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07/21/2006: A Nose By Any Other Name Would Smell as Well
Someone I know sends out a semi-regular email questionnaire with really cool thought-provoking questions. The most recent one asked what the reader would call their first album, should they ever have one. It's one of those questions where you think you're talking about a trivial physical object, and then you realize you're being asked to summarize your own soul. Titles are huge.
The lovely Jeff Greenstein (our showrunner at Jake in Progress, with whom I had a delightful lunch today), had a standing rule that an episode title should not be the title of a preexisting work. Until he let me call my episode "The Two Jakes."
I think he must be almost the only showrunner with that rule, since finding a name of a pre-existing book or movie or popular song or Shakespeare play that fits your episode is, of course, a classic trick. Sometimes a twist or a pun is added (allowing the title to skirt Jeff's rule). As a variant, sometimes the reference is to a *quote* from a pre-existing work. Titles like this, that refer to previous works, are so common, in fact, that this blog entry will talk only about titles of this type.
Here's how common it is: the first 13 eps of Battlestar include ones called "You Can't Go Home Again," "Six Degrees of Separation," and "Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down." (which focuses on the character of Colonel Tigh.) House, which usually has very spare titles like "Kids" or "Autopsy," has also had "Clueless," "Failure to Communicate" and the especially amusing "TB or not TB." Grey's Anatomy eps include "A Hard Day's Night," "The First Cut is the Deepest," and "Shake your Groove Thing." One Buffy episode title is even a play on a product name! ("Life Serial")
Note that it's best if you don't have to reach too far for the title. "Devil in a Blue Dress" might be a cool title, but not if you have to painfully insert both a devil and a blue dress into the episode just to make it make sense. On the other hand, if the title is SUPER cool, it might be worth a BIT of a stretch. The fact that the Frasier ep "Miracle on Third or Fourth Street" required that Frasier be unable to recall the street number, somehow made it even more charming.
You can even use titles like these as part of your I-need-an-idea-for-a-spec brainstorming. Since Grey's Anat seems to use a lot of song titles, it wouldn't be insane, if you want to write a Grey's spec, to write down every song title you can think of, and then use that list as part of your brainstorming process as you're casting about for stories. What would an episode called "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman" look like? Hmm.
So why would Jeff have a standing rule against these types of titles? Here's what he says: "Look at Aaron Sorkin's West Wing titles. They're all provocative, interesting, distinctive, memorable, and not one of them is the title of something else." I looked them up, and he's right. These West Wing titles include: "Five Votes Down," "Let Bartlett be Bartlett," and "What Kind of Day Has it Been." And it occurs to me that another reason to abjure name's-the-same titles is because the practice helps reinforce the idea that television is the lesser medium, eating the crumbs that fall from the corners of the mouths of Motion Pictures.
By the way, while we're on this topic, one of my regrets in this career has to do with the title of my Ellen episode, in which she sleeps with her girlfriend for the first time and finds herself feeling shy and reluctant and virginal. It was called "Like a Virgin." But I wish I had called it "Maidenhead Revisited." Classier. In other words, don't jump on the first virgin that walks by. Think it over, make sure you've got the best title for your spec. And consider Jeff's advice... maybe there's something even better than someone else's slightly-used title.
Lunch: Spicy BBQ chicken from Ribs USA! And the leftovers will make an excellent dinner, too!