Characternames

How TV Comedy’s Funniest Characters Got Their Names

Screenwriters on ‘The Simpsons,’ ‘Arrested Development’ and many other comedies share the stories behind instant classics like Frink, Smithers and Bob Loblaw

Is there a better way to change everything about your life than by changing your name? Because while it might not completely erase your circumstances, it definitely allows for a new you, if in name only. So this week, we’re looking at what’s in a new name — for yourself, for your favorite TV characters, for your boat, for your stripper, for your son and for nearly everybody (and thing) in between.

In Season Three of Arrested Development, the show’s writers needed a name for Scott Baio’s character, a defense attorney replacing the Bluth family’s deeply incompetent lawyer Barry Zuckerkorn, played by Henry Winkler. The new attorney claimed it wasn’t the first time he’d been brought in to replace Barry and that he could “do anything Barry could do, but skew younger,” an allusion to Baio’s experience replacing Winkler on Happy Days in the late 1970s. Now, the writers’ mandate was to come up with an idiotic name for him.

“How about this?” asked co-executive producer Chuck Tatham, writing the words “Bob Loblaw” on a whiteboard.

Loblaws is a big grocery store chain in my native Canada,” Tatham tells me, explaining that back in the day, he’d heard his father making a joke about “Bob Loblaw” (which, when said quickly, sounds like “blah blah blah”). Tatham repeated the name a couple more times, eliciting a big laugh from Arrested creator Mitchell Hurwitz, and they were off to the races. Fellow writers Richard Day and Jim Vallely started piling on, and when the dust settled, they were left with one of television comedy’s most celebrated tongue twisters: “Bob Loblaw’s Law Blog (no habla español).”

Hurwitz dreamed up most of the names on Arrested Development, Vallely says. (“Bluth” is a combination of “Blurred-Truth.”) Reading the pilot was confusing since the characters included Michael, George, George Michael, Oscar and Gob (George Oscar Bluth). “Mitch loved the confusion of calling a main character a pop-star name,” he explains. (Needless to say, Michael’s son, George Michael, is decidedly not like the lead singer of Wham!) Meanwhile, J. Walter Weatherman, a one-armed man employed by George Sr. to stage intricate scenarios to frighten his children into good behavior, received the “J” because writer Barbie Adler felt it added comedic poise. (Adler is also responsible for the name “Gene Parmesan,” which she spotted in the credits for a documentary she saw in high school.) “There was a level of sophistication and respect that we wanted to give him before revealing exactly what his job was,” she tells me. “Although he did it with pride, so maybe he leaned into the ‘J’ as well.”

Oftentimes, says former Simpsons writer Jay Kogen, he borrows friends’ names for characters. Dr. Julius Hibbert, for example, Springfield’s most prominent doctor, who makes no effort to hide his high prices, was named for Kogen’s friend Julia Sweeney (who at the time was married to a man named Steve Hibbert). The character was originally a black woman, “Julia Hibbert,” but when Fox moved The Simpsons to Thursdays against NBC’s top-rated The Cosby Show, the writing staff decided to make Hibbert a male parody of Dr. Cliff Huxtable.

“I usually use my college friends,” agrees Sarah Walker, a co-executive producer on Silicon Valley, who recently named a playful character “Erin” after her fun-loving college roommate. “I sort of get in the stage of, ‘Okay, who’s a super-fun girl I know? Erin. Let’s just be lazy and call her Erin,’ and now I know who I’m working with.” Another Simpsons character, Professor Frink, is named after Kogen’s friend John Frink. Coincidentally, he explains, years later, John Frink became a writer on The Simpsons, and later an executive producer. “[The character is] a scientist who talks like Jerry Lewis,” Kogen notes. “It’s quite a coincidence that I named a character after him, and he became the top producer of the show.”

If he has to come up with a name from scratch, Kogen takes his cue from Charles Dickens and attempts to make the name sound like the character — a la “Mr. Bumble,” or “Ebenezer Scrooge.” Most of the time he says, he can’t get away with naming a horrible person something like “Mr. Cruelty,” so he tries to pick unique names that match the tone of the character, pointing to The Simpsons’ “Smithers” and “Mr. Burns” as prime examples. Another would be Archer J. Maggott, a vile character played by Telly Savalas in 1967’s The Dirty Dozen. (Jack Palance turned the role down because of Maggott’s racism.) Kogen, who also worked on Frasier, calls Frasier’s brother “Niles” a “perfect” onomatopoeia name. “It’s weird, fancy and kind of British, which is exactly who Niles is.”

Robert Morgan Fisher, a professor of creative writing at Antioch University, calls Dickens a “master” at naming and urges his students to learn from his penchant for never wasting a name. “In creative writing, one of the tools in your writer’s tool box is what we call ‘subliminal connectors,’” he explains, believing a carelessly chosen name to be a “wasted opportunity” to subconsciously layer in meaning, foreshadowing and irony. Much like how a magician uses the power of misdirection, Fisher says good short-story writing includes subtle guidance to “play” the reader so that by the end of the story everything, including the names, makes sense. “If you’re an expert with using names judiciously, long after readers have finished reading something, they’ll circle back and think, Oh yeah, it’s right there in the name.” That said, he cautions his students to tread carefully. “Some people fail epically when they attempt an on-the-nose name,” he warns, pointing to “unobtanium,” the highly valuable mineral found on the moon Pandora in Avatar, his least-favorite movie of all time. “James Cameron must be stopped.”

“I’m from Chicago so I like to name characters after people I know there, like Ned Crowley,” says Christine Zander, who’s written for 3rd Rock From the Sun, Nurse Jackie and Samantha Who? It largely depends on their age, she says. “You can’t really name a 20-year-old ‘Debbie’ because it’s a name from the 1950s. Likewise, older folks can’t have names like ‘Brittany.’ Now that I think about it, though, an 80-year-old woman named ‘Brittany’ would be hilarious.”

“Funny is always going to win for me,” adds journeyman sitcom writer J.J. Wall. “‘Coastal Eddie’ is a name I’ve used because I think it’s funny and some weathercaster in Long Island used it to describe an actual eddy that had developed off the coast of South Hampton.”

Other genres, like romantic comedies, tend to employ names that fit the whimsical nature of the story’s protagonists. “Our character names are usually fun and lyrical, like Gabriella, because that says fun and romance,” says Elizabeth Hackett, who’s penned numerous seasonal rom-coms with her writing partner, Hilary Galanoy. “We’re writing something at Hallmark right now, and her name is ‘Josie’ because it’s romantic and lighthearted. We want the guy’s name to have a hard consonant sound, like ‘Jake’ or ‘Max,’ because that’s a hot guy’s name, rather than something soft like ‘Ashley.’ Hard consonant names imply ruggedness and manliness, while the softer, more lyrical names for girls imply romance.”

“Oh God, what a silly thing to be a priority,” counters veteran TV writer Rob Ulin, who doesn’t understand why fictional names would ever be determined by their characters. “In real life, people’s characters aren’t determined by their names. They’re not tough guys because their name is ‘Mac’; his name could just as easily be ‘Jeff.’ People named ‘Stuart’ have romances, too!”

Jonathan Green, who’s written for The Office, The Cleveland Show and The Mindy Project, tends to agree with Ulin and says naming characters always takes longer than it should, “maybe because it’s easier than actually writing.” Sometimes he and his writing partner Gabe Miller hold off on naming characters until late in the process because they know what a time-suck it can be. “We’ve gotten pretty far into writing a script calling characters things like ‘Main Woman’ or ‘Intense Guy,’” he explains. “Working with a writing partner, naming a character can feel like naming a baby because we each come into it with different preconceptions and biases about certain names based on the people we happen to have known. So someone inevitably says, ‘We can’t name the nerd Sherman — Sherman was the coolest guy in my high school!’ There’s a writer I work with who thinks nobody is actually named ‘Carl,’ it’s only on TV — meanwhile, every single one of my dad’s friends is named ‘Carl.’”

“Never, ever, EVER have your main character’s name be involved in the title of the show in any way,” pleads Kevin Biggins, a co-executive producer on Family Guy. “Like, if your show is named The Justice System, you shouldn’t name your main guy Judge Jim Justice. It’s hacky.” I was a writer’s assistant on The Cleveland Show, when Biggins named one of the main characters Holt Richter, on a day we had an earthquake. But when the ground isn’t rumbling, he also tries to name characters after his childhood friends because “it’s fun for me, it’s fun for them, it’s fun for everyone.” (He named Quagmire’s daughter “Courtney” after his sister.) The worst name he’s ever seen was written on a name tag at a golf event: “The name tag read ‘Dudley Underdonk.’” I plan on using it for a character one day. It would be a good name for a HUGE dork.”

Biggins’ favorite character name of all time? Luke Skywalker, because it’s “simply the coolest. Most people learn this name when they’re around 4 years old and it’s mind-blowing: ‘Someone who can walk on sky? Okay, I’m in!’ I named my son after him.” (Incidentally, one of the many names George Lucas considered and rejected for the character was “Luke Starkiller,” because he worried people “would confuse him with someone like Charles Manson.”)

Circling back to Tatham, creator of Bob Loblaw, he also wrote an episode of How I Met Your Mother with guest star Will Forte, whose character wanted to brew his own beer. Tatham’s name for him? “Randy Wharmpess” — pronounced “warm piss.” Slow clap.

Some of the best names, Vallely says, are those that reflexively slide off his tongue. His favorite was for a character on the Golden Girls, on which he wrote in the early 1990s. “One day, they were pre-shooting some scenes and Betty White called the writers room and asked for me,” he recalls. “‘Darling,’ she said, ‘I love the Saint Olaf story, but we have the mayor in it and he doesn’t have a name. Could you give me a name for the mayor of Saint Olaf?’ I knew the mayor’s name would have a Swedish sound, so I just blurted out ‘Handentill! Mayor Handentill!’ Betty laughed, which is as good as it gets. It’s not a particularly great joke, but it was fast, which sometimes is very handy.”

Vallely’s favorite names on Arrested Development, though, were saved for inanimate objects. For example, they needed a restaurant name for where the Bluths had extravagant Sunday brunches, and he suggested “Skip Church’s Bistro.” Adler added its Jewish counterpart — “Miss Temple’s,” which was said to be “particularly popular on Friday nights.” As for the name of Gob Bluth’s yacht, which Michael told him to sell, writer Chuck Martin pitched “Seaward” with the sole purpose of paying off a future scene. That is, Lucille enters just as Michael says to Gob, “Get rid of the Seaward.”

Her response: “I’ll leave when I’m good and ready.”

- Get rid of the Seaward. - I'll leave when I'm good and ready.