Wednesday, February 8, 2017

"Duly Entitled"

Here’s something foolish you may well not have known about but now thanks to me you will.

You are welcome.

Every sitcom episode I ever wrote had a title.  Virtually none of those titles, however, ever appeared on the screen when those episodes were broadcast on the air.

What then, you might ask – and you are wise to do so now that you are apprised of the situation and once again you are welcome – what was the purpose of and the necessity for those episode titles?

“To identify the episode”?

Good answer.  But wrong.  Or at least redundant, because… every episode was already identified by a sequentially assigned production number prominently appended to the cover of each script.  The title was simply the verbal reiteration of that numerical designation.  For those, apparently, unable to read numbers.   

What other reason could there be?

You may think this a trivial concern, and compared to, say, the elevation of an insult to history to the presidency, it is.  

Let me tell you, however, that despite the reality that a comparative miniscule number of people – specifically the people directly involved in the production – would ever be privy to the title of that episode, many of us agonized long, hard and unnecessarily over what exactly to call it.

Think about that.  We devoted an inordinate of our attention devising episode titles virtually nobody was going to see.

Stick that in your “Writers:  Obsessive Lunatics” file.  If you have one.  Writers, of course, do.  Because we are obsessive lunatics.  It also provides us with many of our ideas. 

Memorable titles nobody is going to see.

Oh, man.  If I could just get that cumulative time back I’d be at least six months younger than I currently am.

Random Demonstrative Examples:

“Ted’s Change of Heart” (The Mary Tyler Moore Show)

An adorable “play on words”, alluding to character’s having a heart attack and then changing.

“Freudian Ship” (The Bob Newhart Show)

The show’s lead character was a psychologist and he went on a cruise.  What else would you call it?

“How Do I Love Thee, Let Me Call You Back” (Cheers)

An onomatopoeic allusion to “How do I love thee, let me count the ways”, but that’s it.  The episode involved “pre-relationship” Sam casually saying “I love you” to Diane, but literarily, it was a stretch.

Straight out confession:  Those random demonstrative examples were all me.

They weren’t great. 

And, thankfully, nobody saw them.

And an even bigger “and” – I worked my ass off coming up with them.

As Ren said to Stimpy – or was it the other way around…

“You e-e-e-e-diot!

Compare, as a contrast, the simple, declarative episode titles on Seinfeld.

“The Puffy Shirt”

“The Bubble Boy”

“The Contest”

You’re already chuckling, right?  Why?  Because those titles are amusing?  Witty?  Inordinately imaginative?  No, they are premeditatedly the opposite.  You’re not chuckling at the titles.  You are remembering the hilarious episodes they remind you of.

Who knows?  Maybe the episodes I wrote would have been funnier if I had devoted less creative energy to their titles.  Which, may I remind you…

Nobody ever saw!

(Self-Serving Disclaimer:  It wasn’t just me.  We all did it – it was an indoctrinated requirement.  Maybe we hoped our bosses would chuckle preliminarily at the title, making them more positively disposed when they were reading the episode.  If that was the intention, it rarely worked.  Frequently, the response was the more pejorative, “You seemed to run out of gas after the title.”)

Okay.  Time for the informative “turnaround.”  (Helping you feel, I am hoping, you did not totally waste your time.)

Episode titles – though perhaps never broadcast – serve a valuable purpose.

What purpose is that?

Episode titles clarify the writer’s intention.

For the writer, the title is the navigator’s (before modern technology’s) focusing North Star.  It gives you something specific to shoot at.

Imagine a quarterback eyeing a downfield receiver.

That’s where I want to throw it.”

Eye-hand coordination – and you’re there.  Ipso facto, the title and the writing.  You know exactly where you’re going.

Sometimes, you cheat, writing the title at the end, after you’ve decided what the story is about.  Sometimes, you change.  A rethinking of the story leads to a rethinking of the title.  And sometimes, you don’t change, brightening the world with clever but empty intimations of meaninglessness.

“Duly Entitled.” 

I’ve still got it.


JED said...

I enjoy the titles of your blog posts and now I know why - you've had a lot of practice. Sometime they set us up for the story and sometimes they are a misdirection and you surprise us later in the post.

From the draw-you-in type title of "Interview with a Giraffe" ("How's he going to pull that off?") to the simply-explained type title of "The Story of a Writer Part 9" ("This will be good because I liked parts 1 through 8.") to the provocative "The Biggest Scandal in Show Business" ("I can't wait to read this one."), they are what get me to start the stories and set my expectations a certain way - even if I might be wrenched in another direction in the second paragraph.

It's different from the cover of a book. Besides the title, most times they show a scene from the story and show one of the principal characters and that can give you a clue to whether you'll like the book. But the title of the book is more interesting to me. It was chosen by the author (usually, I think) and not prepared by the graphics department of the publisher. Your titles are from the same guy that wrote the posts and prepare us for the interesting article we'll be reading for the next few minutes. I think it's as important as the rest of the post.

Leo Metz said...

But thanks to IMDB we can now see the title of every episode ever made. That's how I know that your script entitled Sam's Women was the 2nd episode of Cheers that ever aired. Recently, I saw an episode of Becker that you penned - Lucky Day, I think.

I liked Chuck Lorre's method of picking titles for Two and a half Men. He selected an odd-ball line from the script and made it the title.

Maybe the titles will turn up some night on Jeopardy, or a future iteration of Trivial Pursuit. This is vitally important stuff!