Saturday, December 16, 2006

TV Land's 100 Greatest TV Quotes and Catchphrases

Catchphrases have probably existed almost as long as spoken language has. Of course, naturally the development of mass media has quickened the pace at which catchphrases are created. Naturally, then, television has created its own share of catchphrases. Indeed, I rather suspect that the majority of catchphrases in the late 20th century emerged on television.

As something of a student, then, I was interested in TV Land's 100 Greatest Quotes and Catchphrases. And, as might be expected, I agreed with some of their choices and disagreed with others. Naturally, the appeal of any given catchphrase is going to largely subjective. A catchphrase that one person might find witty or funny another might find downright annoying. Of course, I must also admit that there are many catchphrases and quotes that made the list to which I object on the grounds that, quite frankly, they are not TV catchphrases.

For me, a TV catchphrase is any catchphrase whose origins lie in the medium of television or whose popularity is largely due to television. If a catchphrase did not originate on television or if its popularity is not due to television, then, it is not a TV catchphrase. There are several catchphrases and quotes that made the list which are not, in my opinion, due to television. The most obvious examples of this are phrases I consider political catchphrases. Examples of this are "Read my lips! No new taxes," uttered by George Bush and "I'm not a crook," said by Richard Nixon. The former was a bit of propaganda said by Bush in a speech. It was shown on television, but also seen in person by a large audience and also disseminated through radio and newspapers as well. Its origins were then not with television, nor can one accurately say its popularity was largely due to television either. Much of the same can be said of, "I'm not a crook, uttered by Richard Nixon. These words were uttered as a bit of self defence in a speech made in the wake of the Watergate scandal. They were widely covered on radio and in newspapers as well as television. It is, then, not a TV catchphrase.

Although not a political catchphrase, I would say the same holds true for the famous words said by Neil Armstrong when setting foot on the moon, "That's one small leap for man, one giant leap for mankind (and while I'm talking about it, I disagree with those who say that the quote is grammatically incorrect....)." The lunar landing was not only covered on television, but also on radio and in newspapers as well. And while I've no doubt many first heard those words on TV, I don't think that its enduring popularity is due to television and I am sure many heard it first elsewhere (as on the radio). It is then not a TV catchphrase.

Of course, the keyword in 100 Greatest TV Quotes and Catchphrases may well be the term greatest. To make this list, then, a catchphrase should be something truly special, something, well, great. Some of the catchphrases on this list I thought simply weren't that great. And there were a few that I think are simply awful. This is true of the line "Whassup!" from the infamous Budweiser ads. This line could possibly be the most annoying line from any commercial at any time. I thought it was annoying the first time I saw the commercial and it simply became even more so after hearing it for the 100th time. It certainly doesn't qualify as great.

Another catchphrase that I don't think should have made the list was the line, "Whatchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?" This catchphrase was uttered by Arnold Drummond to his brother in the series Diff'rent Strokes whenever his brother said something Arnold thought was preposterous. Somehow it ranked at #8 on the list. Aside from the fact that, in my opinion, Diff'rent Strokes was one of the worst sitcoms of the late Seventies and early Eighties, there is also the fact that I don't think the line was ever that popular. I don't remember it being repeated by a lot of people in conversations, nor do I remember a lot of t-shirts, bumper stickers, and other paraphernalia bearing the catchphrase. Then there is the fact that, at least to me, the line was uttered, it reminded me of the speech of stereotypical blacks from movies of the Thirties and Forties. Indeed, I could see Stepin Fetchit or Amos and Andy uttering that exact same line, with the same intonation and the same facial expressions. To me this hardly qualifies it as a great catchphrase.

Of course, to me one of test of a catchphrase is whether it has passed the test of time. Catchphrases such as "Baby, you're the greatest (from The Honeymooners)" and "Would you believe... (from Get Smart are not great catchphrases because they were popular in their time, but because they have remained popular to this day. Given this, I am not sure that "Suit up (from How I Met Your Mother) should have made the list. It is simply too recent to determine if it won't be forgotten twenty years from now. The same holds true with "You're fired (from The Apprentice)." This phrase was immensely popular for a while, appearing on a good deal of merchandise. But ultimately it is of too recent vintage in my opinion to have made the list. For all we know, it and the show itself may be forgotten in twenty years. Somehow "You're fired" ranked #3 on the list.

Of course, there are also catchphrases that I think should have made the list. While "Live long and prosper" and the entire opening monologue ("Space, the final frontier..") from Star Trek made the list, I think a good argument could be made for Dr. McCoy's famous words, "He's dead, Jim," which I swear is in every other episode. And while "D'oh!" from The Simpsons made the list, I also think "Hi, I'm Troy McClure. You may remember me from such..." should also make the list--I'm sure I could name others from The Simpsons if I just thought about it for awhile.

Another catchphrase that, in my opinion, should have made the list is not so much connected to a show as an actor. Very few people probably recognise the name "Frank Nelson," but they'd certainly recognise his appearance (pop eyed with a moustache) and his voice. Nelson played appeared on both The Jack Benny Programme (even in its days on radio) and later played a number of roles on I Love Lucy. He appeared in many sitcoms from the Fifties to the Seventies (including The Addams Family and Sanford and Son), usually playing sarcastic, hot tempered waiters and salesmen. In nearly every appearance he made on TV (or at least it seemed that way), his back would be turned to the camera when he first appeared and then he would turn around and say his trademark, "Yyyyeeeessss." It never failed to crack me up. I could go on about other catchprases that did not make the list, but then I don't want this entry to be any longer than it has to be.

I do have to say that I think many of the catchphrases that made the list are indeed among TV's greatest. It is hard for me to argue that "Here's Johnny!" from The Tonight Show should not have been #1, and I don't think anyone would deny that "Baby, you're the greatest," from The Honeymooners should not have made the top ten. At any rate, I suspect TV Land's 100 Greatest TV Quotes and Catchphrases will be discussed by pop culture fanatics for some time to come.


Unknown said...

I do hate to see the pandering to recent shows/movies/music or what have you when these lists are made. I saw the Charlotte's Web film proclaimed "an instant classic" - which I can't understand. You can't grant classic status on something that has been in the public domain for a weekend.

Terence Towles Canote said...

I agree. Something can't be a "classic" when it has been out a week. It amazes me how much emphasis is often placed on recent shows/movies/songs/whatever. And the sad fact is that many of these shows/movies/songs/whatever will be forgotten ten years from now.