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.