All in the Family
The Twilight Zone
The creators of Hacks had a TV icon, Jean Smart, as their star, a ten-episode commitment from HBO Max and, well before its premiere in May 2021, tremendous buzz surrounding a comedy about a veteran Las Vegas showroom comic. The one thing Paul W. Downs, Jen Statsky and Lucia Aniello didn't have was a sanctioned title for their show.
They knew what they wanted — the title they would ultimately land on. "But there was some legal red tape around using it, so we had to try to beat it," Downs remembers. "The writers' room, the marketing team, our friends, our mothers... we tried for what seemed like years." The result was a list of nearly 300 possible titles — none as good as Hacks.
There was The One, The Only. "A little soapy," Downs admits. Queen of Nowhere. "That one was close," Statsky says. "In the end, somebody paid somebody something, or somebody did someone a favor, and we got to call it Hacks, which is what we always wanted," Aniello explains.
Would a show called Crying Laughing — another also-ran on their mega-list — have won three Emmys in its first season? Well, probably. But Hacks is way better.
Coming up with a great title for a show is one of the most important decisions every TV creator must face, and classic appellations don't come easy.
At first, All in the Family was going to be either Justice for All or Those Were the Days. The Brady Bunch was initially The Brady Brood because, back in 1969, ABC worried that the word "bunch" would make audiences think of The Wild Bunch, the violent R-rated Sam Peckinpah movie out that same year. The nostalgic sitcom That '70s Show was originally known as Teenage Wasteland, a much grittier title.
Meanwhile, Falcon Crest was supposed to be The Vintage Years, which made it sound like competition for The Golden Girls (a show originally pitched as Miami Nice, by the way) instead of a nighttime potboiler. Dynasty was going to be called Oil!, but that greasy tag didn't hint at the campy fun the shoulder-padded staple would bring to primetime in 1981.
"The best titles evoke the attitude of the show," says Bennett Tramer, who was a coexecutive producer of the original Saved by the Bell, which was a reworking of a short-lived show called Good Morning, Miss Bliss. "Emergency! and ER are great titles," he says. "They give you the setting and the feel of the show. It's an emergency, lives are in crisis, these characters are dealing with matters of life and death. Curb Your Enthusiasm is a good title because it's really offbeat and it makes you want to check it out."
But being too clever can be dangerous, he advises. "The Sopranos was a risky choice. It doesn't automatically evoke gangsters and crime. Given the title, it could have been about Maria Callas and Beverly Sills."
A fabulous title sets the tone for all that is to follow. Somebody Somewhere, for instance, is a wistful name for a show about misfits, led by Bridget Everett and Jeff Hiller, who long for meaningful connections in a rural Kansas town. Twin Peaks turned out to be a double entendre, referring both to sweater-clad bosoms and the Pacific Northwest mountain town in which David Lynch set his classic mystery series. Likewise, were the New Yorkers of Mad Men "mad" because they worked on Madison Avenue or were they just a little crazy? Both, as it happened.
The Twilight Zone was such a terrific title, it made the leap into the vernacular.
Sometimes a memorable title tells you everything you need to know before you tune in. The Love Boat was about romance on a cruise ship. Emily in Paris is a comedy about a young woman named Emily living in the City of Light. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was about a vampire slayer named, well, you get the idea.
This year's breakout network sitcom, Ghosts, is about, yes, ghosts. Of course, My Mother the Car was also a show about ghosts, but the title was the only high-test thing about that 1965 Jerry Van Dyke sitcom, which featured a deceased matriarch (voiced by Ann Sothern) reincarnated as a 1928 Porter ragtop automobile. Which brings up something especially important....
Though a good title is certainly an asset, a show's quality is even more vital to its success.
"It's like a really good restaurant," says David Crane, cocreator of Friends with Marta Kauffman and Episodes with his husband, Jeffrey Klarik. "It doesn't hurt to have a really great name. But if the food is terrific, people will go no matter what it's called. Look, a show called This Is Us is a hit. It feels like a parody name — This Is Us, It's That Time, Here We Are. But if you've got a good show like This Is Us, people watch and remember it."
Crane blanches when he remembers some of the names he has generated over the years. "I'm the worst title person ever," he admits. "The first pilot that Marta and I sold was called Just a Guy. The title Forgettable would have been more memorable."
Even classic titles have potential pitfalls. Ray Romano, for one, worried that calling his semiautobiographical sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond was an invitation to critics to hate it. "No, We Don't" reviews would have written themselves, he believed, if the series had not been so funny. He pleaded with the network to change it, but once it was a hit, it was too late.
It's rare, but sometimes a series will change its title after it's on the air. The 1998–2001 sitcom Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place, for instance, became just Two Guys and a Girl after its first two seasons, serving up more hot Ryan Reynolds than hot meatball pies. Likewise, the first season of Ellen, in 1994, was known as These Friends of Mine, but when Ellen DeGeneres's stand-up career took off, the show took her name to become a star vehicle.
Perhaps no show in TV history went through more moniker machinations than Valerie, the 1986–91 sitcom initially starring Valerie Harper. The show marked the return of the beloved actress to series television after years playing Rhoda Morgenstern, first on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and then on Rhoda. But producers had to scramble to find a new title when Harper was written out after thirty-two episodes, following a salary dispute. After its second season, Valerie became Valerie's Family and, later, The Hogan Family. Behind the scenes, then–NBC president Brandon Tartikoff admitted, the program was referred to as "Throw Momma from the Series."
"The fact that the show was called Valerie and Valerie was let go — we figured, we're doomed," remembers Jeremy Licht, who, as a teenager, played the more intellectual fraternal twin, Mark Hogan, on the series. The actors had trouble wrapping their minds around the show's transformation, Licht says. "They're going to kill off the mom, change the name of the show and bring in someone new? I thought we were done." Instead, the series lasted four more seasons with actress Sandy Duncan in the lead as the kids' aunt.
Other shows with title trouble have dug in their heels. Cougar Town, the 2009–15 sitcom starring Courteney Cox about neighbors on a Florida cul-de-sac, kept its lame name when it shifted its focus away from May-December dating. After a while, producers even made fun of the title every week in the opening credits. The audience loved it.
"It made it feel like we were all in on the joke," series cocreator Kevin Biegel says. "It felt like the show was something the audience was participating in, rather than just passively watching. It puts you in the mindset of 'Let's just have a good time' from the get-go."
Today, Biegel is philosophical. "Now, we can lovingly say that it's the worst show title ever," he says. "But it does stand out. You just want people to remember you, hopefully with a smile."
Before its 1994 premiere, Friends was called Insomnia Café, then Six of One. When neither title got anyone excited, cocreator Crane remembers, "There was a contest at Warner Bros. to see if anyone at the company had ideas."
When the pilot was shot, it was called Friends Like These, but those two extra words were cut off by the time it hit the airwaves. The key factor in its success wasn't the right title — Friends is pretty basic — it was the network's belief in the show, Crane says. NBC scheduled Friends between Mad About You and Seinfeld on Thursdays at 8:30 p.m., instantly making it "Must-See TV." As Crane notes, "You could have called the show Kevorkian with that time slot."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #6, 2022.