Yesterday, I wrote about a writing device that Orson Scott Card thought was no longer useful. Today, I’d like to write about one device I loathe. I call it “The Screech Cue,” and it is sadly a staple of lesser sitcoms and film comedies. It’s the bottom-of-the-barrel gag that writers resort to when they’re trying to pad an episode or go for a cheap laugh. Its use should be criminalized.
“The Screech Cue” is so named because in my experience, the most egregious uses of it happened on Saved by the Bell, and their target always seemed to be Samuel “Screech” Powers. But you’ll see it on every other comedy as well, and the butt of the joke is almost always the awkward and/or stupid person in the cast. (If it isn’t either of those, it’ll almost certainly be the snobby vain character.) You’ve seen the setup a million times, I’m sure. It goes like this:
KELLY: “I was at the mall today, and there was a sale on turtle hats.”
ZACH: “You mean, hats that look like turtles?”
KELLY: “No, I mean hats that actually have turtles ON THEM.”
ZACH: “That’s stupid. Who would be stupid enough to buy such a stupid hat?”
(Enter SCREECH, wearing a turtle hat.)
SCREECH: Hey, guys! Check out my cool turtle hat!
(Cue canned laughter, mass audience suicide)
And if we’re really lucky, the turtles will be of the snapping variety. That way, Screech can get his ear bitten, and shriek like a little girl. It’s two – Two – TWO JOKES IN ONE!
“The Screech Cue” has been so overused for decades that veterans of television sitcoms can sense its future deployment from as many as four scenes away. Occasionally, it can still surprise. Mostly, however, it is now funny only in the conceptual sense – we understand we’re supposed to find it hilarious, but we don’t. Humor is the art of the unexpected, after all. So a trope used too often ceases to be truly funny. It just stands there, wearing a stupid turtle hat, silently pleading with us that we give it the benefit of a chuckle just this one more time. And then it comes back in another episode. Or on another show. And makes the same plea.
I hate “The Screech Cue,” and I only wish it were a living and breathing thing so I could do everyone in the world an immense favor by beating the stuffing out of it.
On a related note, this is why I enjoy Get Smart quite a bit less than I used to. Don Adams’s secret-agent spoof absolutely depends on this same type of repetitive gag. “Missed it by that much.” “Sorry about that, Chief.” “I asked you not to tell me that!” “Would you believe…” And of course, the ever-popular Cone of Silence, which I’m not sure worked properly once in the show’s five-season run. As a child, when I watched Get Smart on Nick at Nite (back when Nick at Nite still had a big lineup of shows worth watching), I was so new to the gags that they set me off every time. Now, I smile wanly at the following setup:
CHIEF: We need an agent for a top-secret mission. Get Agent 43 in here.
99: Sorry, Chief, Agent 43 is already on assignment in Germany.
CHIEF: Well, how about Agent 12?
99: Oh, Chief, don’t you remember? Agent 12 is still in KAOS custody!
CHIEF: He is?
99: Yes, you sent him that fruit-basket escape kit last week!
CHIEF: Well, how about you, 99?
99: It’s my vacation next week, Chief.
CHIEF: Who do we have available, then? We need someone steady, reliable, resourceful.
(Enter MAX, looking a little sheepish.)
MAX: Ah, Chief…just one question. We’re supposed to destroy the papers in the red files, right?
CHIEF: No, Max! Those are top-secret documents stating the location and mission status of every agent CONTROL has!
MAX: Ah, I see. (pause) Do we keep backups?
A “Reverse Screech Cue,” combined with a similarly tired gag (I call it the “But We Can Fix It, Right?”). Conceptually amusing, but familiar.
What’s that? You wanted me to laugh?
Sorry about that, Max. But you missed it by that much.
Can you think of similar sorts of tired jokes?