Thursday, 19 January 2012

Titles for Shows

Here's my experience of show titles. A title for the show turns up at the very beginning, or you're really going to struggle to think of one you like.

I have a few shows swirling around at the moment. One has a working title that needs to be changed. And another has a title that I don't like any more. Trying to re-title a show is very very hard for a reason I can't quite fathom.

It's worth spending a moment thinking about the point of show title. What is it for? Ultimately, it's the audience's first contact with the show and so needs to be an attention-grabber. But if it's too smart or clever, or too cynically trying to do this, it might sound false or contrived. It should, in some way, encapsulate the show - ideally having a double meaning. But this is easy to get wrong. A slightly lazy way of doing this is using the surname of the 'hero' of the show (eg. Prisoner's Dilemma - John Prisoner is a regular who is always ending up in tricky situations... See? Awful.)

With my radio projects, titles just turned up early on in a fairly pleasing way. Think The Unthinkable was the show title from very early on and conveyed a sense of people advocating change purely for its own sake which is what the show was essentially about. My Bletchley Park sitcom, Hut 33, came along quite easily. Early versions of the show were called Hut 6 (where the likes of Alan Turing worked during World War Two), but then I realised out of respect for those hero-boffins, I wanted a hut that didn't exist and was clearly full of also-rans on the edges. Hut 33 scans quite well and, after I chose it, realised it subconsciously reminds you of of Catch 22. No bad thing (even though Catch 22 is a comedy, but it's such a cultural icon, it feels safe to refer to it in that way). My other short-lived/failed radio sitcom, The Pits, equally came at the start - about musicians in an orchestra pit who were discontent with their lot in life.

In general, it's a nightmare if you have to spend too much time on it. You need a title that sounds exciting and intriguing and is distinctive, but not too weird. But not too bland. I have to say 'New Girl' is a really bland title for a very quirky and interesting show. Felt they could have pushed that harder. But what do they care? The show's a hit.

How do others find this who area of thinking up titles? What are the rules? What are the notable failures, or resounding successes?

(Let's not get sidetracked on episode titles which are largely pointless, and purely to tell them apart in TV listings. That said, the Friends 'The One where...' is pleasing, as is the Big Bang Theory's insistence of using words like Conjecture and Hyphothesis - but they're surely going to run out of abstract nouns sooner or later.)


  1. I find that I have a much easier time coming up with a show title if the show's premise is clearly defined in my mind. It's a good way to gauge the strength of the original idea.

    And, with apologies, I have to get a bit sidetracked by episode titles - only because I've been watching News Radio lately. Love the way they go from generic titles in the first series to "Super Karate Monkey Death Car" and "Stinkbutt" later on the show's run.

    1. Not to mention the brief period in Season 2, where the episode titles were just Led Zep albums, bearing no relation to the plot of the episode at all.

  2. I find that either the title comes almost immediately, or it's more of a struggle to settle on something than it is to actually write the script! It's just awful when a title you did have has to then change, as nothing then feels right.

    As for great titles, well 'Arrested Development' seems like an obvious goodie that works on several levels. 'Spaced' is another good one, though I'm not quite sure why. Does it relate to the show, the situation, the characters and their state of mind? Dunno, but it feels right.

  3. Oh god, your "Prisoner's Dilemma" example is great. On the downside it reminded me of John Gordon Sinclair vehicle "Nelson's Column", where a man called Nelson has a newspaper column. And of "Robert's Web", where Robert Webb reads out Twitter.

    For some reason "The Brittas Empire" isn't so offensive, perhaps because the pun's so contrived it's barely there, but also because it relates to the situation - he sees his leisure centre as an empire.

  4. I find series titles, episode titles and character names all very difficult to devise and a lame one (or lack of one) can really kill my enthusiasm for a project. The flipside has been a script I wrote many years back that went nowhere, but I still to this day adore the title because of it's clear double-meaning and lack of contrived punnery. For this reason alone I've frequently considered revisiting and completely reconstructing the script, keeping only the title and the basic premise!