It’s hard to believe now that a show like Hogan’s Heroes was ever on the air. Can you imagine making a sitcom out of life in a German prisoner of war camp, where the Nazis were cowards and idiots who were easily duped by the crafty Colonel Hogan and one of the running gags was about sending the Germans to the Eastern Front? Yet when I was a kid, Hogan’s Heroes was one of the most popular shows on TV, filled with catch phrases that kids used every day in school — whether it was Colonel Burkhalter’s “Dummkoff!” or Klink’s fist-shaking “Hogan!!!!!!” or — most often — Sergeant Schultz’s “I know nothing . . . nothing!”
I was disappointed to see that I couldn’t find a clip of Schultz’s “I know nothing!” on YouTube, but this still shot with the famous line being delivered is the next best thing.
I never liked Happy Days. In fact, I really despised it. With its plastic depiction of the 1950s, its leaden and predictable plots, its galling laugh track, and its loads of irritating characters — from the wooden Richie and his bratty kid sister to the consistently unfunny Potzie and Ralph Mouth to the ludicrously chipper “Mrs. C” — Happy Days was like the Generic Sitcom Producers Union’s effort to produce an anti-All in the Family. For me, at least, the Fonz didn’t change that.
Nevertheless, there was a time during the mid-’70s when you could not talk with a fellow student at Upper Arlington High School without someone sticking up their thumbs and saying “Ayyyyyyy!” During my lifetime, that catch phrase may have been the one that was most likely to be repeated during normal conversation. Needless to say, it got to be painfully annoying.
Get Smart was one of the best, funniest shows of the ’60s. It was excellent from beginning to end, from the great theme song and the wonderful opening credits with the doors and the phone booth to the gadgetry like the shoe phone and the Cone of Silence. Of course, Get Smart also featured dimwit agent Maxwell Smart — played to perfection by Don Adams — and his trademark phrase “Would you believe . . . ?” This clip purports to be the first time that phrase was used on the show.
What was the first TV catch phrase? When did TV writers and stars realize that there was something different about this new entertainment medium that made viewers crave the familiar line that they had heard so many times before? The discovery probably occurred at the very dawn of the TV era, when someone like Milton Berle was running out of new ideas and decided to re-use some old material, and realized to his astonishment that the audience loved it.
I can’t think of many catch phrases from the early TV shows. If Lucille Ball had a catch phrase on I Love Lucy — other than crying Waaah! when one of her plans went awry — I don’t recall it. The first catch phrase I can think of is also one that would never be used on modern TV: Ralph Kramden’s frustrated uppercut and cry of “Pow! Right in the kisser!” when Alice had finally and conclusively squelched another of his harebrained get-rich-quick schemes on The Honeymooners. (Of course, everyone knew that Ralph loved Alice deeply and would never, ever hurt her.) If that was in fact the first catch phrase, later TV stars owe Jackie Gleason a huge debt.
TV is a form of entertainment that lends itself to catch phrases. How many TV characters can you think of who defined themselves, at least in part, through catch phrases? Whether it is Gomer Pyle or Fonzie or Bart Simpson, there are countless personalities who came to prominence because, for a brief instant in time, their catch phrase caught the country’s fancy — and then a year or two later was tossed into the dustbin of TV memories gone by.
A good example was Jimmy Walker’s “Dy-no-mite!” as he played the smart-aleck beanpole character of J.J. on the ’70s sitcom Good Times. Why was it funny and popular for a few months? It’s hard to know just why — but it just was.