Sunday, April 20, 2008

Names in scripts

Only two more days to vote in the Komedy Kontest. AMERICAN IDOL gets 30,000,000 votes a week. I'm hoping for twice that many. Okay...I'm hoping for a few hundred.
One of the hardest tasks in any script is coming up with names. They have to sound right, fit the character’s personality and ethnicity. Every writer has a different method for coming up with them. Woody Allen uses names that are as short as possible so he has less to type. For David and I, we tend to use either baseball player names or personal friends.

On MASH we had the added problem of all the patients that rotated in and out of the 4077th. For the seventh season we just used the 1978 Los Angeles Dodgers roster. When you watch those shows you’ll find private Garvey, Cey, Russell, Sutton, Rau, Rhoden, etc. By the end of the season we were down to coaches, announcers (Scully), and even the owner, O’Malley. The year before we had an episode with four Marine patients. They were the then-Angels infield (Chalk, Grich, Remy, Solita). We once wrote a movie about a Club Med being held hostage and maturely used the entire 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates roster.

We also use the names of personal friends. For the “Dancin’ Homer” episode of THE SIMPSONS the minor league announcer (voiced by me) was named Dan Hoard (pictured left), my broadcasting partner in Syracuse. The major league spieler was Dave Glass, my partner in Tidewater (former San Francisco Giant announcer and now mayor of Petaluma.) The Capital City owner who fires Homer was “Dave Rosenfield”, my GM at Tidewater.

In the “Point of View” episode of MASH, the central patient is named “Bobby Rich”. Bobby is a radio personality who hired me in San Diego and is now in Tucson (pictured right). General “Dean Goss” is another former radio chum. For many years he was a morning man at KFRC in San Francisco. The blind patient Hawkeye befriended in “Out of Sight/Out of Mind” was “Tom Straw”, a friend from high school who became a TV writer himself (NIGHT COURT, GRACE UNDER FIRE, THE COSBY SHOW, CRAIG FERGUSON SHOW).

Radar’s girlfriend in “Goodbye Radar” was “Patty Haven”, my former girlfriend. In an earlier episode he was sweet on nurse “Linda Nugent”, a girl I was sweet on in high school. Radar had better luck than I did.

Maybe the happiest married couple I know is Bill & Sherry Grand. So naturally when we needed a couple on CHEERS with a marriage so bad the husband tried to end it in murder we gave them the names “Bill & Sherry Grand”.

Many other writers use this device as well. Scully from X-Files was named for Vin Scully. When she left the show he was replaced by Doggett. Jerry Doggett was Vin Scully’s broadcast partner on the Dodgers.

There was a writing team, Gloria Banta and Pat Nardo who wrote for MTM in the halcyon days. When the producers moved on to TAXI two characters were named Elaine Nardo and Tony Banta. I’m sure there are thousands of other examples. 24 has named various bad guys after network and studio executives.

One time this practice backfired on us. David and I were rewriting MANNEQUIN 2 (believe it or not, the first draft was not perfect). There was a security guard named Andy. We had to give him a last name and since we didn’t want to spend the entire afternoon coming up with one (okay…five minutes) we just used Ackerman. Andy Ackerman is a long time colleague and director (CHEERS, SEINFELD, BECKER, and every pilot that Jim Burrows doesn’t direct). Unfortunately, in later rewrites the character became even more of a complete idiot and the name Andy Ackerman stuck. Ooops. Thank God no one ever saw the movie! And we learned our lesson. Anytime we have a character now who’s going to be a goof we go right to the Clippers roster.

60 comments:

Anonymous said...

Pronoun nitpick brigade! Surely I'm not going to be the first one to point out that Dana Scully of the X-Files is female... (Terrifically entertaining post though.)

Tim W. said...

Elton Brand is off limits, though, I presume. He's one of the few Clippers who doesn't deserve to be one.

And Scully was a woman (Gillian Anderson), by the way.

I found this link on someone's blog, but can't remember who, unfortunately, so I can't give credit. It randomly gives you two male and two female options every time you refresh. Definitely a great resource to have...
http://www.unled.net/

Tim W. said...

Anonymous, apparently you were the first one to point out Scully's sex. Just before I did.

Bitter Animator said...

There was a Mannequin 2?

KEN LEVINE said...

Correction made. Thanks. Yes, in this case Scully very much was a woman.

Anonymous said...

Ever get any negative feedback from people who'd had characters named after them?

D. McEwan said...

I also name characters after friends. In my book MY LUSH LIFE, Tallulah's high school drama teacher is Mrs. Stevens and her choir director is Mr. Haynes. They were my high school drama teacher and Choir director. One character is Bruce Camelia. My best friend's middle name is Bruce and he lives on Camelia Avenue. Another is Keith Kittridge. My middle name is Keith, and I was living on Kittridge when I wrote it.

I also use city names, like ill-fated Sherman Oakley, and street names. One minor character was Torrence Del amo, which is a street intersection in Torrance.

Others are sound-similars, hence Delores Del Rio became Delores Delgado. Last year, at my optomistrists, while I was in the waiting room, the nurse came out and paged "Delores Delgado" and an Hispanic woman of maybe 30 got up and went in, while I sat and marvelled to see my fictional woman in the flesh.

When desperate, I pulled out Noel Coward's diaries, and mixed and matched names from the index. For the book I'm writing now, I'm using the index of Michael Palin's diaries.

I also put names together for other reasons. My mother was a Christian Scientist, and her favorite star was Nelson Eddy (Yup, Mom had abysmal taste in stars and religions.), so, in memory of Mother, the new book has a Nelson Baker Eddy.

But that's only when I can't think of a good joke name, like Pete Moss, Buster Hymen, and F. Emmett Knight. And for really minor, one-facet characters, I like names that just announce the character's only trait, Lance Alanvice, Edward Felcher Lord Sexcrime.

And in the new book there's a woman much talked of, but almost never seen. She's Claudia Rains. But I never put the name together. Her husband is established as Phil Rains, and he occasionally refers to "My wife Claudia." The readers have to assemble it themselves.

Ray Randolph said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ajmilner said...

I always assumed Tony Banta's last name was just a shortening of "bantam," he being a boxer and all...

Phil Silvers named Sgt. Bilko after a 1950s minor-league slugger named Steve Bilko.

On GROWING PAINS, the Seavers' next-door neighbors were named the Koosmans.

D. McEwan said...

For 50 years I've just assumed Bilko was a joke name off of Bilk, since Bilko lived to bilk everyone around him out of their cash, until that big heart he always tried to suppress kicked in each episode.

gottacook said...

Ken, this actually is a response to both this item and the previous one: I saw the first broadcast of MARY in December '84 that you've been excerpting, and I have to say I never much cared for the "Mary Brenner" name - maybe I simply think that John Astin, at the point in the script where he says her full name, could have somehow done more with a different surname (either funnier, or blander a la "Richards"). Question: Was "Brenner" Moore's idea? Or did you give her several choices and she picked this one?

Jim said...

If you want inspirational naming of characters then you need to look to Germany and a recent film based on the pulp novels of Edgar Wallace. Some character names are (and from this point this post becomes a little NSFW):

Inspector Very Long
Chief Inspector Even Longer
Rather Short
Much Longer
Lord Dickham
Fred Fartwind
Earl of Cockwood
Miss Drycunt

And according to the IMDB, "The original character name for the Earl of Cockwood was Earl of Fistfuck but the Bavarian Film Fund asked to change that."

Even the title Der Wixxer translates as "The Wanker." But don't let that put you off. Der Wixxer and its sequel, are actually very funny films. Here's a clip of the very suspicious butler, Alfons Hatler, singing karaoke. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bUfGWKsJs4E

benson said...

The first time I remember ever noticing something was up with character names was when David E. Kelley was involved in LA Law. Witnesses and the like were coming up with hockey related names. And then I found Kelley came from a hockey family, but originally it was like being in on an inside joke.

dwgsp said...

Here's something that I have always wondered: Does a writer need to get permission when they use the name of a living person?

Dave Lifton said...

I'm trying to envision the scruffy rebel Scully calling a double play as he woos Margaret.

Doug Ellin, creator of Entourage, uses names from his past as well. I know that because he's from the Long Island town next to mine.

http://www.wingsforwheels.net/wordpress/?p=350

chris w said...

I'm always hearing on DVD commentaries about "having the name cleared" (for instance, I just watched a commentary for Freaks and Geeks pilot and they mentioned they had to wait to clear the name of the guidance counselor, Jeff Rosso). What's that about?

Barry said...

During the first season of "Family Matters" in 1989, creators Bill Bickley and Michael Warren wrote an episode that included a small, one-shot part for a nerdy neighbor kid. Bickley named the character after his friend, Steve Urkel. Jaleel White was so funny at the table read that Executive Producers Tom Miller and Bob Boyett immediately called White's agent and locked him up for the rest of the season. Not long thereafter came the mandate that the show was now about Urkel, and it ran for nine seasons. Good news for those involved with show -- not such good news for the real Steve Urkel.

metswalkoffs said...

I may be geeky for remembering this, but I remember an episode of Almost Perfect in which Nancy Travis's character was reading a list of names, and it included "Dave Niehaus" and other members of the Mariners broadcast crew.

My favorite name usage: an episode of Growing Pains in which the Seaver family went bowling against another family. The name of the other family: The Koosmans

Gail Renard said...

A friend of mine writes violent crime TV series, and execs who have cheesed him off at some point meet particularly gruesome deaths... or at least their surnames do.

In answer to dwgsp's question, you do have to check that your character's not named after a real, identifiable person whose reputation could be damaged by your depiction and could sue. My agent's recently stopped me using the complete name of an ex-boyfriend. But I'll get it in somewhere....

TE said...

I wish I could remember the title, but a "C"-grade monster movie that the Z Channel (RIP) used to run frequently had several characters named after streets in Hollywood -- Wilcox, Hudson, Spaulding, etc.

I can't remember at what point I finally caught on (living in Hollywood helped, of course), but from then on the character names were more entertaining than the creatures.

AlaskaRay said...

>>Here's something that I have always wondered: Does a writer need to get permission when they use the name of a living person?<<

Ken certainly didn't ask permission to use my name in one of his shows, but at least it was in one of his more classy and successful series, "The Martin Chronicles". I thought it was lots of fun when the show aired.

Van said...

My last job was as a police reporter at a newspaper in Little Rock, Arkansas. There was a somewhat hallowed file kept by the clerks for decades of all of the craziest names to ever appear in the newspaper. All real, all bizarre. When I left the paper, I made off with a copy of the names. My favorite:

Monkeytron Ward.

Anonymous said...

Good post, good to see the history between names. I recall the Cheers episode. Diane had jury duty over Grand's attempt to kill his wife, but they never got to vote. Sheri Grand dropped the charges. Funny stuff.

Max Clarke said...

Any cases of writers hating people so much, they give characters their names that include these people?

jbryant said...

I don't have enough produced credits to make it qualify as a habit, but I did manage to name characters after my mother, niece and nephew in the Disney Channel episodes I did.

For screenplays, I'll often name secondary characters after directors of my favorite films in the genre. A rom-com included a "Dr. Sturges," a crime drama featured bit roles dubbed Siegel, Karlson and Fleischer.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

For the past 40 minutes, I've been writing a column for my local paper's weekend entertainment section about the ungodly amount of time I spend online, and how that may be stretched out even more with some of the new (not so "new" in the context of time, I know) TV shows that Netflix has put into its "Watch Instantly" feature, such as the second, third and fourth seasons of "Adam-12" (loved the first season on DVD, but Universal didn't release the next ones, I guess because of low sales), McMillan & Wife, and Alfred Hithcock Presents.

On the IMDB, I was researching the credits of "Adam-12" to make sure I got the names right that I mention in that column, and clicked on Jack Webb's name, curious about the trivia of his career and found this:

"Was a huge baseball fan, and chose badge number 714 for Sgt. Friday because it was the number of home runs Babe Ruth hit."

Ties right into this discussion.

Richard Y. said...

"In the “Point of View” episode of MASH, the central patient is named “Bobby Rich”. Bobby is a radio personality who hired me in San Diego and is now in Tucson"

Listen to the Bobby Rich show every morning on the way to work, great show.

Mike Bauman said...

I tend to use the names of whatever musicians I happen to be listening to as I write. I wrote an FBI surveillance scene with agents Clarke, Nash, Calvert, Hicks, and Elliott...because I was listening to the Hollies.

D. McEwan said...

The best revenge name story I ever heard was about a gay porn star who called himself "Chet Roberts". This kid was (still is) a very submissive bottom heavily into "Water Sports", so his work contains really degrading stuff.

I read an interview with him in which he said that he chose the name "Chet Roberts" because that was the name of the guy who used to beat him up back in high school for being gay.

Sometimes Revenge is a dish best eaten damp.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

There is a name for this practice: tuckerization. It was coined by science fiction fans in honor of Wilson "Bob" Tucker, who used the names or traits of friends and acquaintances in his fiction. The idea dates back centuries, but callig it tuckerizing started around 60 years ago. In my novel, LOVE, DEATH AND THE TOYMAN, I tuckerized many friends and family members for my characters, but not the major ones.
As for liability, I read that Joseph Wambaugh spent time with a police unit doing research and named some of his characters after some of them after securing reeases from those whose names he used. They sued anyway and collected. So tuckerize away, but beware.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Don't forget Seinfeld's character of Crazy Joe Davola.

W said...

A question about names in scripts. I find that my characters vary between calling themselves by first and last names. I've taken to introducing my main character as FIRST LAST, consistently calling him Last in the action and in the character line, and having the dialogue alternate as needs between Fir', Las', Mr. Last, etc. Is this ill-advised? It feels natural, but I wonder if it reads confusing.

Max Clarke: the writers of "Salton Sea" so despised former LA DA Gil Garcetti that they named a corrupt cop character after him.

D. McEwan said...

Speaking of using real people's names: I knew the real Eleanor Rigby slightly. We both worked at The Hollywood Reporter for a while a bit over 20 years ago. Nice woman. She had met John Lennon at a party in the 60s, and he took a fancy to her name, and later wrote that song, which made her the emblem of sad old losers everywhere. Thanks a bunch John.

Incidentally, the real Eleanor did not keep her face in a jar by the door --- but I DO! Whose face? If you knew, I'd have to kill you/

TE said...

Re: Eleanor Rigby

Nice story, but Paul wrote (and sang) the song.

Daddy Background said...

Really? I thought that was a McCartney tune....

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eleanor_Rigby

LouOCNY said...

Back in 80 or so, I had picked up a, shall we say, 'adult' novel (I was 20 ya know!), enjoyed it, but something about it pricked at my mind...so to speak. After about he third reading (no, not the same day!), I realized what it was - the writer had named EVERY character - last name at the very least - after members of the 1977-78 Dodgers and Yankees! Including a sorority mother named Munson...

When you consider the relationship of thing about bseball during sex....kind of ruined things...

LouOCNY said...

The Seavers on Growing Pains also knew a Swoboda family.....

I kept waiting for a Clendenon or a Grote to pop up....which in the case of Grote would have been pretty typical...

Anonymous said...

In Joe Gores' DKA novels about a San Francisco repo company, owner Dan Kearny uses San Fran street names for his aliases. In one novel, he takes on the last name Gough and explains to another character that one day he will find a way to use Golden Gate as a monicker.

Mike said...

For several years (I don't think she's on anymore), there was a recurring character on Law and Order that went by the name "Danielle Melnick." Daniel Melnick was the name of a long-time TV and movie producer, and came up with the idea for Get Smart, convincing Mel Brooks and Buck Henry to create the show.

Perhaps "Danielle Melnick" is just a coincidence. But I've always chose to think it was the result of a classic TV-minded L&O staff writer.

Anonymous said...

What about DJ's names: like "Beaver Clever"

Noah said...

The school where I'm working just had an auction for charity and my donation was an offer to name a character in a future script after the highest bidder. I was very pleased that it went for $55 ... until three cans of soda went for that same price.

Paul Duca said...

Maybe they were VERY good cans of soda...

Annie said...

A friend of mine wrote for NIGHT COURT and used my maiden name for a visiting attorney. I was kinda tickled until I found out the character was quite nasty.
Then I was thrilled. :)
btw - don't feel bad, Noah - that was premium root beer you were up against.

Scott said...

My favorite names are on the new show "Big Bang Theory" the two main characters are "Sheldon" and "Leonard"

D. McEwan said...

"Nice story, but Paul wrote (and sang) the song."

Then John passed the name to Paul, because Eleanor told me it was John Lennon she met. It is a true story.

D. McEwan said...

"my donation was an offer to name a character in a future script after the highest bidder."

Stephen King did a similar charity thing a couple years ago, auctioning off the chance to have your name used as a charcter who would die a horrible death in his novel CELL.

Noah said...

Actually, the soda was Brazillian Guarana, which is awfully good, but, still ...

Mike Bell said...

I've noticed that several characters on LA LAW were named after streets in the San Fernando Valley. When I worked at KROQ, I wanted to call myself "Roscoe Nordoff" after the those two exits on the 405. The PD didn't let me. His name?

Van Johnson.

(I wonder if it was his real name?)

Tom Quigley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jbryant said...

I've heard that Eleanor Rigby, Rocky Raccoon and a lovely meter maid named Rita are filing a class action suit against McCartney and the Lennon estate.

SharoneRosen said...

a funny story about using family, but this time, not by name but by resume.

Back when my cousin was part of the creative team for L-A LAW, she used my brother's background for the character she created for Jimmy Smits... Cal State Northridge and the Glendale School of Law. She wanted him to be real working class, not Ivy League.

My brother found out years later that the Glendale School of Law was flooded by phone calls from small law schools all over the country wanting to know how they got their name in prime time! The Dean told them all, "you want to know the truth? I have no idea!" No one believed him. There were so many phone calls, the FBI investigated the unusual activity on their phone lines.

It wasn't until the Dean told my brother the story that he learned how it happened.

Tom Quigley said...

Just realized I made a typo (apologies all around, especially to Helen Hunt)...

In re: Whether they need to get your permission before they use your name...

One season when I was working with the audiences at MAD ABOUT YOU, I suddenly heard my name being spoken during one of the episodes they were filming -- as someone Jamie had a crush on in high school who didn't like her. Damned if the writers or anyone else asked me beforehand... Flattered at first, I started to think about it and then thought "Hey, c'mon, give me a break! This is Helen Hunt you're saying I don't like?"

D. McEwan said...

Another revenge-name story I can tell is this: my predecessor as Dick Whittington's producer was a guy named, well let's just say it was "Tom." (but NOT Tom Kratovil, who had the job for a long time. It was the guy between he and I, but also a Tom.) He was a JERK, and he once physically attacked me in Dick's office.

Anyway, after he was gone (in mutual acrimony) and I took over, EVERYONE I encountered who I needed to work with, especially all the talk-show-guest-providers, told me how delighted they were I now had the job, and more to the point, that "Tom" was gone, as they had all found him a huge pain in the butt to work with.

A few years later, I started noticing this "Tom" guy's name in the credits for Dick Clark's Bloopers, Blunders, and Practical Jokes, in some production job.

Then, in one episode, they were staging a practical joke that involved staging a mock-funeral-at-sea. The name of the fictional deceased? It was this "Tom" guy's full name! Obviously wishful thinking by the poor schmucks stuck working with him. I laughed and laughed, and enjoyed his "Funeral" immensely.

Anonymous said...

A recurring character played by Bill Thomas on The Cosby Show was named "Dabnis". That was Dr. Cosby's tribute to Sinbad, who had been the show's audience warmup man for several seasons.

ajmilner said...

For several years (I don't think she's on anymore), there was a recurring character on Law and Order that went by the name "Danielle Melnick." Daniel Melnick was the name of a long-time TV and movie producer, and came up with the idea for Get Smart, convincing Mel Brooks and Buck Henry to create the show.

Perhaps "Danielle Melnick" is just a coincidence. But I've always chose to think it was the result of a classic TV-minded L&O staff writer.


Another possible connotation: Danny Melnick, according to the 1990s call-girl memoir ONCE MORE WITH FEELING, is also notoriously fond of ladies of the evening.

Tor Y. Harbin said...

I could care less about getting permission to use people's names.

I am a writer, and I am also, let's just say, 'extraordinarily petty'. If someone at my day job pisses me off, bam! They are now a humiliated and/or murdered character in one of my scripts.

In fact, in a script about a picked-on guy who gets revenge on his tormentors...yep. They're all named after people who gave me crap in school. (Some things just never go away.) One of them might confront me about it at some point in the future, but when you throw a textbook at a guy's head, he tends to take it personally. Go figure.

Geoduck said...

Especially after the advent of DVDs, movie credits are a quick n' easy goldmine for names. Wade down into "second-assistant deputy caterer" territory and start harvesting!

Olden Bittermann said...

And who can forget the dastardly "General Kael" from Willow?

Everybody?

Okay then, it was George Lucas's potshot at his least favorite trash-talkin' highbrow film critic from The New Yorker...

Scoopy said...

Darn, I always believed Scully was named after the list of names rattled off during the iconic pan-out from ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, when "Woodstein" drive thru Washington revisiting an endless list of possible contacts.

The cigarette-smoking man was lovingly adopted from that movie, so I assumed that little throw-away name inspired Dana Scully's name.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

Auctioning off people's names for future novels has become a staple at the World Mystery Convetion (AKA Bouchercon). One woman shelled out $3500.00 to be a character in someone's book. Can't recall the author. Maybe Sue Grafton or Michael Connelly. I've been tuckerized in about 10 books, and have been totally flattered each time.