I always felt the classic catchphrase from Diff’rent Strokes was “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout, [insert name]?” (with Willis being a frequent target), but history seems to remember it as “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” specifically (with the name sometimes varying based on the situation).
In a sense it is six of one, half a dozen of the other, since everyone agrees that the name sometimes varies, and that it is sometimes Willis. But I do think it’s a slightly different thing. The bit (as I understood it) is that Arnold turns to whomever he’s talking to and says, “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout?” — this is a characteristic of Arnold, not something specific to his relationship with Willis.
I think the “Willis” was affixed permanently to the catchphrase in people’s minds for the same reason “Luke” was (wrongly) attached to the famous “I am your father” quote from Star Wars: adding the name gives the quote context, thus giving an extra clue as to what you’re referencing. If you just say “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout,” you might be doing Gary Coleman’s catchphrase or you might just be asking what’s up; add the “Willis,” and the reference becomes clear.
How often did Arnold specifically ask what Willis was talking about, and how often was he asking somebody else? I searched online for an exhaustive list of the times the catchphrase was used, but there seemed to be no such thing posted.
It seemed I would have to do the research myself.
So I reviewed the entire series and I found 116 instances of Arnold saying “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout?” The results were as follows:
* Arnold addressed Mr. Drummond as “Mr. D.” until the adoption was finalized in season 2; thereafter he called him “Dad.”
† I have combined the numbers for the Drummonds’ three housekeepers (Mrs. Garrett, Adelaide, and Pearl) but will break down their individual numbers below.
I also found several instances of other characters quoting Arnold’s catchphrase. Of these, two were addressed to Arnold himself, one to Willis, one to Mr. Drummond, one to Kimberly, and one was addressed to a minor character (Mr. Drummond’s lawyer). If we include these, it slightly lowers Willis’s percentage but does not significantly change the results.
I made the decision to include a season 5 moment where Arnold, in character as Romeo, says “What thou talketh about, Juliet?” (It should be “What talkest thou about?” or “What dost thou talk about?” but never mind.) I included this because it was clearly meant as a reference to the familiar catchphrase. I did not include a handful of moments where characters said the words “What are you talking about?” if I judged (based on the context and delivery) it was not meant that way.
In a sense, everyone is correct. Willis was addressed more than any other single individual, so one could argue that the most typical form of the catchphrase was “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” On the other hand, Willis was named less than a third of the times the catchphrase was used. It was significantly more common for the phrase to be used as “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout, [insert name]?” — but this is often forgotten, probably because it is less quotable.
The question now is whether this was consistent throughout the series, or whether it drifted one way or another over time. (It is possible that “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” was the original catchphrase, and the variations were introduced later.)
Here are the data I collected. As before, percentages may not add up to 100 due to rounding.
The catchphrase was not used at all in the eighth season of Diff’rent Strokes. (By the end, Gary Coleman reportedly hated saying it.) After the end of the show, Gary Coleman used the catchphrase in guest appearances on Married… with Children and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air but I am not counting these.
These statistics do somewhat support the theory that the catchphrase was addressed less to Willis and more to other characters over time: in season 2, there are a whopping eight instances of “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” — far more than any other individual character. Compare that with seasons 3, 5, and 6, where “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout, Dad?” is used at least as often; or season 7, where the catchphrase is not addressed to Willis at all. (It should be noted, too, that the later seasons relied more upon gimmicky guest stars, leading to lines like “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout, Mrs. Reagan?” and “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout, Knight Rider?”)
However, even in season 2, where “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” is at its peak, “Willis” only accounts for 38% of the times the catchphrase is used. In other words, even when “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” was used most frequently, the catchphrase occurred in this form less than half the time.
All of this is based on my own counting, and of course it is possible that I have made errors. Also, as I disclosed above, some of these judgments had a subjective component. I encourage you to do your own analysis! However, I feel confident that any survey of the facts will produce similar results.
And that… is what I’m talking about.