Ah yes, the cartoon catchphrase. That quote uttered by your favourite character so many times that it has pried open your skull and set up home in your everyday vocabulary. A trademark when executed at precisely the right time, it functions as the laziest punchline in existence, triggering the warm chemicals of familiarity right down into your lungs, knocking out a laugh even though you’ve heard it an immeasurable amount of times already. And before you know it, you find your voice reciting the slogan itself, dropping the phrasing into casual conversation like a winking in-joke that only those who watch the same animations as you will understand, while you scoff at those who raise their eyebrows at your inappropriate response. They just don’t get it. These moments are golden. These are the best days of your life.
With that arrogant introduction setting our stage up nicely, let’s look back at some of the most famous catchphrases on cartoon record, and uncover the deeper heritage of where these mottos came from, incidentally ruining your favourite lines with the knowledge that what you have been saying for all these years is probably not what you thought.
1. “Eat my shorts!” (Bart Simpson, The Simpsons)
The impact of this crowd-pleasing insult is far more forceful if you’ve actually tried to eat a pair of shorts before. It is not only a very difficult undertaking, but is also extremely dangerous for your digestive system, as we are not supposed to be eating clothing.
Bart Simpson’s voice actress, Nancy Cartwright, has indirectly claimed this juvenile taunt as her own accomplishment, improvising the line during a table read to such a thunderous applause that it swiftly became Bart’s signature jab. When asked how she came up with it, Nancy confessed that she could not take full credit, as when she was a member of her high school marching band, the group used to chant the phrase over and over again in an act of rebellion against the standard instructed melody of the school’s name, “Fairmont West! Fairmont West!”
However, conspiracy theorists have since hypothesised that this rude dismissal was directly stolen from John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, more specifically, from the character John Bender who instructs the assistant principal, Richard Vernon, on how to approach his next dietary decision. Not only did this 1985 film (often considered the greatest high school movie ever made) predate The Simpsons by four years, but another Bart Simpson slogan, “don’t have a cow”, was also featured in a John Hughes’ film, namely Sixteen Candles.
Coincidence? Plagiarism? Flattering tribute? Common schoolyard teasing which has evolved over decades and ultimately adapted into popular culture? Do you even care?
2. “Oh my stars and garters!” (Beast, X-Men)
To reference the stars in our daily expressions is an astrological practice which more than likely predates any written words, but phrases such as ‘thank my lucky stars’ are still very prevalent in today’s common speech patterns. The earliest recorded example of this featured in the 1593 play The Troublesome Raigne And Lamentable Death Of Edward The Second, where Christopher Marlowe exclaimed “O my stars! Why do you lower unkindly on a king?”, which is great. So now that we’ve cleared that up, where did the those pesky garters come in to it?
Although any definite origins are unknown, the expression is thought to be a British reference to certain honours received for service, such as the 1344 Noble Order of the Garter, which was the highest rank awarded in English knighthood, handed out as a badge in the shape of a star. Shortly after, ‘Stars and Garters’ was the approved term for those respected individuals and the medals they wore. In 1712, Alexander Pope’s The Rape Of The Lock was the first to reference the phrase, with its line “While Peers, and Dukes, and all their sweeping train, And Garters, Stars and Coronets appear.”
Mix these two ideas together, and ta-da, we have a comedic expression of surprise, perfectly suited to Hank McCoy’s intellectual demeanor, complete with the outdated lingo of an overeducated scholar.
3. “Scooby-dooby-doo!” (Scooby Doo, Scooby Doo)
I don’t know about you guys, but I find it a bit narcissistic when a main character is dissatisfied with already having an entire series named after him, and opts for his catchphrase to be merely another elaboration of that exact same title. And while we’re talking about it, what does Scooby Doo even mean anyway?
Nothing! It means nothing at all! CBS executive Fred Silverman named the character after mishearing a scat delivery from Frank Sinatra on the song Strangers In The Night. The song itself was a huge hit, giving Frank his first #1 in 11 years, going on to win the Grammy Award for Record of the Year in 1967. Sinatra openly hated the track, once calling it “the worst f**king song that I have ever heard” which might be why he nonchalantly improvised the “doo-be-doo-be-doo” melody line during the fade out, accidentally naming the one of the most famous cartoon characters of all time.
At least we can finally put to rest all those rumors that the entire cartoon was one long sly nod towards marijuana use. You know, because ‘doobie’ is slang for a joint? And because the two main characters were extremely paranoid hippies who always giggled and had the munchies? Totally unrelated.
4. “Giggity!” (Glenn Quagmire, Family Guy)
Onto a more adult topic of conversation, don’t we all love it when this hypersexed Family Guy character gets involved in some immoral fetish act by preceding his aroused intentions with the comedic “Giggity” spasm. Because who else but Quagmire?
The sexually deviant nature of this phrase comes from much more innocent beginnings, and can be moderately accredited to slapstick comedian and actor Jerry Lewis. His absurd combination of physical comedy and improv deliveries spanned seven decades and made him a Hollywood legend, his influence leading to multiple spoofs and impressions, and that is where our story starts.
According to Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, his colleague Steve Marmel (a Family Guy writer himself) used to call up MacFarlane and pretend to be Jerry Lewis. Not to be outdone, Seth would reciprocate with his own best Lewis impersonation, and ultimately their conversation would become one of who could out-Jerry the other, complete with Lewis’ signature “geshmoigan” and “geflavin” styled quotes. As time went on, the game reportedly got less and less enthusiastic, and at some point devolved into a series of repetitive “giggity” exchanges ( a “lazy Jerry Lewis”, according to Seth) and another star was born.
Sadly, Lewis died in August 2017 from cardiac and peripheral artery disease, but it’s nice to know that his influence lives on in an animated character notorious for being one of the most vulgarly offensive members of an already substantially offensive show.
5. “Sufferin’ succotash!” (Sylvester the Cat/Daffy Duck, Looney Tunes)
Traditionally executed with a lisp, this classic Looney Tunes number has been declared by an array of cartoon personalities throughout the show’s vast history. But while these household characters definitely popularised the verbalisation of such a surprise, it seems unlikely that they were the first ones to invent it.
Succotash is a food dish generally consisting of sweet corn and beans, reportedly a popular meal during the Great Depression due to its inexpensive ingredients. If we want to dive even deeper into this title’s roots, its name was first noted in a 1751 New England diary, as an amalgamation of words taken from the extinct Narragansett language, namely ‘manusqussedash’ ( beans), ‘misickquatash’ ( ear of corn), and ‘asquutasquash’ ( squash). I personally have no idea how to pronounce any of those words, and so I am grateful for the more forgiving succotash title combination.
Seemingly unrelated: fast-forward to the mid-1800s Victorian era, and the use any sort of blasphemous profanity became very unpopular and was severely frowned upon by the upper class. As a result, people got creatively euphemistic with their Holy vain name practices, many of which we still use today. ‘God’ became ‘Gosh’, ‘Christ’ became ‘Crikey’, and ‘Jesus Christ’ became ‘Cheese ‘n’ Rice’, to name a few. Following this tradition, it seems plausible that ‘Suffering Succotash’ was derived from ‘Suffering Savior’, but on that note, there is next to no recorded evidence to support that the Looney Tunes staff weren’t the first to write it down, which leads us back to where were started, except now we have this yummy plate of corn and beans. Small win.
6. “To infinity… and beyond!” (Buzz Lightyear, Toy Story)
Nearly three decades before Buzz Lightyear announced his deluded ambitions, a film known as 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick had already artistically expressed an interest in the notion of a realm further than the infinite. Moments before the ludicrously trippy Star Gate sequence, a title card which reads “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” is displayed, and while this is an unconfirmed contribution to the Toy Story franchise, the chances that those geeky Pixar geniuses had not seen one of the most influential films ever made seems somewhat unlikely.
However, rather than the origins, scholars began to furiously debate the exact possibilities behind the phrase instead. Some Harvard professionals spent many hours dedicated to the quote, and Dr. Sanjay Gupta concluded that “Buzz Lightyear is a metaphor of a function which approaches a certain number, but never actually reaches it.” Of course, those authoritative figures at MIT disagreed, arguing that Buzz Lightyear’s declaration was a direct reference to vertical asymptotes, with Dr. Benjamin Hernandez chiming in that “it is possible to cross horizontal asymptotes, but verticals are impossible. Buzz Lightyear is showing everyone that he can do the impossible and cross horizontal and vertical asymptotes.” Ah yes, it all makes sense now.
And so next time you hear Beyoncé paying her respects to the iconic catchphrase in her 2008 hit song Single Ladies with the lyric “…and delivers me to a destiny, to infinity and beyond,” just remember that she is singing about math.
7. “Cowabunga!” (Michelangelo, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles)
Michelangelo was always designed as the carefree surfer persona of the turtle crew, taking life a little less seriously while harboring an obsession with pizza that extended far beyond his already excessively pizza-loving brothers. It’s no surprise then, that creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laid got a lot of Michelangelo’s inspiration from the laidback attitude of the surfing culture, borrowing a myriad of their phrases for the character, including ‘bummer’, ‘bogus’, ‘radical’, ‘bodacious’ and, of course, ‘cowabunga’. So that’s one step back, but where did the surfers get this word in the first place?
Scholars have suggested that it was borrowed from the phrase ‘Kwa Bungu’, a Native American expression used for surprise or anger. This does make some sense, as following its path towards the hero in a half shell, you inevitably stumble upon the Howdy Doody Show, a children’s television program which ran from 1947 to 1954. The show was a Western comedy written by Eddie Kean, featuring a Native American character named Chief Thunderthud. Kean came up with the expressions ‘kawagoopa’ ( used as a greeting, which never caught on) and ‘cowabunga’ (used to vocalise anger, which, as we already know, caught on rather rapidly). Nobody has a definite answer as to why those surfer dudes adapted the term for their own language, but it became a customary announcement before feeling the vibe of riding rad wave. That said, some have pointed out that 1960s show Gidget used the expression freely every time the surfers ran into the water, so perhaps the entertainment industry wins again.
Potentially for some sort of cultural appropriation reason, the warcry is no longer a hip thing for the kids to say, but for a long time it was all the rage, having been frequently used by Bart Simpson, and even once by Snoopy from Peanuts before he went surfing himself. It’s also really fun to whisper out loud when you’re alone in bed at night with the lights out.
8. “D’oh!” (Homer Simpson, The Simpsons)
Sometimes the simplest catchphrases are the most effective, which is definitely the case with these three powerful letters, working magically together to create one of the most popular expressions of frustration in the cartoon (and real life) universe, and yet is still somehow relatively funny even after 28 years of service. I guess that’s what happens when you’re the lead character of the longest running animated show in history. You become a part of everybody.
The history behind the phrase begins with actor James Finlayson, who was best known for his various villainous roles in 33 Laurel and Hardy films during the 1920s and 1930s. One of his character trademarks was the drawn out expression “dohhhhhhh!”, used to articulate a sense of irritation without reducing oneself to utter the recklessly offensive cuss word ‘damn!’. Lest we forget, this was the 1920s after all.
Original scripts called for an ‘annoyed grunt’, and Homer Simpson’s voice actor, Dan Castellaneta, interpreted it his own way by shamelessly stealing the exclamation directly from Finlayson’s since forgotten catchphrase. It was show’s creator Matt Groening who felt the remark was far too lengthy for the speedy nature of the animation, and at his request,
Castellaneta removed a few letters to arrive at the much simpler “Do’h” we know and love today. In fact, this trademark is so widely adored, that since 2001 it has been proudly recognised by the Oxford English Dictionary, albeit without the apostrophe, assumedly because that’s how the more accomplished of English speakers like to use it, I wouldn’t know.
9. “Wubba Lubba Dub-Dub!” (Rick Sanchez, Rick And Morty)
In true Rick And Morty fashion, the history behind Rick’s “Wubba Lubba Dub-Dub” comes rampant with cultural references, ironic ad libbed ridiculousness, and an obscure dark undercurrent.
The script initially asked for Rick to perform a homage to the classic “Woob-woob-woob!” expression, made famous by Curly Howard from The Three Stooges as he dropped to the floor, running in circles. This excitable reaction had already been parodied by a multitude of cultural icons including Homer Simpson himself, and we can only assume writer Ryan Ridley wanted a piece of that action. However, creator and lead voice actor Justin Roiland was only half acquainted with the references, and opted to improvise multiple variations of the phrasing, one of which included “Wubba Lubba Dub-Dub”. Roiland figured this approach was much more fitting to Rick’s character, as the protagonist was attempting to mimic Curly’s motto and yet got it completely wrong. Little did Justin know at the time, but he had accidentally invented a staple of this popular cartoon’s running jokes.
Naturally, the show’s writers couldn’t just leave it at that, and we later learned from Rick’s friend Birdperson that “Wubba Lubba Dub-Dub” in fact means “I am in great pain, please help me” in his native bird language. Even if you Google the original quote, the search page prompts you with that same translation as its ‘Did you mean’ feature, which is really funny, and also gives you some indication as to how huge this show is now. The reveal of this catchphrases’ true
meaning uncovered yet another piece of the dark suppression within Rick’s personality, and this once hilarious exclamation of enthusiasm became a desperate cry for help instead.
10. “Yabba Dabba Doo!” (Fred Flintstone, The Flintstones)
In times of overwhelming excitement, we have all been known to make the prehistoric call of Fred Flintstone before running as fast as we can in any direction, hopefully sliding down a dinosaur’s tail if we are lucky. But of all the unlikeliest of inspirations, did you know that this phrase is a nonsensical interpretation of a hair cream slogan?
The product in question was called Brylcreem, popular with men since 1920, featuring a jingle that went a little something like this: “Brylcreem—A Little Dab’ll Do Ya! Brylcreem—You’ll look so debonair. Brylcreem—The gals’ll all pursue ya; they’ll love to run their fingers through your hair!” Reportedly, the mother of Alan Reed (who is Fred Flintstone’s voice) used to repeat the “A Little Dab’ll Do Ya” part of the slogan over and over again to him until he could think of nothing else, and we can all be thankful that she did.
Originally, the Flintstones script called for Reed to remark “Yahoo!” which he rightfully refused on grounds of banality, and ad libbed his meaningless version of “A Little Dab’ll Do Ya” as “Yabba Dabba Doo!” instead. Joe Barbera loved it, the network loved it, the whole world loved it, and you love it too, so here’s to a happy ending for all.