Thursday, April 19, 2007

What's In a Comedian's Name?

You know one thing I always appreciated about Laurel and Hardy? It's that they almost always played characters called "Stan" and "Ollie." Even after they started doing features, they didn't feel a need to make up new character names every time; they were Stan and Ollie, they knew we knew them that way, and there was no reason to call themselves anything else.

Most comedians and comedy teams, especially in features, wouldn't or couldn't try that, so even though they played the same characters in every movie, the writers had to go through this charade of finding new names. If a comedian made enough movies, the writers could conceivably find themselves looking for the 20th or 30th character-appropriate name for the exact same character. Not an easy task.

Sometimes it works. W.C. Fields and Groucho Marx's crazy character names are part of their appeal. And sometimes even a conventional name can work if it's used right. It was usually annoying that Abbott and Costello had to play characters not named Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, but Costello's cry of "Oh, Chuck!" (a substitute, I suppose, for "Hey, Abbott!") became one of the most famous bits from Hold That Ghost.

But usually you wish that the writers would just admit it: like cartoon characters, a screen comedian is always the same character even when the setting changes. Even though Mickey Mouse is a steamboat captain one year and a brave little tailor the next, he's still Mickey Mouse. So why should Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis have to constantly pretend to be someone other than Dean and Jerry?

Obviously, the hardest job in these comedy-team re-namings is coming up with new names for the straight man, the guy who can't have a funny name. It's very hard to remember Zeppo Marx's different character names. And as for Dean Martin, oy. I'm going to list, in random order, the names of Dean Martin's characters from the Martin and Lewis movies.

You will try to guess, without looking at Dean Martin's IMDb listing, which name is from which movie. Betcha can't do it. I certainly couldn't.

Bill Baker
Bob Miles
Bill Miller
Chick Allen
Steve Wiley
Joe Anthony
Pete Nelson
Herman Nelson
Rick Todd
Larry Todd
Vic Puccinelli
Slim Mosely
Steve Harris
Al Crowthers


dino martin peters said...

Hey pallie Jamie, you point is well taken....but it makes for a fun little Dinoguessin' Dinogame. Never was, never will be anyone as cool as the King of Cool.

Anonymous said...

Harold Lloyd is another example. He usually used the name "Harold".

Anonymous said...

The silent comedians (Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd) all used generic names that described their characters when they made silent shorts (due to the fact they didn't typically write out formal screenplays, but for the most part put them together piecemeal as they filmed). When they moved into features, Lloyd & Chaplin kept their characters (Harold and the Tramp) while Keaton always took a new name for each feature. Once Chaplin & Lloyd moved into talkies, though, they usually took the new character's name.

I think Stan and Ollie, coming out of the silent tradition, simply followed suit. They continued making shorts into the sound era, so they kept their names. The two times (that come to mind) that they changed names were in films based on operettas: Fra Diavalo (Stanlio and Ollio) and The Rogue Song.

Anonymous said...

I remember Abbott's name famously being "Chick", not "Chuck". The IMDb says he played two Chicks and one Chuck, so I suppose it's all which movie you're remembering!

Anonymous said...

Just in general I think film character's names are less important than in, say, novels. I know when I am discussing a film I tend to use the actor's name as a proxy for the character's name, because in many cases I just don't remember the character's name. It also explains how something like the maid calling James Stewart "Mr. Stewart" goes by unnoticed by more viewers, and apparently the editor as well.

Anonymous said...

In ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY, Lou forgets they're supposed to be in character and calls his co-star Bud through most of the second half of the picture.

Anonymous said...

Didn't Stan, Ollie, Charlie Chase and other Hal Roach comics begin using their real names as a sort of copyright-protection (with the reasoning that others can steal characters, but not real names)?