Monday, February 19, 2007

Naming Conventions in "Arrested Development"

Having completed the third DVD set of “Arrested Development” a few weeks back, I’m pleased to say that I’m still picking up little throw-away jokes. For example, in the second-to-last episode, “Exit Strategy,” Gary Cole plays a CIA agent-posing-as-a-taxi cab driver named Richard Shaw. His name is a callback to the joke in the same episode about Buster wanting to hire “the only rickshaw in Iraq.” Cute, no?

I remember reading a review of that movie “The Baxter” that noted that Peter Dinklage’s character therein was named “Benson Hedges.” The review cited the name — which references Benson & Hedges, a brand of cigarettes that I suspect most Americans aren’t too familiar with — had been created in an “Arrested Development”-like style. Ever since then, I’ve wondered exactly what criteria constitute an “Arrested Development”-like name. The names of the minor characters — and some of the central ones — are unusual in a way that leads me to think there’s an ulterior motive for that specific arrangement of words, much in the way most of the conspicuous groups words are a pun or at least a reference to something else from the show. Some are explained outright — like Hel-Loh “Annyong” Bluth — or at least commented on — like George Michael sharing his name with the singer. But most are left hanging, all tempting and sexy for the bored English major.

I can get nothing from “Michael Bluth,” but GOB’s name seems to be poking fun at our current president. Television Without Pity forums on “Arrested” feature a theory that George W. Bush’s brother, Jeb Bush, is actually named “John Ellis Bush,” his nickname being derived from the first three letters of his name just as “George Oscar Bluth” adds up to “GOB.” (Though the show refers to the character as “GOB” with almost perfect consistency, the pilot does indeed specify that his full name is George Oscar Bluth. The same episode also spells out Buster’s full name as Byron Bluth, only to never mention it again. Weird.) Like the Bushes, the Bluth family has a patriarch named “George” and an eldest son named also named “George.” It’s a bit odd, I guess, that this possible parody of the Bushes would conflate George W. Bush and Jeb Bush into the same character, but the similarities are striking nonetheless. Given that the show ultimately details the Bluth family’s heavy involvement with Saddam Hussein, I think the GOB-Jeb parallel is plausible.

The writers didn’t hide any inherent puns in Maeby or Lucille’s names, but they did eventually spin storylines around both. Specifically, a major plot point for all three seasons is the confusion about whether Maeby is biologically related to the rest of the Bluths. In short, it’s a big maybe. And season two gives a throwaway joke to Lucille’s name with the warning to Buster that the part of the ocean he’s chosen to escape from his mother into is inhabited by a “loose seal.”

Here’s as much as I put together for the minor characters whose names I think mean something.

Oddly like how the show pokes fun at Tobias’s apparently gay tendencies, so it does with Barry Zuckerkorn (Henry Winkler), who plays the Bluth family lawyer for most of the series run. Taken literally, Barry’s last name could mean “horn sucker,” as “korn” and “corn” mean “horn” in most contexts. So essentially, his name could be Barry Dicksucker… Barry’s replacement in the final season, Bob Loblaw (Scott Baio), has the name that’s most obviously explained. The show squeezes a lot out of its resemblance to “blah blah blah,” the best being the mention of Bob Loblaw’s Law Blog. I can’t figure out why the writers named his daughter, Hope Loblaw, though… Another lawyer character, Maggie Lizer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), makes a joke about her own name. “Maggie lies her ass off,” she says of her reputation as a notorious liar before she proceeds to prove the remark true by continually lying through out all three episodes she appears in… The Spanish soap opera actress, Marta Estrella, appears in three different story arcs, and played by a different actress in each one. It seems too obvious that her name is Spanish for “star” and she is a Spanish star. However, her name also makes me think of Starla (Mo Collins). GOB dates with both Marta and Starla, only to have one of his brothers end up forming a more serious relationship with either woman afterwards. But that’s as far as I can take it… Amy Poehler’s character — whose name is never spoken and who is referred to in the credits only as “Wife of GOB” — could be a play on the wife of the Biblical Job. The episode that introduces Wife of GOB makes a point of describing her as someone who goads GOB in more and more daring stunts. In the Bible, Job’s wife — who also lacks a name — pushes Job to renounce God as when He repeatedly screws poor Job over. That’s about all she does really… Unlike most characters’ surnames, Stan and Sally Sitwell’s (Ed Begley Jr. and Christine Taylor) actually registers on Google as one that real people have. That may be the end of it, even though the writers eventually found a way to pun it with “Standpoor,” a mysterious corporation that begins purchasing shares of the Bluth Corporation at one point in the series. The Bluths deduce that Stan must be trying to commandeer the company only to later realize that “Standpoor” is the business set up by Lucille Austero (Liza Minelli), who suffers from vertigo… “Austero” itself just seems to be a cognate for “austere,” which wouldn’t seem to have any meaning for Lucille Austero, who lives about as extravagantly as Lucille No. 1… Larry Mittleman ("Super Dave" Osbourne), acts as the surrogate for George Sr. while he's under house arrest, seems like a no-duh pun on "middleman." Johnny Bark (Clint Howard), the environmental activist who tries to prevent the Bluths from cutting down a certain tree, seems like a pretty obvious one… Agents Cummings and Freeling, two FBI types investigating the Bluths wouldn’t have to seem much in common except for the structure of their names, but the fact that the actors playing them (Michael Blieden and Matt Price) were also the male leads in “Melvin Goes to Dinner” makes me think the characters were written to be connected, maybe in a more direct way than I can figure out… Lindsay has a brief infatuation with Moses Taylor (Rob Corddry), a firearms enthusiast and actor known for playing a detective named “Frank Wrench,” the name of whom would seem to be a play on Dick Spanner, the name of a robot detective featured in a “Thunderbirds”-esque puppet show in Britain. The Brits, for the uninitiated, call wrenches “spanners.” I can’t figure out anything with “Moses Taylor, though.

This leaves the following as unexplained, as far as I know.
  • Ann Paul Veal (Mae Whitman), whose middle name seems to be especially trying to get at some kind of joke that’s so far completely lost on me.
  • Trisha Thoon (Stacey Grenrock-Woods), the oddly-named news reporter who shows up repeatedly in the first season.
  • Kitty Sanchez (Judy Greer), whose last name isn’t introduced until well after her introduction to the show. I can’t for the life of me figure out why they would have picked “Sanchez” as a last name for a character played by a white woman.
  • Phil Gunty (Bob Odenkirk), the relationship counselor that Tobias and Lindsay visit together.
  • Stefan Gentles (James Lipton), the prison warden, whose name just sounds so dirty.
  • Cindi Lightballoon (Jane Lynch), the FBI mole who accidentally falls in love with George Sr., probably confounds me more than any other character on the show. Granted, a lot of “Arrested Development” characters have names that sound like the writers just looked up, saw an object and assigned that noun as a surname. This one, to me, stands out.
  • Jan Eagleman (Carrie Preston), the third lawyer the Bluths hire. She seems like she suffers from the same syndrome that apparently affects Cindi Lightballoon, but since all the other lawyers are named for a reason, I’d guess this character is too.
  • James Alan Spangler (Sam Pancake), Barry’s gay secretary.
  • Gene Parmesan (Martin Mull), Lucille’s private eye.
  • And J. Walter Weatherman, Rita Leeds, Steve Holt, Earl Milford, Wayne Jarvis and Jessie Bowers, none of whose names sound particularly unusual but by virtue of being on “Arrested Development” could easily be hiding some little in-joke that I’m not aware of.
So what makes for an "Arrested Development"-style name? If you take two nouns and stick them together, that seems to get you in the ballpark. Like now — I looked up at saw my computer speaker and a water bottle. I'd be Drew Speakerbottle. Or just a funny-sounding word that may or may not be an actual last name — like "Gunty" or "Thoon." Or just a pun. So, I guess I don't know what the hell the guy who review "The Baxter" meant when he tried to characterize the names of characters on the show in any one kind of way.

Now, at least, the list is there and Google-ready. Maybe you all reading this — or other people with too much time on their hands searching for origins for names on "Arrested Development" — can figure these out.

EDIT: Roommate Aly points out that Moses Taylor is probably a reference to NRA bigwig Charleton Heston, who played Moses in "The Ten Commandments."


  1. Here's my take on 2 on the list. The first is the most obvious... and I'm assumign you didn't mention it because it was to obvious. Ann Paul Veal - the running joke is that Michael remembers her by thinking of "Annabelle" a cow's name because she is bovine in appearance... thus Veal is baby cow. The other, Rita Leeds, well Leeds is a city in England, and Rita could come from the Beatles song about "Lovely Rita, Meter Maid...", a British Band. Or you could infer that Rita "Leads" Michael and the family down several incorrect judgement paths (a. she's not retarded, b. she's a secret agent).

  2. Good ones, all around, Chocolate Honey. Do you have a blog? I've noticed you commenting now and then but Blogger tells me your profile page is private. You seem smart and if you're writing I'd like to read it.

  3. is annabelle a cows name? i know from reading this very blog that clarabelle is a cow ( i could swear i have heard paul veal as a man's name somewhere else.

  4. I saw this yesterday on Digg, but today I was thinking about it some more. I don't know if this is entirely applicable, but in the episode where the family drugs Rita and leaves her on a bench, the bench has an ad on it for Wee Britain. They play off of the large word BRITAIN (much as they did with the bench buster sat on right before he lost his hand) a couple of times. I forget which is first, but at one point, some letters are blocked so that you can only see the word "RITA", and another time they're blocked so all you see is "BRAIN". I thought this was a nice visual pun, so I thought I'd share.

  5. Yeah, I remember that joke, but I never realized that Rita’s name is entirely encased in the word “Britain.” Good catch. Another part of the joke involves the letters in WEE BRITAIN being blocked so that only “WEE BR__A__” are showing, and then immediately after a woman walks by wearing a bra that is clearly too small for her.

  6. Get ready for disappointment, Chocolate Honey is actually your former roommate Tristan... when i post a comment it defaults to a joke handle i made a long time ago, "chocolate honey" and i usually just forget to change it to reflect myself. But those three sentences might reflect the nicest and most sincere things you've ever said about me, regardless of intent. Very flattering.

  7. one more thing... for a good laugh, check out Judy "Kitty Sanchez" Greer's IMDB biography, which was clearly and unabashedly written by her publicist.

  8. My god, it's one big love fest over here.

    AD is one of the best shows ever, and its network failings is a testament to the complete lack of imagination the viewing public is stricken with.

    "For British Eyes Only ..."

    It just makes you want to cry it's so good.

  9. Just one thing on the name game....J. Walter Weatherman I thought was an obvious one. J. Walter = Jessica Walter(Lucille Bluth), not sure what Weatherman has to do with it though.

    Oh yeah, on the Wee Britain thing, when just Rita is sitting on the bench you see Wee Br__ain. Obviously stating Rita's mental disability's.

  10. warden gentles = wart-on genitals?

  11. Wow. "Wart on genitals." How the hell did I never think of that? Especially since my brain tends to gravitate toward the privates given even the slightest provocation.

  12. Before Kitty is introduced, Lucille disparages George for "dipping into the company kitty." Nice double-entendre.

    In some episode, Michael thinks his son is hiding Ann Veal in the attic: "He's hiding Ann in the attic?"--an Ann Frank reference.

  13. Bob Loblaw -- Hope Loblaw -- Bob Hope.

  14. On the Loblaws: Yes, you're probably right. Seems obvious now. Thanks for pointing that out.

  15. Yeah, I know, this entry is over a year old, but I came across this via a Google search and I wanted to make a couple of comments.

    "Lindsay has a brief infatuation with Moses Taylor (Rob Corddry), a firearms enthusiast and actor known for playing a detective named “Frank Wrench,” the name of whom would seem to be a play on Dick Spanner, the name of a robot detective featured in a “Thunderbirds”-esque puppet show in Britain. The Brits, for the uninitiated, call wrenches “spanners.” I can’t figure out anything with “Moses Taylor, though."

    That whole quoted paragraph is you having a laugh, right?

    On the off chance the answer is no, let me point out that both the names Frank Wrench and Dick Spanner and obvious references to Mickey Spillane's famous and influential detective character Mike Hammer.

    The joke behind name Moses Taylor is so obvious I assume you must be joking there.

  16. Hi Anonymous. You managed to kind of be helpful while also kind of being a dick. That's not easy to do, so congrats to you.

    I don't read Mickey Spillane, and, thus, the Mike Hammer reference was lost on me. In reference to your note on Moses Taylor, I noted at the end of the post that it was pointed out to me that the first name is a reference to The Ten Commandments, which would make sense with the gun association. The second part being a reference to Heston's character from Planet of the Apes, however, was lost on me until fairly recently. I don't think it's especially obvious, since a great many people who have seen Planet of the Apes wouldn't be able to recall Heston's character's name. All the same, yes, there it is.

    So, thanks, I guess.

  17. "Hi Anonymous. You managed to kind of be helpful while also kind of being a dick. That's not easy to do, so congrats to you."

    Huh. That certainly wasn't my intention, but going back over what I posted, I see that I was rather dickish. I apologize.

    "I don't read Mickey Spillane, and, thus, the Mike Hammer reference was lost on me."

    They're great books, but not for everyone. I'm only a recent reader of Spillane myself, my previous knowledge of the character coming from the 90's Mike Hammer tv series starring Stacy Keach, which is very different from the books in that it eschews with graphic violence that make them so controversial in the 1940's, resulting in a more blandly and sanitized (and only memorable in the vaguest sense) take on detective noir.

  18. hey, i'm watching arrested development for the first time around, and i'm up to the middle of the second season right now, and i was particularly interested in ann's name, and this came up first on google. my response:
    1. i think the jeb-gob connection is definetly intentional, because the show was aired on fox. there's other stuff in the episodes i've seen that i think are directly related to the network, but so far nothing else with names.
    2. ann paul veal's name, i think, doesn't have any direct references within the name, but is probably related to the running joke where michael bluth can't remember her name, and the writers came up with "ann," "paul" and "veal" as a string of completely unrelated names as a joke about the tension between george michael and his father about ann.
    3. kitty was probably given the last name "sanchez" due to the unfortunate physical qualities that are supposedly accepted by all of the other characters as grotesque. the word sanchez, in recent years, sometimes refers to a really nasty moustache that should be taken care of, whether on a man or a woman.
    ...also, i didn't read the very end of that until just now, and i have to admit, i guess i have some extra time on my hands.
    - emily walker pushbottom

  19. On the commentary track, Mitch Hurwitz says Maeby was named after his two daughters, Phoebe and Mae-something. Don't know if he was serious or not. There's an additional play on words for the character Maeby impersonates--her disabled twin sister Surely (pronounced "Shirley") Funke.

    Another character whose name is presumably a play on words is Phillip Litt, the Joe Francis-like guy who makes the "Girls with Low Self-Esteem" videos. I don't get the reference, though. "Fill-it"?

    Warden Gentles' name is "Stefan Gentles," which kind of sounds like "stiffen genitals."

    As for the puppet Franklin: there was a muppet named "Roosevelt Franklin" on Sesame Street.

  20. Excellent work! I never realised there were so many 'Wee Britain' jokes.

    I know I'm coming to the party a bit late, but I thought I'd point out that Rita's name is also part of the word 'retard.' In addition to the possible Britain & Beatles references.

  21. Anonymous: A good point. I remember hearing the same story for the bit on Maeby's name coming from the two daughters' names. And I have no memory of that particular muppet, so thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    Mark: Wow. Never noticed that before. "Rita" sounds especially like "retard" if you say it in a British accent, too.

  22. And in the first season, when the narrator begins to refer to Lucille Austero as "Lucille Two" it implies that Lucille Bluth is "Lucille One," or "Lucille won."