A clip show is an episode of a television series that consists primarily of excerpts from previous episodes. Most clip shows feature the format of a frame story in which cast members recall past events from past installments of the show, depicted with a clip of the event presented as a flashback. Clip shows are also known as cheaters, particularly in the field of animation. Clip shows are often played before series finales, or once syndication becomes highly likely. Other times, however, clip shows are simply produced for budgetary reasons (i.e. to avoid additional costs from shooting in a certain setting, or from casting actors and actresses to appear in new material).
Clip shows have their origin in theatrical short films and serials. Every serial chapter always had a brief recap showing where the previous chapter left off, but, beginning in 1936, entire chapters were largely devoted to material that audiences had already seen. In these recap chapters (also called "economy chapters"), previous chapters were summarized for those who may have missed some episodes (which were unlikely to be rerun). The practice began with the Republic Pictures serial Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island. Adverse weather conditions slowed the filming of this outdoor adventure budgeted for 12 chapters, and screenwriter Barry Shipman was forced to create two more chapters to recoup the lost production costs. Shipman wrote a few scenes in which the screen characters recount their adventures to date, and stock footage from previous chapters is shown instead of new sequences. Shipman's brainstorm was a convenient way to economize on production, and soon Republic made the recap chapter standard procedure.
Movie studios often resorted to old footage to save money. The most famous example is the short comedies of The Three Stooges which, from 1949 until 1957, borrowed lengthy sequences and often entire storylines from old shorts. Only a few new scenes would be filmed as a framework for the old footage. This practice was adopted because the studios could charge more money for "new" films than for old ones.
Animation studios were also known to periodically make cartoon shorts - often referred to as "cheaters" - made up primarily of clips for earlier cartoons in order to save money. Examples of this include Betty Boop's Rise to Fame (Fleischer/Paramount, 1934), What's Cookin' Doc? (1944, Schlesinger/Warner Bros.) and a regular yearly series of Tom & Jerry "cheaters" such as Smitten Kitten (1952, MGM).
One variant of the modern clip show is the compilation episode, using clips from the most popular episodes, assembled together in one episode, sometimes without a frame story as such.
Another format is to have a host who describes various characters and characteristics of the show to introduce various clips from past episodes. For example, a special one-hour clip show episode of All in the Family featured actor Henry Fonda discussing the main characters on the show followed by relevant clips from previous episodes; a similar two-part clip show appeared on Three's Company, hosted by Lucille Ball. This format was parodied in a clip show for The Simpsons ("The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular"), in which fictional actor Troy McClure—a recurring Simpsons character—introduced the clips.
A third variation, used in a two-part clip show episode of Cheers featured the entire cast of the show, including former cast members, sitting on a stage while being interviewed by talk host John McLaughlin about their characters on the show, with clips of previous episodes mixed in. A similar clip episode of Barney Miller aired after the death of cast member Jack Soo, with flashbacks introduced by the rest of the cast highlighting Soo's character Detective Sergeant Nick Yamana.
In the Avatar: The Last Airbender episode "The Ember Island Players", the show's main characters watch a play about themselves based upon the events of the series thus far. Although the episode contains no actual footage from previous episodes, the actors recount many scenes from the series and show all the significant plot events. "The Ember Island Players" was the last episode before the four-part series finale.
The NBC sitcom Community used the clip show format with the episode "Paradigms of Human Memory", but rather than using clips from previous episodes, the cut-away scenes in that episode were all newly shot. In some cases the clips were set in events of previous episodes, and in other cases the clips showed events that had never before occurred on the show, such as visiting an Old West ghost town, taking over for a glee club killed in a bus crash or going on a fishing trip.
While clip shows do reduce production costs, they were originally employed in an era when there were far fewer program outlets and it was less likely that episodes from previous seasons would be aired again. Clip shows typically received strong ratings, and it was expected for any successful comedy series to feature clip shows regularly in its later years. However, the episodes were subject to some ridicule due to their forced or "corny" framing devices (such as a family sitting peacefully around a fireplace) and the frequently awkward transitions between the frame story and the clips (such as characters staring into space while the screen blurs to represent "remembering").
Daytime soap operas frequently present clip shows as a way to commemorate a show's milestone anniversary or the death of a long-running character. Many fans take advantage of the shows in order to see vintage clips of a particular soap opera. One example was an episode of As the World Turns in which seven of the longest running characters were stranded in a forest and remembered some of their best moments, all in honor of AtWT's 50th anniversary.
Another common rationale for a clip show is the lack of a new show to air, due to failure to meet production schedules. For example, the computer-animated series Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles used clip shows four times for this purpose, interrupting in-progress story arcs. Similarly, the Moonlighting season 3 episode "The Straight Poop" helped to fill out a production schedule that was rife with delays: in 15 weeks since that season began, only 8 episodes of the "weekly" series had been broadcast.
Other times budgetary considerations force clip shows. At the end of its second season, Star Trek: The Next Generation had one more episode to shoot. However, Paramount cut that show's budget to make up for an episode earlier in the season that had gone over budget—and, similarly, over schedule, leaving only three days for principal photography. Because the season had gotten off to a slow start due to a writers' strike, the producers had no scripts set aside for future use as they normally would have. The result was "Shades of Gray", in which the "clips" were the induced dreams of a comatose William T. Riker. The episode is widely considered among the worst of any Star Trek series.
Clip shows today tend to offset such criticism by trying to make the frame tale surrounding the clips compelling, or by presenting clip shows without any framing device. A show might also diffuse the awkwardness by indulging in self-parody, explicitly acknowledging or intentionally over-playing the device. Many series have included parody clip shows using "clips" from episodes which never happened. The South Park episode "City on the Edge of Forever" shows scenes from previous episodes, but the details are always wrong, and in the end, everyone gets ice cream. As another example, Clerks: The Animated Series ran a clip show as its second episode, even though there was only one prior episode from which to pull material. The aforementioned Moonlighting clip episode, in typical fashion for the show, used a framing story that broke the fourth wall to determine if the characters themselves were the source of the show's notorious production delays, and ended with the characters promising a "new episode next week!".
The clip show has been employed more seriously as a means to bring viewers up to date on highly serialized dramas, such as on Lost and the reimagined Battlestar Galactica. Many anime dramas used similar techniques, particularly when a series ran for more episodes in one season than could be reasonably rerun (such as Mobile Suit Gundam Wing running for 49 episodes, which were originally aired weekly).
Sometimes clip shows air before or during a series finale as a way for audiences to reminisce about their favorite moments. Some examples of shows that have used clip shows in this sense are: Animaniacs, Frasier, The Golden Girls, Seinfeld, Sex and the City, Friends, Thunderbirds, Everybody Loves Raymond, Stargate SG-1/Atlantis, and Cheers.
- Block, Paula M.; Erdmann, Terry J.; Moore, Ronald D. (2012). Star Trek: The Next Generation 365. Abrams. p. 330. ISBN 9781613124000. Retrieved May 24, 2015.
- Nemecek, Larry (2003). The Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion: Revised Edition. Simon & Schuster. p. 94. ISBN 9780743476577. Retrieved May 24, 2015.