Sunday, January 30, 2011

Naming characters on TV shows

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 Mulder 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.

22 comments:

Bill said...

It is somehow appropriate that a blog about the challenges of naming characters -- has no title.

Rose said...

Actually, Ken, it was Mulder who left THE X-FILES (he was abducted by aliens, naturally), so Scully was paired with a new partner: Doggett. Makes more sense to have Scully and Doggett together, right? Unfortunately, for the most part, fans of THE X-FILES didn't really warm up to the new partnership. I guess it worked better for baseball than for chasing monsters. :-)

Max Clarke said...

The post with no name. Who would Ken Levine name himself for if he had no name? "By ...."

Ken, thanks for the Bill and Sherry Grand mention. That was a good episode, Diane going on jury duty. I always liked the way Diane told Cheers patrons she couldn't discuss the case, and then she whispered loudly, "Attempted murder."

Sherry Grand also had a good line when she and her husband visited Cheers after the trial ended early because she dropped the charges. When she wakes up to the fact that her husband maybe did try to kill her, she asks something like, "Bill, why did you have that chainsaw in the kitchen?"

Mike McCann said...

Not quite a character name, but how about someone really famous who appeared -- albeit for a fraction of a second?
Remember at the beginning of a MISSION IMPOSSIBLE episode, how Peter Graves would thumb through a packet of portraits. He always choose Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, Greg Morris and Peter Lupis. Supposedly, as an inside joke, one week among the photos he discarded was William S. Paley.

Fact or urban myth??

Michael said...

I wrote a column for an alternative weekly in Las Vegas at the time of the new X-Files cast member, and Jerry Doggett's family had moved to Las Vegas, so I spoke a bit with his daughter. Still one of the few things I've written that I'm happy with.

I've mentioned this with a different post about inside jokes, but the best ones may have been at Warner Bros. cartoons. The greatest of all was when they created a short, red-haired, volcanic-tempered foil with a mustache: Yosemite Sam, or Friz Freleng, the studio's senior cartoon director. Freleng did a Bugs Bunny cartoon with a "Charles M. Wolf," as in Charles M. Jones, the beloved Chuck, and another with a couple named Chuck and Dorothy who were indeed the spitting image of Chuck and Dorothy Jones. For his part, Chuck did a fascinating cartoon, "Now Hear This," and the devil is modeled on Jack Warner, who the directors viewed as an idiot.

Terrie said...

I was always honored that you once used my name in a script...even more so now, since I've never even played professional baseball! ;-)

lucifervandross said...

Hey Ken,

Speaking of names there is a nationally syndicated oldies channel called "THe True Oldies Newtwork" and one of the broadcasters goes by your old handle, Beaver Cleaver.

Chris D. said...

I once had a character who needed to bury a body in the woods. He brought along three guys to help him out. No one wanted anything to do with it of course so they passed the shovel from one to the other to the other. I named the three guys Tinker, Evers, Chance.

Naturally, in notes, they cut two of them.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

When I name characters, I try to either think of names that aren't already used regularly for fictional characters, or they're named based on how they look.

I seldom name characters after people I've known; the only time I've done that was when I partly named my "leading lady" after my "high school crush"... I guess some of Ken's wisdom's rubbed off on me a little.

Mike Barer said...

Since my cousins write fiction, it's easy to spot names that they come up with. After all it could be my Dad, brother, or a friend.

Steven said...

Should writers name characters after their character traits?

Should all nerds be Albert, Sheldon, Nigel etc and all cool guys be Luke, Devon, Brad etc?

I argue with my writing partner that it helps the reader imagine the character if his/her name reflects their personality and he argues that parents don't name their kids knowing what they will become and naming characters after their traits is cliche.

Thoughts???

Jen said...

When you use names of players in a group like that, do you have to clear those names with the players? Or is it okay to let it stand because it's only last names?

Do you ask your friends before using their names, or just assume they'll enjoy the wink and nod?

Cap'n Bob said...

There is a name for this practice--tuckerizing.

Pronis said...

I remember an episode of Taxi written by the Charles brothers in which someone named Pantuso is mentioned.

I wonder who this Pantuso fellow could be.

John said...

So, Ken, do you give your friends a heads-up if you have an episode where you're using their names (especially if Bill Grand is trying to chainsaw his wife), or save it for a surprise?

Anonymous said...

Was Lilith from Cheers named after the Lilith from Jewish mythology?

Tom Quigley said...

One filming night early in the first season of MAD ABOUT YOU, I got to talking with one of the writers on the show, introducing myself and talking about a mutual acquaintance we both had. Three weeks later, I'm hearing my name being used in the script for that night's filming... The script was credited to the same writer I had talked to... I guess they'll use anyone's moniker that they conveniently happen to pick up!

Ben said...

"St. Elsewhere" had a scene in the pilot where Westphall is leading the first year residents on grand rounds, and the group is primarily the regular (Chandler, Fiscus, Ehrlich, White) and semi-regular (Armstrong, Cathy Martin) characters, but to make it look like they weren't the only residents there, they had two additional characters with one line each named Rowe (Roe) and Wade.

Wade eventually became a recurring and later character named "Dr. Jacqueline Wade". Didn't hurt that the actress was married to one of the writer/producers at the time.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how much of the audience gets the joke of the main characters in Big Bang Theory being Sheldon and Leonard. Also the gay couple in Modern Family being Cameron and Mitchell.

Heidi said...

I always wondered if Chachi Arcola was named after the street in Garry Marshall's neighborhood.

Elsie said...

My husband and I almost got characters named for us on an episode of DOCTOR DOCTOR by a friend of ours who wrote for that show. They ended up only using our last name, but it was a big thrill none-the-less.

chuckcd said...

The movie "The Other Guys" has a police captain named Gene Mauch,
played by Michael Keaton.