This week’s question comes courtesy of A.V. Club assistant editor Gwen Ihnat:
The anniversary of my favorite movie in July reminded me that I may never love a character’s name as much as Keanu Reeves’ in Point Break: Johnny Utah. Not only does it fit the character’s past as a college football star, it also sounds great when his partner Gary Busey is yelling at him for being a lunkhead: “Get it together, Utah!” Also perfect for tackle football on the sand: “Utah! Go long!” So it got me to thinking about how much names in dialogue affect what we watch: What’s your favorite character name?
You can keep your Stump BeefKnobs and your Fridge LargeMeats; there’s only one weird Mystery Science Theater 3000 name for me, and that’s Zap Rowsdower. The beer-swilling Han Solo figure of 1990’s aggressively Canadian map-finding-behindin’ flick The Final Sacrifice, Rowsdower—say it loud, and there’s music playing—is a down-on-his-luck loser with a history of drinking and backwoods cults. Played with doughy charisma by Bruce J. Mitchell, in his only credited role, Rowsdower—say it soft, and it’s almost like praying—isn’t much of a hero. But he does have a hero’s name, combining the zippy pop of “zap” with the soaring peaks of “rows” and “dower.” It’s enough to send Mike and the Bots into song, exulting semi-accurately over the movie’s end credits that “Rowsdower saves us, and saves all the wooooooooooorld!”
Ask anyone whom you’ve just paid hundreds of dollars for two months of improv classes, and they’ll tell you: Specificity is the root of all comedy. Or maybe it’s surprise. Then again, let’s not rule out “truth.” Whatever: All three are present in the canonization of Dorothy Mantooth, unseen MVP of Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy. Anchorman is a silly movie, but it takes the world of San Diego-area news broadcasters seriously. It’s not enough that Ron Burgundy’s arch nemesis is named Wes Mantooth: Mantooth’s nightly newscast flies under a unique banner (“Evening News Team”) on a station with its own call sign (KQHS) and number on the dial (channel 9). With all that information at play, “Champ” Kind (geez, every character name in this movie is great) can’t drop a plain old “your mother” on Wes. He has to cite the Mantooth matriarch’s full name, a jolt to funny bones still reeling over the name Wes Mantooth. And when Wes repeats his mom’s full name, she becomes as real as the polyester draped over Vince Vaughn’s shoulders, even if she isn’t an onscreen presence. In addition to her sainthood, Dorothy Mantooth is a useful illustration of multiple comedic principles. Now that’ll be $400 plus tax, please.
As someone who’s regularly correcting people about the pronunciation of her name, I feel for “Dr.” Leo Spaceman from 30 Rock. Just as so many people want me to be “Dante” or “Jeanette,” the quack played by Chris Parnell has to gently break it to patients like Tracy Jordan that he’s no “spaceman.” He’s not even a doctor, though that’s a topic for another day (I’m not disputing the validity of his Ho Chi Minh City degree, but he’s the one using the air quotes). His last name is actually three syllables long, and that’s not a soft “c,” it’s a “ch” sound, and… well, you get the point. And yet, I like to think that the man who believes “R & R” stands for “rum and Ritalin” is the one mispronouncing his last name, because who wouldn’t want to have Dr. Spaceman as their primary care physician?
How about the coolest character name played by an actor with the coolest real name? That would be Alonzo Mosely from Midnight Run, played with remarkably cool rage by Yaphet Kotto. It doesn’t hurt that the movie is also fantastic, and that Kotto gets to play against both Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin. It also helps that—unlike in other movies—the character’s name is mentioned several times, since De Niro imitates him. The name and the character were iconic enough that the presumably atrocious Larry The Cable Guy movie Witless Protection hired Kotto to reprise his role—but they failed to get permission from Universal to re-create the character. The DVD version of Witless Protection supposedly features the character’s name dubbed as “Ricardo Bodi.” If you want to check for yourself, there’s probably a copy of Witless Protection at your nearest dollar store.
As heartbroken as I was when I had to write the eulogy for CSI: Cyber, I never actually did watch more than five minutes of the show when it was on. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in a drama about people using computers to solve crimes committed by computers (or whatever it was about), it’s just that I’d already gotten all of the enjoyment I could out of CSI: Cyber when I found out that James Van Der Beek was going to be playing a character named Special Agent Elijah Mundo. I can’t really put my finger on why that makes me laugh so much, but it really could be my favorite name in the history of names. It’s like one of those fine wines that you’re supposed to keep on your tongue so you can pick out all of the different flavors, but instead of tasting like dirt and leaves, it tastes like Special Agent Elijah Mundo. The name is a masterpiece and it was wasted on CSI: Cyber.
A name I often repeat is Mackenzie Zales. This is usually said after jokingly asking “Who. The. Fuck. Are. You?” All of which comes from the splendidly creative minds of Mark Cope and Carlo Moss, creators of the hilarious webseries The Most Popular Girls In School, which uses stop-motion animation to bring assorted Barbie and Ken dolls to life in the halls of the fictional Overland Park High School. Variety described the series as “Mean Girls meets South Park,” and it hits a high note early on when viewers are introduced to Mackenzie Zales—head cheerleader, homecoming queen, part-time model. True to form, Mackenzie is introduced by one of the lackeys the social hierarchy of high school has provided her with, and her name rings out with just enough feminism to indicate she is the queen bee… and a focal point for many of Cope and Moss’ jokes.
Every word of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross is like a stiff belt of scotch, and that relentless chug of testosterone extends beyond just dialogue that feels like it was broken off in its characters’ mouths, right down to the names. There’s so much poetry contained within the name Shelley “The Machine” Levene, it’s like a miniature short story of his fading glory and his fellow real estate salesmen’s inflated arrogance. The same could be said of “Mitch and Murray,” whom the audiences are just left to imagine in all their stuffed-suit glory through constant offhand invocation. But my favorite by far is Ricky Roma, played in the 1992 film version by a swaggering Al Pacino, just before he tipped into self-parody. The name sounds exactly like what it is: a con artist who’s out to peddle you a fast trip to Easy Street, as deceptively slick as it is first-name-basis trustworthy. And when he’s called out as “Richard Roma” near the end of the third act, it’s a subtle exposure of just how constructed that image is, and how the right words can sell you anything.
I had to read a lot of Edith Wharton in college but never developed much of a taste for her writing. The one exception was her scathing 1913 novel The Custom Of The Country. My enjoyment of that book was largely based on its wonderfully named, deliciously awful protagonist Undine Spragg, a ruthless social climber who cycles through husbands like Kleenex and ruins lives without a twinge of guilt, all so she can enjoy a life of wealth, power, and privilege. Finally, a Wharton heroine after my own heart. And Wharton gave her a marvelously ugly name that’s so much fun to say. It’s like something out of a Roald Dahl children’s book. I can remember eagerly writing a term paper about Undine and concluding that her initials were some kind of comment on American greed and imperialism. At the time, I thought that was really clever.
As soon as I read this question, I knew my answer would come from the Coen brothers. But which character in their vast library of insane, ornate names? Though it’s not one of their best or best-regarded works, Intolerable Cruelty has a particular treasure trove of classic Coen names, but as much as I love the florid constructions of Miles Massey, Rex Rexroth, Gus Petch, and of course Heinz, The Baron Krauss Von Espy, I have to go with the one whose simple moniker makes me laugh every time I hear it: Wheezy Joe, the asthmatic hit man played by Irwin Keyes. What can I say? Baldly descriptive names are often an easy laugh for me.
I’m pretty bad at remembering characters’ names and I’m much more likely to refer to the actors who play them. But that can prove a problem when a particular character is referenced more often than they’re actually seen onscreen. Having suffered through many “Who are they talking about, again?” moments, I really appreciate how much care The Wire took to give its more elusive characters evocative, memorable names. Stringer Bell and Frank Sobotka are both great, but by far my favorite Wire name is Avon Barksdale. The smoothness of “Avon” is juxtaposed by the sharper consonants in “Barksdale.” And though it encompasses more than a third of the alphabet, the name rolls effortlessly off the tongue. Wood Harris makes a strong impression as the drug kingpin, but it’s the name that elevates Avon Barksdale into someone truly unforgettable.
In the midst of the Republican National Convention, I found myself having a flashback to one of my favorite Doonesbury strips, which in turn led me to start flipping through some of my old collections of the comic strip. In doing so, a clear candidate for this question came shining through: legendary ’70s singer-songwriter Jimmy Thudpucker. The guy’s been through a lot over the course of his many decades in the strip, including a near-tragic boating accident, but he’s still alive, well, and playing his heart out around the world. Also, his name still makes me giggle.
I recently rewatched Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb and was delighted to find that it was even funnier than I remembered. The cast is terrific, and Kubrick’s dry, merciless directorial style contrasts beautifully with the fundamental (though still creepily plausible) insanity of the script. And nowhere is that insanity more evident than in character names. There are a bunch of terrific examples (the character list reads like the world’s best Mad Libs session), but my absolute favorite is so thuddingly obvious it’s barely a joke: Col. “Bat” Guano, the man who shoots a Coke machine and nearly saves the world. That’s a gag that wouldn’t be entirely out of place in one of Adam Sandler’s shittier movies—it’s the role Rob Schneider was born to play—but it works here, partly thanks to Keenan Wynn’s dolorous, arid performance, and partly because after everything else in the movie, it’s hard to balk at “bat shit.”
Hearing the name Jane Gloriana Villanueva fills me with warmth. Jane The Virgin’s “Latin Lover Narrator” says the protagonist’s full name at the beginning of almost every episode of the show, and his pronunciation has a musicality to it. Her name embodies the show’s bright and bouncy vibe, and it effortlessly rolls off the tongue. In fact, Jane The Virgin is a show full of names that are sweet on the tongue. I never tire of hearing Rogelio De La Vega say his own name over and over. But “Jane Gloriana Villanueva” takes the cake for the greatest name of them all.
Like a lot of things in Mystery Men, the name of the main antagonist is both giggle-inducing and a little sweaty with effort. You’ve got an all-American, white-bread superhero type? He’s Captain Amazing, of course. And you need a supervillain who combines monstrousness and the dark, sexy allure of evil? Then it’s Casanova Frankenstein. Again, as a character, Casanova is funnier in name and concept than in practice, with the bizarrely cast Geoffrey Rush lurching about in velvet suits, stabby metal fingernails, and an exaggerated German accent, but that name is such a perfect distillation of his particular brand of nefariousness that it makes me laugh in spite of myself every time. Like Captain Amazing says when he first utters his nemesis’ name (after spitting out those of lesser villains like Death Man, Apocalypto, Father Doom, Baron Von Chaos, and Armagezmo), “Now there was a supervillain… he’s got those eyes, you know?”
There is often a fine line between dumb and delightful, and I’ve always found myself drawn to the places where that line blurs. Let’s call that space, uh, delightfumb. Well, for my money, the most delightfumb name ever is Spongebob Squarepants. The last name is nothing special—plenty of delightfumb names go the literally descriptive route. But “Spongebob” is so unnecessarily and earnestly nonsensical that it sticks in your brain and seems perfectly normal. Honestly, Spongebob—both the name and the show—might be the most pervasive, mainstream piece of pop culture I can think of that falls into the delightfumb category. Think how many millions of times the cry of “Spongebob!” has been shouted since its release. Can you think of any other fictional character whose name has been heard on planet Earth more times during the past 17 years?
I’m a sucker for a good aptronym (a name that evokes a close association with the namesake’s personality, job, or other qualities). Miss Havisham. Martin Blank. King Haggard. Beautiful names that perfectly embody their owners. But ultimately, a name that makes me laugh is more important than any of that crap. And while “The Chad” (Tom Green) from Charlie’s Angels is a strong contender for the name that makes me laugh most consistently, there’s a classic that I can’t believe no one else has mentioned, and that is already a mainstay in the cinematic comedy hall of fame: Frau Blücher. [Neeeiiigggghhhhh!] Young Frankenstein’s iconic violin player and girlfriend to Victor Frankenstein has a name so perfect, no equine within earshot can resist its magic. Whether said loud or soft, it will always get a whinny—and a laugh.