A Note to ABC: Stop thinking audiences like ironic and reclaimed comedy titles

Dear Paul Lee,

Titles are tough.

I don't have a magic answer for what titles are good and what titles are bad. 

I have, however, gotten a handy rule of thumb in recent years: If the ABC Comedy Development Department thinks a title is good, it probably isn't.

What network, you'd be smart to ask, is actually good at making sure that its shows have good titles? I can't tell you. More shows on TV have awful titles than have good titles. It's just a thing.

But I know that ABC keeps screwing over perfectly good shows with perfectly dreadful titles and I don't think I'm going to get many protests on this one. 

ABC just can't help itself. 

There are easy to pinpoint bad titles that ABC has thought were really clever.

“How to Live with Your Parents (For the Rest of Your Life)”? Nope. Awful title. Maybe that's a cute title to put on the cover of your memoir, but it's not a title you're ever going to be able to build a promotional campaign around, at least not a good one.

“Don't Trust the B[ad Title] in Apartment 23”? See above.

I'm not talking about titles like that. Nobody would think those were good titles outside of ABC. They got out into the world and they were still bad titles. “HTLWYPFTROYL” was also a horrible show. 'Don't Trust The Bitch” was frequently funny, albeit often painfully uneven. Neither stood a chance.

The titles I'd like to single out are ABC's oh-so-clever love for ironic reclaimed titles.

Remember a few years back when ABC had a show called “Cougar Town” and Kevin Biegel and Bill Lawrence kept insisting that the show's title was meant with a wink-and-nudge because although Courteney Cox's character dated a younger guy in the pilot, she was never *really* going to be a “cougar” on a regular basis.

The lore has always been that audiences rejected “Cougar Town” because of the title and that's why it struggled. [“Cougar Town” will end its run after an upcoming sixth season, having passed 100 episodes, so “struggled” is mighty relative.] That lore is a lie. “Cougar Town” drew a massive audience for its first couple weeks and dwindled in large part because “Cougar Town” only truly found its comedic voice in the second half of that season. But it got an initial sampling, awful title or not. 

But there's still the segment of people on Twitter and message boards who say they didn't watch it because they hated the title. It concerns me that these people exist and that these people also caused “Terriers” to get cancelled after one season, but there isn't much I can do to counter the contention that there really and truly is a chunk of viewership that bases their TV habits not on stars or reviews or promotion or premises but on names. They exist. they sadden me. Oh well.

Last year at July TCA press tour, I began the panel for “Trophy Wife” by asking the producers about the choice of title that had literally no connection to the show they were making. Malin Akerman's character was, indeed, a younger third wife to Bradley Whitford's character, but there was never a second's suggestion in the pilot that their marriage was based on anything other than love or that she was a woman without substance.

“I think that the title we always meant it to be ironic, and I think that when you look at the promos, I think that that kind of counterbalances it a little bit,” producer Lee Eisenberg told me. “And I think that Malin does I mean, there”s a version of the show where Malin Akerman plays a trophy wife in the traditional sense, but I think the the most fun for us as the writers of the show is to make her fall on her face and to make her look, at every single turn, not like that. So, hopefully, as the show kind of grows and people see the promotional materials, I think”

My response? 

“Following up on that, what has ever given you any indication that TV audiences understand the irony in TV titles?”

I regret my condemnation of some TV viewers and y'all should know that Malin Akerman defended audiences.

“Treating them like smart people,” she said.

In this case, “Trophy Wife” wasn't a title ABC foisted on the show. 

“I literally saw the title, and I said, 'Oh, hell no, I”m not playing a trophy wife.' But when I read it, I just thought it was so brilliant and exactly what Lee said. It is the complete opposite of a trophy wife,” Akerman said.

Eisenberg and Akerman weren't wrong.

“Trophy Wife” was a title meant to provide ironic distance. Nobody on the show was a “Trophy Wife” and that was the joke!

Nobody got the joke. “Trophy Wife” was an out-of-the-box failure and was cancelled last week. It was my favorite new comedy pilot of the season and ended the year certainly among my three or four favorite new network comedies. Did the title sink it? Nah. Probably not. Or at least I don't want to believe that. But nobody's going to tell you it helped.

ABC is doubling or tripling down on comedies with bad titles this year and it seems like everybody knows which shows they are.

Laurence Fishburne, helping introduce “Black-ish,” a show he executive produces, mocked the title. He won't be the only one. 

Starring Anthony Anderson, “Black-ish” is a comedy about racial assimilation. Anderson's character is successful and his family has a great life in the suburbs, but he begins to worry about whether they have become, in his words, “black-ish,” whether they've become too assimilated into a white-bread culture. ABC is not saying that the family in “Black-ish” is black-ish. It's a judgement being made by a character within the show and the character will be, I'm 99.9 percent sure, made to be the target of punchlines for his opinions. My hunch, having only seen the trailer, is that it's going to turn out that Anthony Anderson's family is plenty “black enough” and that even as he tries pushing them to be in touch with their roots, he'll also come to realize that he loves them just the way they are. “Black-ish” really isn't going to be a destination-driven show in which the finale finds whole family dressed in dashikis, smiles at the camera and goes, “Now that's what I call black!” Because that would be stupid. And problematic.

I totally get the title “Black-ish.” But I also understand why it won't be comfortable for viewers to use and why it might give the impression to viewers of many races that it isn't necessarily a show that embraces inclusiveness. Because the title is meant ironically, of *course* it embraces inclusiveness. But what does ABC think it's gaining from making viewers go that extra mile? What they're gaining is a show that's already confusing my autocorrect and that will consistently disappoint me when it isn't about the mistreatment of killer whales at SeaWorld.

It's a bad title.

The midseason comedy “Fresh Off The Boat” is going to have nearly the identical problem. The phrase is one used largely by second generation and more assimilated immigrant groups to refer to less assimilated immigrant groups. It's not especially complimentary and it shouldn't be a surprise that even if the term originated as an internally used assignation — I've heard Indian and Chinese-American friends use it to describe their parents or grandparents — that mixed mockery with warmth, it has expanded out and now you can hear garden variety white racists using FOB to describe people they'd just as soon send back to their home country irrespective of assimilation and whether or not the home country can be reached by boat.

“Fresh Off The Boat” was based on a book by Eddie Huang, whose parents immigrated from Taiwan. It's adapted by Nahnatchka Khan, whose parents immigrated from Iran.

As with “Black-ish,” I would bet dollars-to-donuts that “Fresh Off The Boat” is going to be a comedy that treats the family unit with warmth. Yes, the young Eddie may make fun of his parents for not being as “American” as he is, but I bet the family unit is going to be loving, supportive, nurturing and ultimately beneficial when it comes to Eddie's development. It will be a reclaimed pejorative, a negative that gets spun into a positive as we watch and recognize the aspects of family that are culturally specific, but also the aspects that are universal. Asian viewers will recognize their own families in its specificity and non-Asian viewers will recognize their own families in its universality. I know how this goes. The reminder will be that we're ALL “Fresh Off The Boat” or the plane or the train if we go far enough and that even the original Native American parents probably worried their kids were hanging out with those Mayflower kids too much.

I get it. The negative connotations of cougars and trophy wives and blackness and freshly arrived immigrants are being tweaked by fairly clever showrunners. “Cougar Town” and “Trophy Wife” did exactly what they meant to do. As a result they went from shows that were winking at their titles to shows that no longer had anything to do with their titles, if they ever did. So that means that you're alienating some viewers at the door and then you're also confusing other viewers who, after 13 episodes, are turned off by the title and don't know that “Cougar Town” is about neighborhood drunks pounding grape and that “Trophy Wife” is about Bert.

I get the desire to be confrontational and “smart” in a title, but I also know that the network TV business is one in which reaching the broadest audience is rewarded and putting up barriers to audience entry can lead to the swift cancellation of even the best of shows. 

The title “Cougar Town” didn't cost me episodes of “Cougar Town,” but if “Terriers” or “Trophy Wife” might have gotten second seasons with better titles, then darnit I want them to have had better titles. 

It may turn out that “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off The Boat” are awful. I don't know. But if they're good, the two seconds that smart viewers get to experience that “Oh, I see the irony of the title” pleasure is worth exactly nothing if the shows premiere to a 1.2 in the key demo.

Don't put barriers to entry in front of good shows. Make them as accessible as you possibly can. Cable shows and books play by different rules. Don't pretend that they don't. A book isn't a failure if it doesn't sell 9 million copies. A cable show can get away with a passionate demographic of viewership. ABC is not a bookstore and it's not HBO. 

“Modern Family” isn't the best title in the world — That's “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer” — but it's about as welcoming a title as one could ever imagine. “The Middle.” Even “The Goldbergs” is mighty welcoming if you aren't a knee-jerk Anti-Semite. ABC knows how to let shows have good names, or effective names, as well.

But try again on “Fresh Off The Boat” and “Blackfish”… errr… “Black-ish,” ABC.

And while you're at it? “Selfie” makes you sound like somebody's 75-year-old grandmother wondering if her flip-phone has a camera. Again, I get that the title is tweaking the inherent narcissism of selfie-culture. Audiences may also get what the title is doing. But they'll make fun of the title in the process. Nobody is going to watch “Selfie” because it's called “Selfie.” That apocryphal titlephobic audience will shun it.

Do better.

Anyway, you've been warned.



[Cut and save this story for when “Fresh Off The Boat,” “Black-ish” and “Selfie” are unfathomably huge hits next season. The titles still won't be good.]