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.

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