A running gag, or running joke, is a literary device that takes the form of an amusing joke or a comical reference and appears repeatedly throughout a work of literature or other form of storytelling.
Running gags can begin with an instance of unintentional humor that is repeated in variations as the joke grows familiar and audiences anticipate reappearances of the gag. The humor in a running gag may derive entirely from how often it is repeated, the (in)appropriateness of the situation in which the gag occurs, or setting up the audience to expect another occurrence of the joke and then substituting something else (bait and switch). Running gags are found mostly in television shows, but also appear in other places, such as video games, films, books, and comic strips.
A running gag can be verbal or visual and may "convey social values by echoing belligerent speakers with a barrage of caricatured threats." For example, a character may present others with a proposition that is so ridiculous or outrageous it is likely to be self-mocking to the point where the original request has little or no chance of actually being carried out and results in a humorous effect. Occasionally, the characters themselves may be aware of the running gag and make humorous mention of it.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender - A cabbage seller that always gets his shop destroyed by the main characters.
- Doctor Who - "Doctor who?"
- The Emperor's New School - "Pull the lever, Kronk!"
- Family Feud - Host Richard Dawson kissing female contestants; whenever a family reached 200 points in the Fast Money round with the first player, asking the second player questions that were not part of the original survey.
- Ghostbusters - In the first film, Louis Tully repeatedly locks himself out of his apartment (and has other troubles with doors), yet he becomes the "Keymaster" in the latter half of the movie after being possessed by Vinz Clortho.
- Mad magazine – Had many recurring verbal and visual gags.
- Match Game - Dumb Dora jokes, the "How ____ was it?" call and response
- Pokémon - Brock falls in love with every woman but was dragged away by Misty, Max, and Croagunk.
- The Simpsons - The couch gag in the opening scenes; also, Bart writing the same thing multiple times on the chalkboard as punishment (though the phrases vary in each episode).
- South Park - Kenny's frequent death
- SpongeBob SquarePants - A certain fish in many injury-inducing events that says "my leg" 1-2 times after the event (humorously replaced with "my eyes" to fit a scene in the film based on the series).
- Young Frankenstein - Horses whinnying in terror at the mention of Frau Blücher's name.
- The Great Race - Professor Fate says, "Push the button, Max," and chaos ensues.
- "The running gag, a staple of broad comedy, depends on the watcher's reference to the passage of time".Byron, Mark S (2007). Samuel Beckett's Endgame. Editions Rodopi B.V. p. 82. ISBN 978-90-420-2288-1.
- "The running gag has long been recognised as a standard ingredient of slapstick comedy ..." Beaver, Frank Eugene (2007). Dictionary of film terms: the aesthetic companion to film art. Peter Lang Publishing Inc. p. 207. ISBN 978-0-8204-7298-0.
- "... the running gag and the catchphrase, both important staples in most situation comedies …" Neale and Krutnik. Popular film and television comedy., quoted in Morgan-Russell, Simon (2004). Jimmy Perry and David Croft. Manchester University Press. p. 2. ISBN 0-7190-6556-9.
- Brunvand, Jan Harold. American Folklore : An Encyclopedia Garland Reference Library of the Humanities ; Vol. 1551. New York Garland, 1998. p. 719; 812. ISBN 978-0-8153-3350-0.