When Zach Galifianakis marches up to Will Ferrell while toting a crossbow at the end of the trailer for The Campaign, Ferrell’s character should know what’s coming: A dart directly in his thigh. Then again, perhaps Ferrell’s character didn’t see the trailer for The Five-Year Engagement, in which Emily Blunt Misses also gets shot in the thigh with a crossbow. Or the trailer for This Means War, another 2012 release, in which Chris Pine gets a dart in his neck.
These days if you star in a comedy, it’s your outrageous fortune to get stuck over and over again with darts and arrows—especially if you’re Will Ferrell, who seems to have played an outsized role in popularizing the old gag. (How old is it? Hard to say, but back in the ’70s, Steve Martin was already doing a similar arrow-through-the-head joke ironically.) Ferrell has done multiple takes on the gag, the most notable perhaps being the dart in the neck he took in Old School. Just watch the trailer for 21 Jump Street, in which Jonah Hill discovers that he has a knife sticking out of his back, and says only “That’s awesome!” Sean William Scott has the exact same reaction to the dart sticking out of Ferrell’s neck in Old School.
Ferrell seems to have popularized not only the I-have-a-dart/arrow-stuck-in-me gag but also the close cousin seen above, the I-have-a-knife-stuck-in-me gag: The 21 Jump Street bit recalls not only Ferrell in Old School, but also Ferrell in Talladega Nights. In the trailer for that movie, Ferrell similarly sticks his thigh with a knife, even after John C. Reilly and Michael Clarke Duncan warn him not to. Ferrell also appears in the video for “Fight For Your Right (Revisited),” in which Elijah Wood gets stabbed by Chloë Sevigny (whose character, we learn, is on acid), before they continue to party with the knife still sticking out of his stomach.
By 2011, even network TV was starting to catch on. The second season of Happy Endings featured one character getting stabbed in the thigh with an oyster shucker. The promo clip was called “You Stabbed Me, Dude!“
These gags not only serve as minor setpieces in the movies but also—and maybe especially—as major features in their marketing. It’s no coincidence that nearly every one of these movies plucked out their dart-in-the-neck/knife-in-the-back moments for use at the end of their trailers. Slate’s Josh Levin explained this phenomenon as it pertained to the face-smash in 2004:
The last miniscene in a preview—what industry types call the “button”—must be punchy, if not literally a punch. Jordan Levine, the president of the trailer house Celluloid Heroes, says focus-group studies have found that viewers rarely, if ever, remember anything from the middle of a preview. That's why the button has to be “short and sweet, like a one-liner, or like a slap in the face—a little wake me up.”
The arrow-in-the-thigh appears to have replaced the face-smash as today’s button of choice. Like the face-smash or the kick-in-the-groin, the arrow-in-the-thigh hits every target audience at once.
Or did, anyway. But these gags depend on a shock value that has long ago worn off. The advantage of these gags is that they’re both gruesome and nonlethal (one reason for the popularity of the thigh), and unlike a gunshot or a face-smash, they also linger—the thing is still sticking out, after all. But these days, when I sit in a theater and see one of these gags, any uproariousness has been worn down by stab after stab after stab. They aim broad, and they miss.