The Golden Age of the Episode Title, or: Guess Who’s Going to Vomit

December 1, 2011

Episode titles are the great lost art of television.

Nowadays most series don’t even bother to show them on screen, but once upon a time – back when a lot of television writers had classical educations, or literary pretensions – television episodes often had titles that were allusive, alliterative, obscure, obtuse, witty, or just weird.  And long.  Sometimes the writers got so fanciful that some poor editor would have to shrink the type size or switch fonts just to cram the title onto a single card.

For a few years, the writers of Ben Casey and Naked City and a handful of other shows seemed to be competing to concoct the most over-the-top title of them all.  Naked City had “The Man Who Kills the Ants Is Coming,” “A Horse Has a Big Head – Let Him Worry,” and “Color Schemes Like Never Before.”  Ben Casey replied with “The White Ones Are Dolphins,” “For San Diego, You Need a Different Bus,” and “No More Cried the Rooster: There Will Be Truth.”

On the comedy side, it’s no surprise that the smartest sitcom of the sixties, The Dick Van Dyke Show, got into the act, with episode handles like “I’d Rather Be Bald Than Have No Head at All,” “When a Bowling Pin Talks, Listen,” and “Uhny Uftz.”  In the seventies, a few of the better crime shows picked up the habit, none more exuberantly than The Rockford Files (“White on White and Nearly Perfect,” “The Oracle Wore a Cashmere Suit,” “Sticks and Stones Will Break Your Bones, But Waterbury Will Bury You”).

A few of these titles achieved a sort of aphoristic poetry that resonated apart from the content of the actual episode.  “There I Am – There I Always Am” (from Route 66) is a phrase that often runs through my head.  So are “The Sadness of a Happy Time” (Run For Your Life) and “Somehow It Gets to Be Tomorrow” (Route 66 again).  The shows themselves were so prodigiously good, and yet there was still a little dab of icing on the top.

Then there were the other series, the Gunsmokes and The F.B.I.s, that didn’t bother, that were content with generic descriptive titles (“The Threat”) or episodes named after that week’s guest protagonist (“Mr. Sam’l”).  Don Mankiewicz told me that they changed one of his Ironside titles just because Universal was too cheap to whip up a new optical, and instead substituted a title from some episode of some other show.  Okay, fine: like I said, treat the title as a bonus.

But then you come to the sitcoms, which – even as early as the fifties – often didn’t show the episode titles on-screen.  Invisibility tempted the writers not to care.  Why waste energy on one extra joke that nobody would ever see?  Decades later, though, the DVD menu has lifted the rock off of these groaners.  Some of them are bad enough that you’re already in a mood not to laugh before you even press play.

There are a million ways to illustrate this dearth of creativity, but let’s take just one.  Call it the Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner Rule.

After that movie, in which Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy eradicate racism forever by deciding to be nice to their daughter’s African American fiance, came out in 1967, just about every lousy sitcom on the air had an episode title that started with “Guess Who’s Coming to…” wherever.  It didn’t matter whether the story had anything to do with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, or even if the pun was clever.  Mostly it was just, oh, there’s that movie, and we can’t think of anything better.  For the years between 1967 and about 1973, there may be no more accurate way of separating the really terrible sitcoms from the at-least-watchable ones than by determining whether or not they succumbed to the Guess Who’s Coming Rule.

The earliest examples of the Rule do not occur until 1969.  (What on earth took so long?)  In that year we find “Guess Who’s Coming to Picket” (The Flying Nun), “Guess Who’s Coming Forever” (The Mothers-in-Law),  and “Guess Who’s Coming to Rio” (It Takes a Thief).  Moving forward chronologically, we have “Guess Who’s Not Coming to Dinner” (Headmaster, and again on The Jeffersons), “Guess Who’s Coming to Our House” (Arnie), “Guess Who’s Coming to Seder” (The New Dick Van Dyke Show), “Guess Who’s Coming to Visit” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Christmas” (give it a rest, Happy Days), and perhaps the classiest of the lot, “Guess Who’s Coming to Burp” (Too Close For Comfort).  Ralph Senensky had the misfortune to direct two of them: “Guess Who’s Coming to Lunch” (The Courtship of Eddie’s Father) and “Guess Who’s Coming to Drive” (The Partridge Family).

By the eighties, it wasn’t even necessary to make a joke out of it any more.  Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was a “classic” (actually, it’s fucking terrible), a lame punchline all on its own, so you could just rip it off!  The Facts of Life, Growing Pains, Empty Nest, Thunder Alley, Step by Step, and the notorious The Secret Life of Desmond Pfeiffer all have episodes entitled just “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”  And they’re still at it: as of this writing the Internet Movie Database spits out 118 instances of the Guess Who’s Coming Rule, all the way up to this year’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Delhi” (Outsourced).

(I should add that I have not bothered to sort out whether or not any of these titles have a question mark on screen, if applicable, or on the script page, if not.  For the sake of sanity, I have presented them all here without the question mark.  Pedants: deal with it.)

After I got through with the Guess Who’s Coming Rule, I was going to do a count of episode titles that start with “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to . . .”  But, instead, let’s don’t.


18 Responses to “The Golden Age of the Episode Title, or: Guess Who’s Going to Vomit”

  1. You probably shouldn’t sell Gunsmoke short…after all, one of its episode titles is “The F.U.” And Dragnet (the 1950s version) is probably the King of “Why Bother?” titles, since most of its installments are variations of “The Big (fill in the blank).”

  2. Toby O'Brien Says:

    I used to think it wasn’t until ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ came along that the art of the episode title had died, but I can see from your article that I was wrong.

    I look through an ‘ST:TNG’ episode guide and judging just from the titles, I usually can’t remember what the episode was about. The original series had its share of generic titles (‘The Arena’, ‘Man-Trap’) or – like ‘Gunsmoke’ – titles that were the names or descriptions of a guest character (‘Miri’, ‘The Empath’, ‘The Squire of Gothos’), but at least I could summon up the memory of the show’s plot from those. And the original series did have some really good ones, a few based on quotes (‘What Are Little Girls Made Of?’, ‘Mirror, Mirror’, and ‘Dagger Of The Mind’ – more appropriately used on ‘Columbo’) and others like ‘Who Mourns For Adonais?’ and ‘Let That Be Your Last Battlefield’. But I think their best was ‘For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky’.

    When it came to sitcoms, I think ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ kept up the DVD Show tradition fairly well. My particular favorites began with an episode in which they hired a comic to write news stories – ‘But Seriously, Folks’. Sure, an old cliche, but when they brought back Jerry Van Dyke for a follow-up episode, it was named “Son Of But Seriously, Folks’.

    My particular interest in episode titles lies in the thematic ones, like those from the aforementioned ‘Dragnet’ with its ‘The Big ___’ episodes. Shows like ‘The Wild, Wild West’, ‘Remington Steele’, ‘Burke’s Law’, ‘Dundee And The Culhane’, ‘Friends’, ‘Joey’, ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’, ‘Everybody Hates Chris’, ‘Chuck’, and ‘Commander-In-Chief’ (until they abandoned their ‘First ___’ theme in the first season.) Currently that tradition is upheld by ‘The Mentalist’ with its reddish color scheme titles.

    I guess you can tell I’m obsessed with this topic. I’ve written about it a couple of times in my own “Inner Toob” blog:
    (Now THAT was a cool theme, even though I can’t remember a thing about the series itself!)

    I enjoyed your weighing in on the topic!

  3. Russell M. Says:

    Mr. O’Brien forgot to list “The City on the Edge of Forever” among the ST:TOS episodes with unique titles. Of course, it was written by Harlan Ellison (before being reworked by Gene Roddenberry), who has given some of his other literary works titles that are ornate, to say the very least.

  4. J.A. Bartlett Says:

    This is a great post and I enjoyed it a lot.

    “NYPD Blue” was famed for punning titles: “Honeymoon at Viagra Falls,” “Better Laid Than Never,” “Healthy McDowell Movement,” and “Peeler? I Hardly Knew Her.” Nobody knew about these until the Internet/DVD era, either.

  5. Tom Nawrocki Says:

    I did a Top Ten Titles of Twilight Zone episodes on my blog a while back. I think my favorite might be “You Drive”: Simple, yet distinctive and evocative, and kind of chilling. The whole list:

  6. One of my favorite titles which also happens to be the title of one of my favorite shows is THE ROAD TO YOU KNOW WHERE IS PAVED WITH YOU KNOW WHAT on THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER

  7. Ken Hough Says:

    I’m so glad I discovered your excellent blog. This entry is particularly funny. I’ve long despaired the lack of good TV episode titles (sometime even series titles), ranging from insipidly terse to pretentious and overwrought (80s sitcoms were especially egregious). I love the old, cryptic titles and the more direct but though provoking ones. Serling was especially good at the latter (“Exit from a Plane in Flight,” and “Incident in an Alley” anyone?) I do love your example, “Somehow It Gets to Be Tomorrow.” I will start saying that.

  8. Allen Glover Says:

    Your observation about “classical educations, or literary pretensions” is spot on. Roy Huggins, who was both a PhD candidate and a published novelist before he came to television, conjured up some spectacular titles. My own favorite from his RFYL is “How to Sell Your Soul for Fun and Profit—Damnably, That’s How,” followed closely by “Make the Angels Weep—Tell Them to Go to Hell.”

  9. Bob Cohen Says:

    Very enjoyable read; both the blog and the comments!

    Cannon premièred this fall on METV and not only do many episodes have titles but the announcer reads the title.

    Cannon also features the announcer announcing all of the “guest stars” for the episode. Even though most of them are little known character actors it gives things a sense of importance.

    • Mike Doran (aka Lowbrow Crank) Says:

      The vocal billboarding of guest stars was a trademark of allseries produced by Quinn Martin, as far back as THE UNTOUCHABLES in 1959, and continuing with his own QM Productions starting with THE NEW BREED in ’61, THE FUGITIVE in ’63, and so forth all the way through to BARNABY JONES in the ’70s-’80s. All told about a dozen different shows started out this way over the years. Because of Quinn Martin, I learned the correct pronounciations of Oscar Beregi, Rhys Williams, Edgar Stehli, Ramon Bieri, Lloyd Gough, and many others. I never realized how much I missed this practice until Zjelko Ivanek came along.

  10. Chris Berry Says:

    Great article — I wish TV shows would bring back showing the titles on screen. Not sure how much British TV you watch, but there’s a wonderful show from the 60s-70s called “Public Eye” that had a habit of using lines from the episode as titles. Some of my favorite titles from that one are “You Think It’ll Be Marvelous – But It’s Always a Rabbit” (a lost episode), “Works with Chess, Not with Life” and “And When You’ve Paid the Bill, You’re None the Wiser.”

  11. Stephen, I was only partially damned. My episode on THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER was entitled Guess Who’s Coming FOR Lunch.

  12. Gary Says:

    The episode title/pun that I feel like I’ve seen a million times is “TV or Not TV”– a google search will reveal several instances. Maybe The Honeymooners used it first, and since that was ’55 it’s probably had the longest run of any of them.

  13. Unsungpoet Says:

    This is really funny…I was wondering about those episode titles, if they truly were originally a part of the show or were just added on afterwards…I collect the DVDs of the shows I like and the titles are always listed on them, but you hardly ever actually see them on the screen. I think the worst episode titles of a contemporary show are many from “That 70’s Show”, a great and enetrtaining series, but at a certain point the writers simply took the name of a rock n roll tune from that era, and it didn’t ever really fit with the program…Cheesy!…and apparently lazy.

  14. David Inman Says:

    On an episode of “Designing Women,” Suzanne Sugarbaker referred to that Tracy-Hepburn movie as “There’s Some Black People Comin’ Over for Supper.”

  15. captain dunsel Says:

    Surprised to see all the Star Trek comments since I was just going to chime in with the author’s pet peeve (which I now find very funny after reading his rant) in Star Trek VI when Kirk invites the Klingon’s to the Enterprise and Chekov mumbles unpleasantly, “guess who’s coming to dinner.”

  16. Toby O'Brien Says:

    I’ve been enjoying ‘The Rogues’ for the last few weeks on one of the retro networks (COZI-TV, maybe?), but a recent rerun had one of the most boring titles I’ve seen since “Columbo Goes To College” – “The Computer Goes West”. The sad thing is that in the episode was a phrase which would have made for a more intriguing and interesting title: “Little Elephant”……

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