The Grammarphobia Blog

Another happening

Q: I had a thought while reading your “Wha’ happen?” post. Didn’t Fred Willard’s character use the expression as a catchphrase in A Mighty Wind? I doubt, though, that the film was of sufficient popularity to credit for a change in language.

A: You’re right—we overlooked the Fred Willard angle in our “Wha’ happen?” blog entry.

Willard delivered a comic riff on “Wha’ happened?” in a scene from A Mighty Wind (2003), a “mockumentary” by Christopher Guest, the director who gave us Best in Show and This Is Spinal Tap.

While the phrase didn’t originate with the film (we heard it long before 2003), we can’t resist recapping the scene.

The film’s plot revolves around a reunion of several veteran folk-singing acts, one of which is managed by Mike LaFontaine (played by Willard), owner and founder of Hi-Class Management.

Touted as “THE South Florida talent agency,” the company specializes in booking acts for cruise ships.

LaFontaine’s claim to fame is that he once starred in a 1970s sitcom called Wha’ Happened?

As LaFontaine says in the film, “Every time something’d go wrong, I’d look at the camera and say, ‘Hey! Wha’ happened?’ … But it only lasted a year, and that’s good because that’s how you establish a cult.”

At one point during LaFontaine’s interview, the camera cuts to a fake front page of Variety, which proclaims: “ ‘WHA’ HAPPENED’ DUMPED due to total lack of interest.”

Any readers of the blog who are interested can catch Willard’s performance on YouTube.

Check out our books about the English language