A Dubious History of Exclamation Points in TV Show Titles

06.30.15 2 years ago

When Jeb Bush revealed the slogan for his 2016 presidential campaign, most thinking people had pretty much the same reaction: Hey, that looks like the title of a sit-com!

Clearly, the use of the exclamation mark was meant to distinguish George W.”s younger brother from the baker”s dozen of Republicans seeking the nomination, perhaps by making him seem a bit more more lively and vibrant. Maybe the former Florida Governor was trying to seem current by utilizing a punctuation that these days litters every one of our texts and emails. (If you say you”re excited to see me, but don't use at least one exclamation, how can I really believe you?)

Generally, but not always, television shows that have dared to wield the exclamation point in their titles have done so with a precise purpose in mind, whether to demonstrate urgency, irony, or just plain enthusiasm. Occasionally, the exclamation point indicates little more than simple desperation. Here”s hoping for him that “Jeb!” does not meet the same fate as Cleghorne!      

What follows is a selective history of some of the more expressive uses of exclamation points in TV show titles. Bottom line: every generation gets the exclamation points it deserves.   

Emergency! (1972-77) Few shows did more good with a punctuation mark than this ensemble action drama about the exploits of a group Los Angeles County EMTs. With its accurate depictions of medical apparatus and the harrowing disasters, Emergency! was a call to action, one that inspired countless Gen X”ers to set aside their irony and become public servants in the name of saving people from car wrecks and apartment fires.

What”s Happening!! (1976-79) Ah, the double exclamation. These days one can hardly remark upon the cuteness of baby lemurs without using this mark of enthusiasm, but in the late “70”s they were still relatively rare. For this Cooley High inspired show, one that dared to show African-American teenagers not in poverty or peril but facing the same types of goofy dilemmas and plates of cheeseburgers that were served up in most Archie comics, the punctuation drove home the fact this wasn't just a show, it was also a catchphrase. Hit it, Rerun!

Police Squad! (1982) The exclamation point hit its TV high mark with one of the greatest comedies in the history of network television, never mind that Police Squad! lasted a scant six episodes. Densely packed with Dali-esque surrealism, ridiculous puns (“We know how he did it” “Howie didn't do it!”)  and sight gags, all of which were familiar- along with the exclamation point- to fans of creators Zucker Abrahams Zucker hit feature comedy Airplane! This was the rare piece of punctuation that forced us to examine ourselves and the cop shows and disaster movies we so happily gobbled up without thinking. Without Police Squad!, there would have been no Sledgehammer!, no Reno 911! We would live in a world where the exclamation point had no irony attached to it at all, which come to think of it, is a lot like the world we currently live in.

Voyagers! (1982-83) Around the time as Police Squad! came my second favorite show of 1982, one that had a completely different purpose for its exclamation point- one that perhaps Jed intends as well. Hey, we are going some place! In the case of Voyagers!, a hunky time traveler named Phineas and his halo-haired little history buff buddy Jeffery would travel through the centuries fixing history. It seems an unfair twist of history that the show is largely remembered for the ways the star Jon-Erik Hexum LINK https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jon-Erik_Hexum%5D died rather than for the lessons it was trying to impart. Meeno Peluce, the moppet who owned an even better name than his half sister and Punky Brewster star Soleil Moon Frye, made it out intact and is now a photographer living in Los Angeles.

Bob! (1992-93) Few people remember that Bob Newhart had a third sitcom after the legendary The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart, which had finished its eight season run two years earlier. Even fewer can comprehend that he of soft-spoken voice and buttoned-down mind could have ever agreed to having a exclamation point in the title. But it served a clever purpose on a show that was ahead of its time, telling the story of a greeting card artist who has to deal with his iconic and fun 1950″s superhero character Mad Dog revived for the 90″s and given Dark Knight-inspired grittiness. The exclamation point showed that the titular artist had a boyishness out of touch with his times. The show lost its way in the second season, when the comic book concept was dropped along with the exclamation point, and sadly, the show”s reason for existing.

Cleghorne! (1995) Few exclamation points conveyed more desperation and flop-sweat than the one that hung on the one-and-done WB sit-com built around the comic stylings of SNL alum Ellen Cleghorne. It was a standard issue bland sitcom that had traded in Cleghorne”s native Red Hook for the Upper West Side and made her the single mom owner of a production company who lived next door to her overbearing parents (played in part by fellow Saturday Night Live graduate Garrett Morris). Here, the exclamation point signifies the worse kind of nothing, where it”s supposed to hint at a joke without actually making one. Let it be a warning to us all to use their power precisely and with purpose, whether you are commenting on Facebook, trying to become the most powerful person in the free world, or simply trying to piece together a compelling Tuesday night line-up.

Oliver Jones is a journalist, critic, and professor with over 20 years experience covering the entertainment industry. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, daughter, and three rescue dogs. 

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