In short, a running gag is a joke that gets repeated multiple times throughout a movie. It can be a verbal joke that comes up through dialogue or a visual gag that has to be interpreted by the audience.
Recurring jokes are a particular type of trope: if they’re done well, they’ll always get a laugh; if not, they’ll ruin the mood of the whole movie. By nature, a running gag is repetitive so if the joke wasn’t funny the first time or it is simply repeated over and over without adding anything more, it can be cringy and annoying.
How to write a running gag
The best way to write a good recurring joke is to follow these rules:
- repeat it at least 3 times
- make it slightly different every time
- make it relevant to the plot (without calling too much attention to it)
Let’s take as an example the 2020 holiday movie Happiest Season. It’s filled with running gags (like most holiday movies) but none of them feel boring or annoying (unlike many other holiday movies).
Abby is an orphan
The plot of the movie revolves around Abby, a girl who’s going to meet her girlfriend’s parents for the first time on Christmas. There’s a problem though, Harper (the girlfriend) hasn’t come out of the clot yet.
So while they’re on their way to her parents’ house she tells Abby that her family thinks she’s straight. Also, her excuse for bringing Abby home for Christmas is that she pities her “orphan friend” who’s all alone in the world and has nowhere else to go during the holidays.
The setup for the joke is an important element of the story: it’s Harper’s “excuse” that allows her to spend the festivity with her girlfriend without raising any suspicion on her sexuality.
However, if you’ve watched any movie ever, you’ll know that this is not going to go smoothly.
Apparently, in order to be convincing, Harper seems to have told her parents a tearful and tragic tale that makes Oliver Twist seem fun by comparison.
Almost everyone who meets Abby has to: shake her hand, look her in the eyes, and say something heartfelt about how tragic her life was, how strong she is, or how sad her parents’ passing is to them.
Harper and Sloan are in competition
The way this running gag is set up is in itself hilarious. Harper’s mother takes Abby on a tour of the house when they stop at Sloan’s old room she explains that she has always been an overachiever and a successful student.
While that’s happening, Harper stands behind Abby rolling her eyes, annoyed at the mere mention of her sibling.
Throughout the movie, the two sisters find themselves bickering or straight-up insulting each other and competing for the attention of their parents like teenagers (except they’re grown-ass women).
In the end, this recurring joke pays off because it becomes the catalyst for the climax of the movie. Sloan realizes that Abby and Harper are in a relationship and she threatens to tell their parents.
This prompts a fight with her sister where she has the honor to say the greatest line in movie history (after “Back off has-bian”):
“Stay out of this Sappho!”– Sloan to Abby
This is a great example of a running gag because not only it is funny and appears several times during the movie, but it also shows us a different side of Harper’s character and gives her sister motivation for her actions.
The Instagram campaign
The mother’s “Instagram campaign” running gag works well as a sort of meta-joke that highlights the flaws of the family.
Harper’s mom not only is the human embodiment of the term passive-aggressive, but she is also obsessed with appearances. She is running a social media campaign for her husband’s election and whenever she’s around she has a tablet in her hands, ready to manufacture heartwarming family photos to post on Instagram.
This is a funny way of showing the entire philosophy of this family: “Everything is ok as long as it looks ok”. While the family members are all miserable and feel hurt or misunderstood, they don’t talk about it, they just put on a smile (even with each other) and pretend that everything is fine.
This running gag is mostly there for laughs but it’s also a setup for the heartwarming final scene.
Jane (Harper’s sister) has been working on a fantasy book for over 10 years and every time she talks about it she brings up the wackiest details of the world where the story takes place. She always gets dismissed both by strangers and by the people in the family who think that her writing is just a silly hobby.
At the end of the movie, however, she’s there signing autographs and reading passages from her book to her fans while her family members smile proudly.
Riley is a doctor
Riley Harper’s ex is a doctor, Her profession never really comes up as a serious topic, she’s always joking about diagnosing “mystery illnesses” at parties or about her patients’ ridiculous theories.
However, this recurring joke gives a little dimension to a character that otherwise wouldn’t have that much personality.
John is tracking everyone
Now let’s see what everyone’s favorite gay best friend is doing: tracking people.
This running gag is set up as a throwaway joke at the beginning of the movie, John tells Abby that he’s tracking a guy he left in the apartment to make sure that he leaves. Then, surprisingly, he reveals that he’s still tracking her while she’s with her inlaws.
Finally, right when Abby is sad and feels trapped, John comes to rescue her and says that he was able to find her by tracking her.
It’s funny, but also functional for the story.
Why the running gag is important
In Happiest Season, the recurring jokes do a great job at making the story feel “connected”.
Rather than writing a couple of throwaway gags for each scene and calling it a day, the screenwriters for this movie took the time to build on their existing jokes and use those to give more depth to the story and the characters.