Saturday, June 21, 2014

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.

Update:  I just received the following Tweet from Loren & Byron.

@KenLevine When I was about 20, I sent you a check for $50 to name a character after me on Cheers. You sent it back to me with a nice note.

You mean I didn't take the money? What was wrong with me?

37 comments:

emily said...

Mad magazine returned the favor with "M*U*S*H" and "M*A*S*H*UGA."

Anonymous said...

Something I always suspected was an inside joke but never heard any confirmation of was ALF's "real" name. Who was Gordon Shumway and why did the writers want to get revenge? ;-)

Michael said...

If you watch Warner Bros. cartoons, the greatest inside joke was probably that Friz Freleng was short and red-haired with a red mustache and lost his temper a lot. Hm. Wonder who that could be.

At the end of a Chuck Jones cartoon, "The Hasty Hare," Friz's likeness is the scientist who throws a fit over Bugs and Marvin. In another cartoon, the couple who have a musical cat and mouse are "Chuck" and "Dorothy" and are the likenesses of Chuck Jones ... directed by Friz Freleng. He got even still more when Bugs took on an absent-minded goofball named Charles M. Wolf.

DonBoy said...

Before Gordon Shumway was mentioned on ALF, he was a character on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman in the 70s. That doesn't help but it does push the question back.

Phillip B said...

The Zucker brothers are from Wisconsin, as I am, and they commonly use local place names into their scripts.

In "Police Squad" Lt. Drebin is constantly dashing off to streets from Milwaukee. But the real joke is that the intersections are streets which run parallel, and never intersect. So there were dozens of people in hysterics when they mention being at the corner of Cherry and Galena..

In "Hot Shots" parts I and II, the Native Americans speak in a language largely composed of Wisconsin place names ("Fond du Lac, Oconomowoc, Kinnekinic," he said excitedly...)

In other hands this sort of thing can backfire. The movie "Mr. 3000" was totally spoiled for me when they had the lead character living in Waukesha - and everyone in the movie mispronounced the name of the town.

That and daring to make a movie about Milwaukee baseball without Bob Uecker just made the entire effort pointless.

chris said...

"There’s a very famous episode of BIG WAVE DAVE’S...."

Really?

Mike in Seattle said...

I believe it was in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE there is a scene in a record store that showed the 2001 soundtrack album in a rack. Much time and effort went into wondering what Stanley could have meant by this. Maybe there was some deeper symbolic meaning, but maybe he was just having a laugh.

Greg Ehrbar said...

It was funny when MAD's Mort Drucker started slipping Fred Flintstone into numerous movie parodies, including STAR WARS.

Years ago, I wrote a kids' handout menu for a restaurant called Tony's Town Square and added the names of my Aunt Sadie and Uncle Joe. In an comic book script, "Henton's" department store was named for my in-laws.

For a Cinderella Christmas Read Along, not only did it include my sister's nicknname (LaRue) and a friend's first name (Francois), it was based on a nightmarish holiday experience when I was ten years old, in which my grandfather disparaged my handmade gift, saying he only accepted store-bought presents. No kidding, it happened. I was about ten years old.

http://www.amazon.com/Cinderella-Christmas-Lingual-Booklet-Disneys/dp/B001C8WIG8/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1403372599&sr=8-3&keywords=cinderella+so+this+is+christmas

g said...

Did I mention I was ten years old? Sorry for the typo.

OTL said...

"Mystery Science Theater 3000" made tons of inside jokes, making references to things local to their part of Minnesota. (What's cited as their most obscure reference ever was "Stop her! She’s got my keyboard!", a reference to the time when head writer Mike Nelson's girlfriend stole his keyboard. That's... probably about as "inside" a joke as you can get...)

DBenson said...

I don't know if MAD was so much about inside jokes as just MORE joke, aside from Dave Berg using himself and occasionally Bill Gaines as characters.

You didn't have to be an insider or intellectual, although regular readers would notice the potted plant ("Arthur"), the airship and other recurring oddities. You just had to be patient and have very sharp eyes.

I suppose it was an inside joke when Mort Drucker, then drawing a comic strip called "Benchley", had that character turning up the background chaos.

Todd Everett said...

Many actors and actresses (and disc jockeys, for that matter) use their first and middle names as stage names -- Tom Cruise, for example. And pretty much every woman in community theater, looking to pick up a little glamor.

So the (well, "a") joke in "That Girl" was that Ann Marie, whose name sounds like such a construction, was in fact the daughter of Lew (or was it "Lou") Marie.

Cap'n Bob said...

Using the names of people you know in a script, book, etc., is called tuckerizing. When Wilson "Bob" Tucker wrote s-f fan (later pro) fiction he did that and the name stuck. I did it extensively in my novels. I've also been tuckerized in a number of books by friends. It's a real honor.

Craig L. said...

The '60s cartoon series Roger Ramjet was one of Gary ("Space Ghost", Powdered Toast Man, "Laugh-In", a million commercials) Owens' less remembered endeavors but it had an ongoing running joke about Lompoc, California, a semi-small town (it's up to 40,000 people now) up the coast from Santa Barbara and just inland from Vandenberg Air Force Base (which was almost logical since Roger Ramjet was a pilot). And they consistently mispronounced the town's name as Lom-pock when it should be Lom-poke. The Lompocians never appreciated it. Wikipedia claims it was the home town of the show's creators, but IMDB listings for all the producers and writers (no specific creator credited) show Cleveland, Dallas, Chicago and "not listed". You think anybody from Lompoc would've been prouder, but the most notable person in IMDB admitting to roots in Lompoc is Actor/Voiceactor Jeffrey Combs, who was 10 years old when Ramjet aired.

LouOCNY said...

There was a MASH where Hawkeye and BJ were doing a continuing practical joke involving his weight, and there mention of a Corp. Levine - Stringbean Levine..

Even though they pronounced it with the 'EE', could he be a relation?

Greg Ehrbar said...

Love Roger Ramjet! This is "The Werewolf of Lompoc" from the soundtrack album:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IxCuraS1pBs

Pat Reeder said...

I don't know how many inside references to real people were slipped into "SCTV" (probably millions), but I loved the way they would fill the show with obscure references to previous episodes as a reward to faithful viewers like me (I now have the whole series on boxed set DVDs and can catch even more when not watching it at 3 a.m.) My favorite was when they did an almost willfully pointless sketch called "Vikings and Beekeepers." Years later, during a Christmas episode, if you looked very closely at the distant background crowd in a big Christmas party scene, there were some Vikings chatting with beekeepers. Apparently, they were still hanging around the building!

Anonymous said...


I'm sure many of the things depicted on shows like "The Larry Sanders Show" and " Episodes" were based on incidents that really happened.

Gary said...

I wonder how many loyal viewers of The Big Bang Theory will never get the inside joke of the main characters being named Sheldon and Leonard.

Cap'n Bob said...

W.C. Fields said Lom-Pock in one of his movies. The Bank Dick, maybe.

cb said...

What about the "100th"...?

Barry Traylor said...

I love this sort of thing. It's like an added bonus for people that pay attention. The TV show Fargo that was just on FX did a lot of these also called Easter Eggs.

Richard Y said...

Thanks Ken. A real treat hearing of all these. I have discovered a few others over time and always get a chuckle out of it. In the Harrison Ford 2006 movie 'Firewall' there was a model of the Millennium Falcon on his desk.

jcs said...

In two John Landis flicks there are PAs for a "Mr. Frank Oznowicz" which is the real name of puppeteer/director/actor Frank Oz. One of these films, "Into the Night", is basically one big inside joke with countless cameos of directors, actors, writers etc.

CRL said...

When Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce played brothers on The Simpsons, there was this little exchange:

Bart: Guess who!

Cecil Terwilliger: Maris?

Richard Y said...

Robert Fuller ('Laramie' and Dr. Brackett on Emergency!) portraying retired Texas Ranger Wade Harper in Walker Texas Ranger. “Dr. Brackett” is paged over the PA system in a hospital scene.

David G. Whitham said...

One of my favorites: Nanny G to Frazier, "Do you know what it's like to play the same character for 20 years?"

Alan B said...

@DBenson: I've never met anyone who remembered the potted plant in MAD, let alone that it bore a plaque which read "Arthur."

What was the point of the potted plant? Well, "Arthur" was in a dry cleaning shop which advertised "plant on premises".

cadavra said...

My Hall of Fame example was in an episode of "Third Rock From The Sun." The family greets guest star William Shatner at the airport. Asked how the flight was, Shatner replies, "Horrifying! I looked out the window and I saw something on the wing of the plane!" John Lithgow gasps, "The same thing happened to me!"

Hint: "The Twilight Zone."

skarab said...

I almost choked on my sandwich when you mentioned the "Honoria" joke on MASH. Absolutely one of my favorite gags from that show.

Steve B. said...

"Lost" had a REALLY inside reference even before the show started each week. The voice that said "Previously on 'Lost'" was Lloyd Braun, the ABC exec that greenlit the show but was fired before it got on the air. And, of course, Lloyd Braun was also the name of a "Seinfeld" character (Braun was previously a prominent entertainment lawyer).

Unknown said...

Speaking of Dan Hoard and Syracuse... former Chiefs president Don Awful sends his regards. Remembers your time here fondly. He's 98 and still attends most home games. (...And they're winning...)
All the best,
Tim Fox

Dale said...

You could probably fill a book with inside jokes from TV series. An episode of GET SMART I saw last night took place mostly on "Schwartz's Island," a location so named because it was actually the backlot island and lagoon built by CBS for Sherwood Schwartz's GILLIGAN'S ISLAND.

Todd Everett said...

Way after the post, but on last night's "Major Crimes" (don't judge me -- I watch it for G.W. Bailey), the first half-hour included the phrases Brewster's millions, You can't take it with you, Arsenic and old lace, Sayonara and Dick Tracy -- none of them in the sense of being a movie title.

Curiously, all that ended after about 20 minutes; though another, referring to a dead dog, was a running gag throughout the show. It was a Maltese (beat), "Falcon."

I believe the episode was supposed to be amusing. And I'd sure like to know why the stream of movie titles was cut off when it was -- or if I missed something that came later.

Richard Y said...

Another way after post - but a follow-up on Gilligan's Island. Gilligan’s Island and lagoon at CBS in Studio City are long gone of course. But at least someone at CBS decided long ago that the iconic television program should be remembered on the lot in some way. A small pond was constructed with a bridge over it and was located in the area of the former lagoon, located near several bungalows. A good friend of mine at CBS advised that a couple of months ago the set of three bungalows that housed production companies were moved to another part of the lot and sadly the last remaining vestige of Gilligan’s Island was dug up and will now become home to an office building. It was one of the few remaining open green spaces left on the lot.

Rich D said...

Here's one from a show that hasn't aired yet - John Wesley Shipp, who played Barry Allen in the 1990 TV adaptation of the superhero The Flash will be playing his father in the new CW series premiering in October.

And here's one that absolutely none of you could have known - When I played Professor Moriarty in a junior high production of Gillette's Sherlock Holmes stage play, I set decorated the desk in my "office" with a number of books and on top of the a copy of the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine which featured a cover article by Isaac Asimove titled "Sherlock Holmes' Greatest Mistakes."

Anonymous said...

One of the writers on Justified is from Dallas and grew up a fan of the most popular sports talk station. He has had several scripts now and named some ancillary characters after people on the station. People who are regular listeners might perk up at a first mention as a coincidence but after the second one you know something is up.

He was actually on one of the shows on the station and talked about it. Any non listeners would have no idea anything happened. Then it made me think how many background character names are deliberate as shout outs, or maybe shout downs.