Bottom of the Barrel Joke aka: Back To The Penis Well
"You say, 'We'll do a level on Lust! That'll be easy!' But then you really struggle to push the boundaries. Then you get kind of silly about it. You know, 'Let's just hang a huge penis out there and call it a day.'"
Writing periodically updated media is challenging. If you're writing a novel or a movie script, you have time to gather and lay out all of your ideas, parse out all of the bad ones, and distribute them equally over your work to keep it interesting. If you're writing a new comic strip or TV series, you have to be fresh and funny every week, or even every day. No writer, no matter how amazing, can bat a thousand. Sooner or later writer's block sets in, or you just get too busy to totally devote yourself to the work. What to do?
Sometimes, you may find yourself forced to get out your long-handled ladle and scrape out a Bottom of the Barrel Joke.
Pulling out a Bottom of the Barrel Joke is resorting to shock value when you normally wouldn't. If you can't think of anything clever or insightful for your characters to say, sometimes you need to have them say something shocking or raunchy instead. Hey, at least it's better than just not submitting something this week, right?
Most writers feel at least a twinge of shame when they do this; it's the artistic equivalent of taking the easy way out. Having one of your characters fart loudly in an elevator might get you some cheap laughs, but it takes no effort, it isn't clever, and it gets very old after awhile. Even still, the best works are occasionally forced to go there, and used sparingly, the results can still be entertaining from time to time.
Compare Stock Shticks for more low-effort humor.
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Live Action Television
When Stephen Colbert does it, he reminds the viewers that he won a Peabody.
QI often puts the punchlines to these as forfeits, such as "Piers Morgan" for the question "Name a poisonous snake", "Janet Street-Porter" for "What has large teeth and only one facial expression?", and "Have you been talking with my husband?" to Stephen Fry's request "Tell me about the Great Disappointment."
Subverted on one occasion where the question is "Can you tell me the biggest joke ever to come out of Alaska?" and one of the panel responds with "Sarah Palin." This was not a forfeit, since it was "so obvious".
Conan O'Brien's monologues use this kind of humor in spades, every single episode. In fact, most of the actual humor in the monologues comes not from the jokes, but from Conan's funny apologies for the jokes.
The Far Side: A few comics basically amount to an apology from Gary Larson for being unable to come up with anything better.
For example, one comic shows some wasp police investigating a hole in a nest: "It looks like these rocks were thrown from inside the hive." On the other end of the nest, there's a boy hiding. The caption reads: "Artist: Gary Larson. Medium: Ink on bristol. Title: It Was Late and I Was Tired."
Another one shows ducks standing around, when one yells "Chicken!" and they all duck as a chicken whizzes by. The caption says: "'And so,' the interviewer asked, 'do you ever have trouble coming up with ideas?' 'Well, sometimes,' the cartoonist replied."
Bill Watterson, in the Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, discusses how he would sometimes "go for broke on the illustration" when time could not allow for good writing (the example provided was of Calvin popping an especially huge bubblegum bubble, winding up with bubblegum all over his face, and then saying "I think I blew my head inside out!").
He even made a comic about going to the bottom of the barrel. Calvin's mom finds garbage under his bed that he threw down there to "keep the monsters quiet". In the aforementioned collection, this was a comment on the comics he drew just to fill his quota even when he had no inspiration.
Get This: Towards the end of the show's tenure, Fridays were taglined "all jokes must go!", insisting that all the really bad jokes should be saved for Friday, after the week was over and they had run out of all other material.
This can be a tactic of stand-up comedians who are floundering on stage and find themselves desperate to re-win the audience. Sometimes it works, like when Gilbert Gottfried saved himself from a Too Soon 9/11 joke by randomly telling The Aristocrats. Other times it doesn't, like when Michael Richards' infamously used the word "nigger" at a group of black hecklers. He was reportedly trying to Cross The Line Twice and failed spectacularly. Well, he crossed it once alright. Just failed to get back over...
This is likely one of the reasons stand-up comedians face difficulties if transitioning to Live Action TV series. Rather than standard routines with the occasional special performance, they must develop an entire script. Unlike other comedy shows that have some form of story to hold them together, stand-up comedians on TV have to rely on their comedy to carry the show. It's not uncommon to see increasing numbers of these jokes as a season progresses and the comedian's ideas dry up.
Frequently lampshaded by Bill Hicks, who even referred to his act as "Chomsky with dick jokes."
Bill: Folks, here’s the deal. I editorialize for forty-five minutes, the last fifteen minutes we all pull our chutes and float down to Dick Joke Island together.
Jerry Holkins, the writer of Penny Arcade, refers to this as "Going back to the penis well," largely because, when he can't think of something insightful to say about video game culture, his colleague will talk him into making a dick joke.
Arthur, King of Time and Space sometimes does jokes about modern-arc Arthur, updating his own webcomic, saying how much he hates having to do "can't think of a joke" jokes.
Subverted in a Sluggy Freelance filler story (which are of course pretty bottom-of-the-barrel as it is, but in a broader sense), when the protagonists suspect someone of being an android. They take him away and the next strip starts with them standing with a knife in front of a table with a gory mess on it, saying they found no inorganic parts in the guy. Torg even goes "What's this? An intestine?" and eats it. Then the guy they suspected is shown looking from behind an x-ray screen and asking what they're doing with his spaghetti and meatballs.
Although he does have what he calls Butts Syndrome; that is, that he thinks that the word Butts is enough to carry a punchline.
You wouldn't ordinarily think a joke about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle would be one of these, but the creators of Virtual Shackles agreed that if they ever used the joke, they would stop making the webcomic, and they passed the comic on to a new team altogether.
On one episode of Chilly Beach, characters watch a terrible reality show, prompting April to comment that the network is really scraping the bottom of the barrel. Then Jacques changes the channel to a show that is actually called Scraping the Bottom of the Barrel.