loves ya, baby?” through Welcome Back, Kotter’s “Up your nose with a rubber hose” and Alice’s “Kiss my grits,” to Good Times’ “Dynomite!” Eventually, though, perhaps because they came to seem hokey and dated, catchphrases became less common. They mostly survived in sketch shows like Saturday Night Live—where an instantly recognizable refrain like “You look mah-vellous,” “That’s the ticket,” or “Well, isn’t that special” is key to establishing a recurring character—and on cartoons. Nothing conjures the antic spirit of South Park more effectively than “Oh my God. They killed Kenny,” and The Simpsons is so lousy with catchphrases that everyone on the show (except Lisa) has at least one.
These days, sitcom catchphrases are the province of the meta (Community’s “Pop! Pop!”), the self-aggrandizing (How I Met Your Mother’s Barney Stinson), the semi-autistic (Big Bang Theory’s “Bazinga” and Community’s “Cool, cool, cool”), the pathetic (The Office’s “That’s what she said”), and the self-consciously gimmick-seeking (30 Rock’s “Dealbreaker”). Sometimes they are even retired (Happy Endings’ “Ah-mah-zing”).
The only genres where catchphrases legitimately flourish are sports and reality competitions, where each show has its own. “The tribe has spoken. It’s time for you to go.” Top Chef has “Pack your knives and go,” Top Design had “See you later, decorator,” and The Apprentice, of course, has “You’re fired.” Generally, there’s a limit of one slogan per show; in recent cycles of Project Runway, Tim Gunn has eased up on his use of “Make it work,” giving Heidi Klum’s “Auf Wiedersehen” more room to shine.
One glorious show has bucked this trend: RuPaul’s Drag Race, which will crown the next drag superstar on Monday night, has so many catchphrases that it almost works as a sing-along. It begins with “You’ve Got She-mail”; continues through Ru’s exortations, “Gentlemen, start your engines, and may the best woman win” and “Don’t f**k it up”; until the departing contestant is told to “sashay away,” while the winner of the lip-sync for your life elimination hears “Shante, you stay.” Ru’s final words are always “Remember, if you can't love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else? Can I get an amen in here?” If the catchphrases, the sexual innuendos, and the drag slang were removed from the show, Drag Race would be quieter than The Artist.
Of course, RuPaul’s Drag Race is a niche show—last April’s Season 3 finale, which was its highest-rated episode, was seen by just 585,000 viewers. But catchphrases may make a comeback on network television in June when Fox premieres the dating show Take Me Out. According to the ITV website, Paddy McGuiness, the host of the hit British version, is “famed for his catchphrases.” When the date-seeking bloke is brought to the stage on the “love lift,” Paddy has been known to utter such lines as, “Let the treasure see the chest,” “Let the door see the knocker,” “Let the hanky see the panky,” and, in a turn of phrase that almost certainly will not pass U.S. host George Lopez’s lips, “Let the winkle see the picker.”