Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Slipping inside jokes into shows

A reader’s question will sometimes spark an entire post and that’s the case today. Richard Y. wanted to know about inside references and jokes writers slip into shows. Did we do it on purpose? How often did we do it, etc.? He perceptively noticed that on an episode of WINGS, Steven Weber walks by a magazine rack that features an ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY with his likeness and real name on the cover.

Obviously, I can’t speak for everyone but I’d imagine that all writers slip these little nuggets in from time to time. What good is writing a show for 30,000,000 people if you can’t have a joke or two aimed at only six?

In some cases, writers do this to reward the audience for paying strict attention. I think LOST did that 500 times an episode. There are historical, literate, and spiritual references galore. We didn’t do that on ALMOST PERFECT. But any time Nancy Travis or any character was watching TV they were always watching CHEERS.

Hey, I’ll be honest. We do it for our own amusement. We do it because we can.

There’s a very famous episode of BIG WAVE DAVE’S where Adam Arkin keeps commuting back and forth between Hawaii and Chicago. I’m sure you know the one I’m talking about. Well, we show him on a plane four or five times and every time he’s reading my book, “It’s Gone…No, Wait a Minute!” (This did not result in the huge spike in sales I was counting on, however.)

Animated shows are perfect vehicles for slipping in private jokes. The “Dancin’ Homer” episode of THE SIMPSONS that David Isaacs and I wrote is chock-full of names of actual people I encountered broadcasting baseball in the minor leagues. I play the Springfield Isotopes announcer, “Dan Hoard”. Dan was my partner in Syracuse and is a prominent sportscaster today.

There are often cartoon character likenesses of the writers that show up in THE SIMPSONS and FAMILY GUY. You’d think they’d be more flattering.

It’s always a pain-in-the-ass coming up with names for characters. But this is an ideal way to slip in names of people you know. A lot of my former girlfriends show up as nurses on MASH. One became Charles’ sister, “Honoria”. Yes, I went out with a Honoria. It seems that anytime 24 needed a villain who wasn’t Russian or Persian (so that means twice in nine years) they used the name of a Fox network or studio executive.

Growing up, our family dog was named Babette. My mother named her. Can’t say I was ever crazy about the name. So in an episode of MASH that we wrote, Radar loses his hamster, which he named Babette. Then throughout the show everyone gave him a raft of shit for naming her that. After the episode aired my mom called and said, “Very funny.” But again, what’s the point of producing a primetime network television show if you can’t use it expressly to needle your mother?

Anytime I directed a show and there was a scene in a nice restaurant my dad became the maitre ‘d. That turned into a regular gig on ALMOST PERFECT when the show got picked up and “Annie’s” (named for my daughter) became a permanent set.

I used to love in MAD magazine there were sometimes cartoon panels that were just loaded with little bonus gags in the margins and background. Let’s just say there’s a lot of MAD in MASH.

30 comments:

buddybutler said...

For some reason this one sticks in my mind...

On Rowan & Martin's Laugh In, Dan and Dick would refer on the air to the executive producer of the show, George Schlatter, as "CFG".

CFG stood for "Crazy F***ing George".

Eventually the NBC censors caught on.

Tom Reeder said...

As you know, there were also a lot of M*A*S*H characters named for then-current players for the L.A. Dodgers.

For example, in one script I had a Corporal North, a nod to Billy North -- he had been acquired from the Oakland A's that season. There was also a Colonel Lacy in that show, for Lee Lacy.

The association with a hit series didn't seem to help their careers: within a year or so, they had both been traded to other teams.

Michael said...

Warner Bros. cartoons were famous for inside jokes, at least among those of us who looked for them. Friz Freleng did a cartoon about a piano-playing mouse, and the couple who owned the house were cartoon versions of Chuck Jones and his wife. Jones did a cartoon with Marvin the Martian in which an astronomer goes nuts, and it's Freleng--who, in turn, was the model for Yosemite Sam.

By the way, in Las Vegas, we have a development where the streets are named for Brooklyn Dodgers. I really wanted to move there, and my wife, the Giants fan, was willing to go along, but we couldn't find a house we liked there.

Anonymous said...

On an episode of NCIS someone asked what Ducky, played by David McCallum, looked like when he was young. Mark Harmon answered "Illya Kuriyakin". The young cast all looked puzzled.
I think there was a St. Elsewhere reference once as well, but I don't remember it.

chalmers said...

As "St. Elsewhere" was the "Citizen Kane" of inside jokes, numerous shows have returned the favor.

My two favorites from St. Elsewhere:
Patricia Wettig played Morrison's (David Morse's) second wife, then left the show for a starring role on "thirtysomething." Shortly after, Morrison is speaking to her (unseen) on the phone planning a party with her for "thirtysomething" guests.


Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows played the parents of Victor Ehrlich (Ed Begley, Jr.) On the penultimate episode, fathers of other residents came for a ceremony, played by Allen's "Tonight Show" cohorts, Louis Nye, Bill Macy and Tom Poston.

Rebecca said...

Spotting references is a major pasttime on Leverage writer/showrunner/cocreater John Rogers' blog at http://kfmonkey.blogspot.com. The coolest part is that he answers all the fan questions about that and other topics after the episodes...even when the comments run into several hundred.

Sometimes it takes a while for him to get to it, but I can't imagine where he finds the time to do it at all. We all greatly appreciate it though. The show is fun and entertaining regardless, but this inside look has turned regular fans into ones of rabid loyalty.

Of course, it's also generated much closer scrutiny, which has to make the writers' jobs even harder. The viewers are freeze framing moments from each episode and theorizing wildly until Rogers finally sets everyone straight.

It's really added to the fun of the show.

Max Clarke said...

Those jokes and gags on the margins of Mad Magazine were maybe the first time I learned the pleasure of reading something twice. You'd stick to the main narrative to get the best jokes, but then you'd see this stuff a second time.

Mad Magazine also supplied a cover for the movie, "Down With Love." Alfred E Neuman is drawn to look like Rene Zellweger reading the book, Down With Love.

Max Clarke said...

In the movie Annie Hall, Woody Allen meets Diane Keaton outside a movie theater. He complains that the guys he just met waiting for her were from "The Godfather."

The inside joke was that Diane Keaton had played Kay, the girlfriend and later wife of Michael Corleone.

Bob Graves said...

One of the best inside jokes TV episodes again involved St. Elsewhere. While I am unsure of the exact episode, as an ongoing gag, the announcements made over the PA system throughout the hospital - and throughout the episode - involved every type of double entendre possible - I seem to recall a "Mike Hunt" in particular - though at my age everything seems a little like "Porky's".

benson said...

There was an episode late in the "Newhart" run, where Joanna wants to go to a couples' therapist, and Dick says he doesn't believe in psychology, and the therapist mentions how she's had to undo a ton of damage done by a psycholgist in Chicago to her patient played by Jack Riley (Mr. Carlin) I believe there was also reference to stuttering, and Bob corrects it (That's a stammer!)

I don't think this qualifies as inside, but Riley also played Carlin on a episode of St. Elsewhere.

Tom Quigley said...

Another "insider" from FRASIER was that he worked at a station whose call letters were KACL, taken obviously (I'm assuming) from the initials of the producers, Angell, Casey and Lee.

D. McEwan said...

One of my favorites from LOST was the character of "Bram," as in Bram Stoker, author of DRACULA. He was one of Ilana's people who carried John Locke's body to the statue. When the smoke monster killed him, he was impaled on a wooden stake.

I named the villainess in one of my books "Evelyn," after an Aunt of mine whom I loathed.

When Superman married Lois Lane in the comic book, It ended with a big fold-out page of Clark kissing Lois surrounded by the wedding guests, who were all the faces of prominent or long-time Superman artists.

I know of a gay porn star who, when he had to come up with his porn name, chose the name of the homophobic bully who used to beat him up in high school, a sublime revenge.

Buttermilk Sky said...

There's a SCRUBS episode where J.D. has to treat four doctors who got sick at a conference, all played by actors from ST. ELSEWHERE. The tradition continues.

Jen said...

The Stargate writers love their inside jokes. First season had a character making a reference that a team had to "MacGyver" a piece of technology together for an alien device ... a speech she was making to Richard Dean Anderson, who played MacGyver.

Anderson's character also introduces himself in one episode explaining that "It's 'O'Neill.' with two L's. There's another Colonel O'Neil with only one L, and he has no sense of humor at all." which was a reference to Kurt Russell's portrayal of the character in the Stargate film.

My sister worked on "Dreamcatchers" and had to write on boxes for scene showing a character's memories were all boxed away in his mind. They didn't care what she wrote, so she used names of friends and family for most of the memories.

LinGin said...

During St. Elsewhere's run the show had scheduled a day of filming in my hometown, Philadelphia. I didn't get a chance to see any of the location work but I thought, "Man, if William Daniels doesn't sing something from 1776 I'm going to be sorely disappointed at the writers." There was no need to worry as they shot a scene at Independence Hall and Daniels did indeed burst into a few measures of one of John Adams' songs.

The reason Dr. Craig and his wife were in Philly? To see an old med school colleague at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, a surgeon by the name of Dr. Todd Sweeney. (Yikes!)

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

There's a name for using friends, family, co-workers, enemies, etc, in a creation. It's called tuckerization. The term developed in science-fiction fandom because Wilson "Bob" Tucker was famous for doing it. Of course, the practice dates from the earliest days of the written word, but the s-f people codified a term to describe it. I've been tuckerized in about a dozen novels and short stories over the years and it's a big kick and honor every time. Also, at the annual Bouchercon/World Mystery Convention, tuckerizations are auctioned off. Some people have paid thousands to have their name used as a minor, walk-on, character in a favorite author's book.

WV: meersee. Thank you by a French meercat.

Gary said...

This had to be the funniest line in today's post:
"There’s a very famous episode of BIG WAVE DAVE’S"

chalmers said...

While walking on their old campus, Mrs. Craig (played by William Daniels' real-life wife, Bonnie Bartlett), recalled that Craig was "obnoxious and disliked" when they were at Penn.

They also referenced "The Graduate" as well.

benson said...

One of my favorite examples of what's being mentioned here is actually from the movie "I'm gonna get you sucka". Keenan Ivory Wayans is trying to impress Jim Brown and Isaac Hayes, and says he played a little football in high school. The look on Jim Brown's face was priceless.

Larry said...

Of all the inside jokes I've seen, the best by far, so good I'd call it brilliant, was in an episode of 3rd Rock From The Sun. The gang, including lead John Lithgow, were waiting at an airport to pick up recurring character Big Giant Head, played by William Shatner.

He got off the flight and they asked him how was it. He said it was horrible, there was this monster on the wing trying to destroy the plane, or something like that, referring, of course, the his famous episode of Twilight Zone.

Then John Lithgow said "That happened to me too!", referring, of course, to him playing the same role in the Twilight Zone movie.

YEKIMI said...

OK, a Friday question: Was there ever anyone you wanted to use as a "guest star" on MASH [or other shows] but decided against it or the network decided against it because they felt they had been "overexposed"? [i.e.: too many apperances on other shows, etc.]

LouOCNY said...

Thats funny about the Jack Riley reference in Newhart - I thought that happened in the St Elsewhere episode where amnesiac patient played by Oliver Clark was in he psych ward, ad started to have delusions he was Mary Richards from the MTM show....just as Betty White as a presidential aide shows up. There he openly played Eliott Carlin....in the psych ward...all due to 'some quack in Chicago'...

Frasier Fan said...

One of my favorites is from the Season 11 "Caught in the Act" episode of Frasier.

Nanny G says to Frasier "Do you have any idea what it's like to play the same character for 20 years?"

Cracks me up every time.

Scott H said...

Thanks to everyone for all the reminders of great moments from "St. Elsewhere". I can't believe that still only one season of the show is available on DVD. I have some old VHS tapes of various episodes, but I would love to revisit the whole series again.

Tom Quigley said...

In one episode of THE SINGLE GUY back in '96, Maureen McCormick (Marcia Brady) played Jonathan Silverman's girlfriend. Several episodes later (a Thanksgiving episode), Jonathan is telling his friends that Davey Jones of the Monkees is going to be one of their Thanksgiving feast guests. One of the female characters recalls how she used to fantasize about Davey Jones when she was younger, wherupon Jonathan reflects "Yeah, I always dreamed about kissing Marcia Brady... " Then with a shrug he finishes with "Like that'll ever happen..."

And the only reason I remember this one is that I happened to be playing the part of a pilgrim in that episode, stuck wearing a hot itchy pilgrim's outfit on an outdoor set on a hotter than hell October day at CBS Radford Studios... It's too painful to forget...

Dave Hackel said...

It was always fun to insert private jokes in shows, but my favorite was in the last episode of "Becker." We knew we'd been cancelled when we wrote it so at one point we had the head nurse inform Dr. Becker that a Mr. Nielson's test results were in and handed him a file. He reviewed the numbers quickly then said, "I don't know what the problem is, these numbers aren't so bad."

Tom Quigley said...

Dave, now that you've mentioned it, I remember that line, and it drew a good laugh out of me....

I also remember in the first Becker episode, Ted's wife Mary Steenburgen made a cameo appearance as someone in Becker's office, and following him bursting out of a back room in one of his typical tirades, said something to the effect of "I don't know how anyone could live with a man like that!"...

Jay Lewis said...

Stargate SG-1 had a head "gate tech" who wore wire-rimmed glasses named Walter.

The head of the SGC (S1-7) was General George Hammond, also used in S1 of MASH.

WV: sittermo - Where terrorist babysitters are sent.

Rockgolf said...

St Elsewhere had an entire season where each episode they make a pun with a different character's first name. Sadly the only one I can remember is when Dr Auchlander and Dr Westphall are walking down the hall as two orderlies are carrying a mattress at shoulder height. Auchlander says to Westphall "Donald, duck" and then they continue their conversation with no reference to the joke.

In one episode of Better Off Ted, a Veridian Dynamics storage area for dangerous products created by the company has a Dalek in the background.

Jay Lewis said...

Thought of a couple more.

Stargate SG1 has a character from the planet Kelowna which happens to also be the name of a city in British Columbia (where the series filmed).

They also had a character on SG:Atlantis who was Canadian and made tons of references only Canadians would get (I.e. Coles Notes & Participaction.)

One I really liked was from the Canadian sitcom Corner Gas. Every characters last name was a town in Saskatchewan.

WV: twipine - How the Amish twitter.