Thursday, June 19, 2014

"That's my name. Don't wear it out."

Yesterday we talked about “what?” (as opposed to “whatever”). Along similar lines, have you noticed that characters in television shows call each other by name waaaaay more than people do in real life? And I’m guilty of this myself.

What I’m talking about specifically are conversations between two people. It’s common to use names during greetings. “Hey, Octavio, what’s going on?” “Eustacia, you’re looking hot”, etc.

But once you get into the text of a conversation, rarely do you say the other’s person name… unless it’s to really emphasize a point, or more often, because you’re pissed at that person. “Persefone, you ran over the cat,” or “Thaddeus, you can’t sleep with the nanny.”

I understand using the convention for pilots. The audience doesn’t know who these characters are yet. And it’s a big help on ORPHAN BLACK where the same actress plays nine different roles. When Sarah and Alisson are talking about Cosima and Rachel, and they’re all the same person, names prove to be mighty handy.

But frequently we writers use names as a crutch, a way to prefix or punctuate a line. And in normal conversation people use prefixes a lot. “Look,” “Listen,,” “I mean,” “You know,” “It’s like,” Um,” and every dialogue writer’s favorite: “Well…” Sprinkling in a character’s name allows you to avoid “Well,” to begin every speech.

I’m currently in the process of rewriting my play. It’s a two-character piece so 90% of the time it’s a dialogue between one couple. As I’m going through, revising, sure enough, there are instances when they call each other by name unnecessarily. I’ve cut that down from 50 to 42. No, I’m kidding. But still, more like 15 times to 5.

Seriously, for the next few days, when you’re in conversations with people you know well, see how many times you call each other by name.

All that said, I have to boast that we on CHEERS found perhaps the best use of a character’s name.

28 comments:

Pat Reeder said...

We have a houseful of rescued parrots, which really makes us cognizant of any phrase we happen to say too many times, because they'll start repeating it. I've noticed that several of them call my wife by name ("Laauuuura!... Laaaaaura!") but none ever call me by name. From that, I've deduced that I'm often trying to find her around the house and calling her name, but she never calls for me. Wonder what that means? Either that or the parrots just like her a lot more, which is true with about half of them.

BTW, our Timneh African grey came to us from a couple named Vance and Sonya who probably didn't realize that he was going to expose their entire relationship to us just by mimicking how they called for each other. He doesn't do it anymore, but for the first year or so he was with us, he would call out, in a soft, timid, walking-on-eggshells voice, "Sonya?.. Sonnnnnya?..." Then he'd angrily snap, "VANCE!! VANCE!!"

This is why Will Rogers suggested that people live their lives so they wouldn't be afraid to sell the family parrot to the town gossip.

Michael said...

Friday question: Other than THE SIMPSONS, I am not aware of any shows you wrote for that included kids. Did you and David ever try to develop family-oriented sitcoms or was this something that didn't interest you?

Scooter Schechtman said...

That parrot story was hilarious!
As for given names, I never hear anyone's given name in "Louie" except Louie's, though I can pick out Sarah Silverman at the poker games. Doesn't matter, as the actress playing the girlfriend can be the mother in a different episode etc. There's some brilliant surrealism in the narrative that nobody's really caught on to yet (including me).

David said...

Best use of a name had to be Seinfeld.

"Delores!"

VP81955 said...

Saw sort of a hidden reference to "it's like, y'know...", the short-lived late '90s ABC sitcom that tried painting itself as a Los Angeles equivalent of "Seinfeld" -- perhaps because it was created by a former "Seinfeld" writer, Peter Mehlman, whom I worked with (but frankly didn't know all that well) when we were on the staff of the Diamondback, the University of Maryland student newspaper, in the mid-'70s. Has he done any subsequent TV writing? Last I heard of him, he was writing for some libertarian website.

Jon88 said...

It bothers me even more when characters call each other by their surnames. Richard Castle and Kate Beckett haven't learned each other's first name yet? GRRRRRR.

tim said...

But, what I am dying to know is, how did you get Princess Diana to play the character standing behind Kelly?

Cory said...

Friday Question: Ken, I'm interested to hear more about your experierce writing/rewriting your play. Specifically, since playwriting is so dependent on dialogue, have you found it challenging to sustain the story with only two characters? How do you keep it from being repetitive? Thanks.

Rinaldo said...

Even more tired and predictable than overuse of characters' names on TV is the RULE (I don't think that's overstating it) that if a sentence is followed by a comma and the name (or nickname equivalent) of the person being talked to, then the part before the name MUST be restated. The speech must have the form "Statement, Person. Statement." Examples:

That I do, Johnny. That I do.
Count on it, buddy. Count on it.
I don't know, Sarah. I don't know.
I'll never leave you, darling. I'll never leave you.

It's so universal that I practically cheer out loud when, one time out of a thousand, that repetition is omitted.

vicernie said...

was the person behind Kelly directed to look around with her deadpan expression or was she an extra who nailed it?

DBA said...

Jon88, that isn't necessarily a matter of not KNOWING each other's first names. It's a common enough practice in many social circles. Some people just refer to each other by surname only (if they bother saying the name outloud at all). It's just a thing with some people. Once it's established in a relationship, it generally sticks, and I don't just mean writing; I mean in real life.

Stoney said...

I think Stan Freberg said it best: "John, Marsha, John, Marsha, Oh John, Oooohh Marsha!"

Donald Benson said...

Working on a prose piece. The judicious use of a name here and there can save you a lot of "saids", especially if you have more than two characters talking:
"I'm honored."
"I'm sure you are."
"Quiet, Margot. The honor is ours, I assure you . . ."

RG said...

As a follow-up to the use of name -- how many times does the actor actually call the character by their real name and not the character's name. I was just reading (not sure if true) that James Stewart in 'It's A Wonderful Life' called his movie-wife by her real name in one scene. I have also seen this happen on TV shows (going waaaay back: on General Hospital John Stamos (Blackie) called Dr. Noah Drake "Rick" (played by Rick Springfield).

I imagine it gets by the line producers, cast, etc. because everyone is used to calling the person that name anyways and hearing it.

So that would be an argument on the side of David.

Question: Does this happen often and require a lot of re-shoots/voice overs when it is caught?

Bob said...

"So Woody, where's my gift?"

Kosmo13 said...

"...and don't call me Shirley."

Pat Reeder said...

Re: the parrot story I told in the first post. I wonder if any sitcom has ever done a story about the hilarity that ensues when someone babysits a friend's parrot and it spills the family secrets? I've seen that plot device done with baby monitors, wrongly delivered mail, etc., but don't recall ever seeing it with a parrot.

John H said...

Albert Brooks mocked Titanic's dialogue for just this crutch. A fan put together this supercut to illustrate Brooks' (and Ken's) point.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RRqK96LehXE&feature=youtu.be&t=33s

Anonymous said...

I would have thought the best use of name on Cheers was going to be a video of NORM

Greg Ehrbar said...

Pat -- Jack Benny's parrot, Polly, used to tell secrets ("Palm Springs! Palm Springs!") There was also a Flintstones episode where Fred and Barney were going to sneak to a lodge convention in Frantic City (Sons of the Desert?) but a talking bird told on them.

The sitcom I recall in which the first names were said the most was "
"The New Odd Couple" with Demond Wilson and Ron Glass. Almost every sentence began with "Oscar," "Felix," "Osc," or "Feel."

I recently noted the strange way the Scooby Doo characters referred to singer Jerry Reed when he appeared in animated form on the show. They always used his full name ("Where are you, Jerry Reed?" "Are you in there, Jerry Reed?")

On "Dark Shadows," which was notorious for flubs (because of its frantic schedule), names were often mixed up. One actor, speaking about a character named "Sam Evans," called him "Sam Adams."

Some performers could make saying others' names work for them, no matter how much they repeated them -- like Mary Tyler Moore, Desi Arnaz and the aforementioned Jack Benny.

Barbara C. said...

I have ALWAYS loved the Kelly Song. I used to sing it to my college roommate. LOL

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emily said...

WHAT?

DwWashburn said...

Early Hanna Barbera cartoons were notorious for constantly saying the characters' names in normal conversation. I enjoy cartoons like Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, and the Flintstones, but I have to use a mental block to not go crazy from the characters mentioning the person they are talking to four or five times a scene.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Dw -- Also on Hanna-Barbera cartoon shows, someone would read each and every sign, I would assume for the benefit of very young viewers.

Pat Reeder said...

Greg: Thanks, I'd forgotten about Jack Benny. I didn't know about "The Flintstones." I thought the only thing animals ever said on that show was, "Eh, it's a living!"

DwWashburn said...

Greg, I always thought they read the signs so that when the cartoons went into foreign markets, the sign would be translated through conservation. But reading it for younger viewers could definitely be another reason.

Kelly Sedinger said...

I've probably made this complaint before in your comments, but since you specifically brought up that moment here: the episode with Woody's damnable gift aired when I was a senior in high school. I watched it, and as the song ended, I thought, "Oh crap." Take a WILD GUESS what EVERY SINGLE FRIGGIN' PERSON SANG TO ME IN THE HALLWAY when I walked into school the next morning.

To this very day, once in a while, someone will get a gleam in their eye and ask, "Hey, were you ever a fan of the show Cheers?" My permanent answer is, "Yes, I loved it, and if you sing The Kelly Song, I'll break your arm."

(This threat never works, by the way.)