I found myself wondering how catchphrases work the other day, prompted in part by the death of David Croft and the efficiency with which just a few words – "Don't panic!" say, or "You stupid boy" – could summon up a whole set of affectionate memories. There seems to be an insufficiency of means and an over-supply of effect here. After all, you'd be hard placed to argue that there's anything inherently memorable about these words set in this order, in the way that a single line of Shakespeare can be memorable. Out of context they're nothing. If someone had never seen Dad's Army, then Captain Mainwaring's exasperated utterance would look like nothing at all – just a flat, uninflected insult. Unimaginative even, given that rebuke can take far more florid forms. And yet something about these phrases lifted them above the oblivion that almost all language is doomed to. What exactly is the trick they're pulling off? I wasn't sure I could say. And then Robert Peston, the BBC's business editor, came to my assistance.
He didn't know he was doing it. He thought he was tweeting about the Bank of England's Financial Policy Committee statement on Wednesday. "Bank of England orders banks to boost capital & liquidity to protect against shocks," he wrote, "but not to do so if this chokes off econ recovery. Doh!" And, in just four of the 140 characters that Twitter restricts you to, he'd added about a paragraph's worth of explication and added meaning – at least for anyone who's ever regularly watched The Simpsons. "Doh!" surely qualifies as the shortest great comic catchphrase ever – so sub-verbal that you could argue that it doesn't count as a catchphrase at all. I'm not sure what else you'd call it, though, since Homer's repeated exclamation of dismay at the mismatch between his intentions and recalcitrant reality does everything that a catchphrase should do. It makes you laugh at the memories of previous uses, and it compresses a universal human experience into a compact space.
Without those last four characters, Peston's note on the FPC statement would have been a much duller affair, simply pointing out an internal contradiction. With it, you got the engaging mental picture of one of the nation's most important financial institutions as a bumbling mid-western dolt, always arriving at the problem in a scheme or enterprise a couple of beats too late. "Doh!", as it's used here, is a perfect shorthand for the painful truth that most of our catastrophes are self-inflicted... and sometimes unavoidably so. That's what's so wonderful about it as a gag, I think. It isn't just that Homer yells in pain when something goes wrong. It's that it has dawned on him just too late that his previous action can't be recalled or that he's missed an obvious catch. Like Homer's other trademark noise – the liquid gargle of reflex appetite he emits when he thinks of ham hocks or doughnuts or beer – it gives voice to something that everyone understands.
Not all catchphrases do that, obviously. Some of them are just the verbal equivalents of badges for fans to stick on their lapels. Others allow the witless – infuriatingly – to take a cheating short-cut to comedy (think of someone adding "Nudge, nudge, wink, wink" to any statement of even mild ambiguity for a mental picture of that process). But when they really take, it's often because they offer a shorthand for a more complicated and hard-earned comedy. "You stupid boy" does that, summoning as it does all of Arthur Lowe's magisterial impatience, which, as anyone who's seen the original comedy knows, begins at a simmer and gets worse with every passing second. And while there's nothing in the words "you stupid boy" that convey a sense of deferred explosion, there is in the catchphrase. It doesn't just register a five-second moment; it describes a whole character and the time that it's taken us to get to know him. "Don't panic!", uttered in tones of helpless agitation, does something similar. It beautifully pins down the deep comedy of our attempt to act as rational beings while the screeching chimp inside all of us bounces off the walls of the cage. And it briefly pins it down, most importantly. The catchphrases that stick are miracles of miniaturisation – which is why they can be handy on Twitter. They make you laugh, in part at least, because you can't quite believe so few words could stand for so much.
Kevin Smith takes care of his own business
I'm looking forward to Kevin Smith's Red State, partly because I saw a pretty seductive trailer for it at the cinema last week. John Goodman? Racks of automatic weapons? A Waco-style fundamentalist with a taste for human sacrifice? That's my Friday night sorted. But it's also because, despite the fact that I'm one of the enemy as far as Smith is concerned (critics and journalists featuring on his ladder of creation some way below the herpes virus), I'm rooting for him to succeed in taking on the standard business Hollywood model. Smith himself colourfully denied having any commercial or business ambitions when he showcased his film in Sundance at the beginning of the year – "I never wanted to know jack shit about business," he said, "I'm a fat, masturbating stoner. That's why I got into the movie business." But his decision to side-step the usual distribution routes, go without a multi-million dollar marketing budget and get his film out through special screenings and digital sales, is genuinely interesting. British audiences won't get the Q&A screenings, which to my mind is something of a blessing (I'd pay a premium not to be lectured at by Smith afterwards) but it may well be part of his calculation that a successful release in an overseas market will ripple back and help publicise the film in America. So, do your bit for the quite hefty little guy and buy a ticket. You're hitting back at the guys who sold you Transformers 2.
An inventive new sketch show
It's never too late to acquire another piece of arcane aesthetic vocabulary and my most recent acquisition is ekphrasis, the graphic verbal description of a visual work of art. I picked it up at one of the National Galleries playgroups for grown-ups – a talk and draw session at which you can combine a bit of sketching (they supply the materials) with a bit of fine-art education. In this case the assembled audience (rather larger than the 40 they say they can cater for) was given the task of sketching two works of art solely from spoken accounts from Ben Street and artist Aliki Braine. In the first case we worked from descriptions of Bacchus and Ariadne's meeting on Naxos, and in the second we were given a kind of verbal recipe, reduced to geometrical instructions and precise picture proportions, for Thomas Jones's oil sketch A Wall in Naples. The ekphrasis for what I produced myself would run something like "cack-handed scribbles", but it was an engaging way to spend a lunchtime. The next event – part of next months Big Draw events – uses Rubens's The Brazen Serpent as a model and promises to help participants loosen their drawing technique "using long pieces of dowel". Arrive early if you actually want to draw, but that one sounds as if it might be quite fun for spectators as well.