Of Bumper Music, Word Play, and Movie Titles
One of my favorite early morning rituals is waking up, making coffee, and listening to KFI-AM’s “Handel on the News,” a local radio staple here in Los Angeles. From 6:00-7:00 each morning, the irrepressable host and his crew give a humorous take on the headlines as we bleary-eyed early risers come to. Their raucous and un-pc jokes are jaw-dropping so early every morning. But what I really tune in for is the musical lead-ins to each news story. Why? Because the musical bumpers and bridges are witty counterpoint in itself.
A story about a priest abuse case is led into with Connie Francis singing “Where the Boys Are” and any item about Governor Schwarzenegger inevitably is trumpeted by “Springtime for Hitler” from The Producers.
It reminds me of the way Paul Schaeffer on David Letterman’s show can be scathingly funny in his walk-on music for guests. And in some cases, like the torreador march that still introduces comedian Don Rickles, it is a signature song that perfectly “says what it is” — Rickles is the matador, you are the bull.
The guy who used to have the job of picking these musical bullets on “Handel on the News” retired last month and the tryouts to replace him have been tough to listen to. Not everyone has the musical knowledge to pull from, plus the wit to be thoughtful and not ham-handed in their choices. It’s tempting to use “Leaving on a Jet Plane” for a story about airport delays, but not as funny as “Anticipation.”
The skill is in picking musical bumpers that don’t hit you over the head, but make you laugh as you realize “That was witty!”
I bring this up, believe it or not, as a means of discussing something screenwriters ask me about all the time, namely, how to come up with a title for your movie! Because word play is what it’s all about.
In my book, Save the Cat!, I talk about the importance of the title, and how a good one can increase your odds of success. I note that a good title isn’t blunt or “on the nose,” meaning if you have a movie that is about redemption, don’t call it Redemption. There is also the vague title, like 2005’s The Island which, I’m convinced, hurt ticket sales. (Are there castaways? Is Dr. Moreau involved?) And the curse of being too general in your title leads to my least favorite title of all time, For Love or Money, which has been used three times in movie history and I can’t tell you the story of any version. It’s so general, you could use it for any movie: Gone with the Wind = For Love or Money, The Godfather = For Love or Money.
See what I mean?
In my career, my favorite titles that I’ve come up with have been just… “off the nose.” Colby Carr and I found a great one for our “plumb and plumber” comedy, Drips, that we sold to Disney. I sometimes have even started with the title and built the story to match as we did with Nuclear Family that sold to Amblin. Like a good movie idea, often there is no rhyme or reason for how we know we got one! We just know.
What are your favorite titles from the movies or from your own career that show wit, le mot just, or just plain brilliance in figuring out what to call the damn thing? And what is your approach to The Title?
And if you have any musical lead-in picking skills, they’re still holding tryouts at KFI. Please do!