A recent New York Times article cited the prevalence of “Really?” in modern comedies, but reading it made me go, “Really?” Because to my mind, there's a much more interesting language usage trend happening, one to which the author of that article might respond, “What now?”

This “What now?” I speak of is not the one you use when you've finished something and are trying to figure out what to do next. Rather, it has a meaning closer to “What?” and is nearly synonymous with Urban Dictionary's “Say what?!” (defined as: a term used when a person wishes for a surprising or astonishing statement to be repeated, or simply to show their surprise at said statement.)

Already in the fall 2012 television season, this phrase has shown up in all three of the first three episodes of the (just-canceled) new CBS sitcom Partners, from co-creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick (who, in full disclosure, I had the pleasure of working with on the sitcom they're best known for, Will & Grace). In the “Chicken & Stuffing” episode, Wyatt (Brandon Routh) has received a cake from Louis (Michael Urie) that Louis did not send, and the following exchange takes place:

Wyatt: No, I'm thanking you for the cake you had delivered today.

Louis: For the what now?

This phrase has also blurted its way out of Liz Lemon's mouth on 30 Rock, and it first came to my attention in the pilot of the critically-acclaimed but short-lived sitcom Better Off Ted. The show took place in the offices and labs of one of the largest companies in America and, in the pilot, Ted, the head of research and development, tells Linda, his co-worker and love interest, “Linda, I used up my office affair.” To which she replies, “What now?”

Emmy-award winning comedy writer Dan O'Shannon, who I worked with on Better Off Ted, and who is now a Modern Family writer and author of the recently-published What Are You Laughing At?: A Comprehensive Guide to the Comedic Event, eloquently explains the meaning of the “What now?” we're concerned with as “the speaker trying to get his/her bearings, as though the mind has rejected the preceding information entirely and is starting again from zero.”

This phrase of astonishment is getting a lot of play these days, but why? In most of the scenarios where “What now?” is used, it seems that “What?” would work just as well. And in my day-to-day life, I often hear people say, “What?” but I can't recall a single “what now” coming from the mouths of friends or family. So for comedy writers to take this leap — to choose to write the rarer “What now?” instead of the naturalistic “What?” — there must be a reason. Is “What?” just not funny?

Hardly. Steve Kaplan — Hollywood consultant, script doctor and comedy expert, among other things — recounts a statistic that “What?” was the most common sentence in Seinfeld, a very funny show.

But while “What?” may be funny in Seinfeld, it isn't always funny. O'Shannon explains, “There is a subtle difference between 'What?' and the version of 'What now?' you're talking about. 'What?' can be said sincerely or in shock. It can be sarcastic, it can be a way to buy time, it can be said with dread. It fits in with the attitude the speaker has regarding the topic at hand. 'What?' is anchored in the conversation, not at odds with the emotional charge of the discussion. 'What now?' is like the brain doing a benign reset.” O'Shannon postulates that “What now?” may be funnier because “to have no attitude in a highly charged situation might be funnier than simply going with it.”

Kaplan suggests another reason “What now?” is funny. During a course in Studio City over the summer — a scaled down version of his renowned Comedy Intensive — he explained that, “In comedy, we're looking for characters who don't know what to say.” His point is that a character who knows less in a specific moment (think Ben Stiller and his “hair gel” fiasco before his big date in There's Something About Mary) is funnier than a character who's aware. This philosophy jives with O'Shannon's theory. In Kaplan's view, “what” is funny because it indicates that the character “sees something but doesn't know what it sees.” By that logic and metaphor, the character saying “what now?” is being shown something, but isn't willing to look at it.

The phrase sometimes shows up in different variations, like when Jasper, the senior citizen stereotype on The Simpsons, says in the “Who Shot Mr. Burns Pt. II” episode, “Who shot who in the what now?” This example takes “not knowing” to new heights — not only is Jasper doing a “benign reset” and not processing the information given to him, he also hasn't processed the fact that he was the one who'd been shot in the leg. And it's hard to know less than that.

So when did we start using “What now?” in this manner of a “benign reset”? The Oxford English Dictionary lists one of the possible uses of “now” as “placed medially or at the end of a clause or question, with emphatic or rhetorical (sometimes ironical) force.” This would be like when someone wanting to stop another person in his or her tracks says, “Hey, now.” Or, quoting from Iain Banks' 1995 novel Whit, or Isis amongst the unsaved, when one person says, “We..are concerned about her,” and the other replies, “Are you now?” It is this sort of use that seems to be at play in our (sit)comical “What now?” and the examples pulled from literature tell us that this phrase was hardly invented just to get a chuckle from the studio audience. The first usage of “What now?” specifically can be found in the Second Maiden's Tragedy in 1611: “What now? Are ye so short-heeled?”

With such an early start, I have to wonder if “What now?” has done more than just worm its way into sitcoms. Might the phrase be related to the rare and wonderful compound noun “what-now,” which means “a gossip,” and whose last recorded usage in the OED is in the 1890 novel Wendell Phillips: The Agitator by C. Martyn: “The wits of the pot-house and the what-nows of society were…mightily amused”?

And could it be related to “quidnunc,” which literally means “what now” in Latin, and, unexpectedly, has been used in English much more recently than the above “what-now” to mean basically the same thing? In fact, “quidnunc” has been recorded in use as recently as 2004 meaning “an inquisitive or nosy person” — y'know, a person who constantly asks “What now?”

It's hard to say for sure whether the “What now?” we've been discussing is the same one uttered by these quidnuncs. As Kristina Sexton, acting coach and Comedy Intensive instructor at Lesly Kahn & Co. in Hollywood, tells us, “The difference in meaning is as simple as choosing which word to stress and how much stress to put on it.” I can imagine a gossip uttering our phrase “What now?” at the latest juicy tidbit, appalled at what (s)he's hearing. But I can also imagine this onomatopoetic noun's phrase of origin being uttered with stress on the “now,” merely asking, “What's next, what's the latest gossip?” It seems we'd need a veritable quidnunc in our presence to be conclusive.

But that's the beauty of TV. With an actor's delivery, we know exactly what they mean — even if we can't always articulate it as well as folks like O'Shannon. Sure, we might have thought that this “What now?” we've been discussing was contrived just to churn out chuckles, but we understood its intention perfectly: well before we consciously knew that this usage dated back to 1611, we laughed.

And to the critics that would presume to assert — as in the tirade on “Really?” — that “having words with more than one meaning is dangerous,” I absolutely disagree. It's natural. And more than that, it's funny. Really.

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