The Welcome End of Cutesy Titles

Tonight’s episode of How I Met Your Mother, which brings back Jim Nantz from last week and adds NFL announcer Phil Simms to the mix, is an example of a show crassly (and probably network-ordered-ly) doing a cross-promotion with its network’s sports broadcasting. HIMYM did it well when they did the episode that tied in with the March Madness coverage (“The Bracket”), so this shouldn’t be a problem. The other thing that struck me was that the title, “Rabbit Or Duck,” suggests a possible Looney Tunes reference somewhere in there. I know that’s a lot to hope for, but it would automatically make it a good episode if it happened.

And while I’m on the subject of HIMYM, check out Myles McNutt’s paper “A Canuck in an American Sitcom,” which looks at the CanCon of the show (mostly Robin-related, of course) from an accessible academic perspective.

Anyway, the thing I like about HIMYM’s titles is that they are meaningful without being cute. Titling episodes is harder now than it used to be, because everyone knows the titles. Once upon a time, only the shows that actually chose to put the episode titles on the screen (I believe NCIS still does this, probably a Don Bellisario hold-over) actually had to care whether the titles were memorable. Shows that did not broadcast the titles, which included most half-hour comedies — not all, but most — would either use cutesy in-joke titles or punsthat the writers came up with to amuse themselves, or very brusque, simple titles. Barney Miller called almost every episode by some one-word title that referred to something that was dealt with in the episode: “Hash,” “Werewolf.” And on the in-joke front, the underrated 3rd Rock From the Sun put “Dick” in every title because the writers didn’t realize that anyone would know the titles other than themselves. Then the internet and cable boxes and the like began to tell everyone what the titles were, and today almost any fan of a show can tell you the title of any episode. So even shows that used to have simple titles began to over-react and do elaborate titles, often with very involved puns or movie references. The Simpsons went from having a bunch of normal, nice titles like “Bart the Daredevil” — plus the occasional pun if the writers thought of one — to having long pitch sessions just for the titles.

But the vogue for crazy titles seems to be subsiding (even Fox’s newest animated show, The Cleveland Show, doesn’t over-write its titles quite as much as their other cartoons). Now we’re more likely to see simple titles, or uniform titling gimmicks (Big Bang Theory, Chuck). And HIMYM’s solution to the titling problem has been a very good one: instead of big wacky titles, they have simple, unadorned titles usually taken from something that is said or done in the episode — but the line chosen is usually one that relates to the overall theme of the episode. So An episode about how a relationship can be ruined once someone’s flaws are pointed out: “Spoiler Alert.” An episode about the catchphrase of Danny Glover from Lethal Weapon and how the characters apply it to their own lives: “Murtaugh.” The titles don’t give away what the episode is about, but they make sense once you see the episode, and they sort of conjure up the mood and tone of the episode when you say them.

By contrast,the problem with elaborate pun titles is that they are often at odds with the episode they describe. The worst example of that actually comes from the era when nobody thought the titles would be known. A moving, downbeat episode of Family Ties where Mallory’s favourite aunt dies was titled… “Auntie Up.” Now the writers of that show have to live with this fact: anybody who owns the DVD has the mood of the episode spoiled even before it begins.

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