Orson Fortune and the Joy of Ludicrous Movie Character Names
From Scut Farkus and Santanico Pandemonium to Verbal Kint and Jar Jar Binks
Christmas Jones. Tugg Speedman. Plutarch Heavensbee. Hooligarth Van Klosfock.
Which one of those names is the odd one out? Well, it’s the last one. Why? Because I made that one up. The other three are bona fide names from real movies. But what does that mean? Someone made those three up as well. And hats off to them, because they succeeded in adding to the almighty compendium of Extremely Funny Movie Character Names.
As we await the delayed cinematic release of Guy Ritchie’s Operation Fortune, a film whose main character — played by Jason Statham — has been given the majestic name Orson Fortune (say it out loud: Orson Fortune), what better time for a reflection on Extremely Funny Movie Character Names and the logic behind what makes them so wonderful?
Here are some funny movie names: Gino Felino. Jupiter Jones. Verbal Kint. Santanico Pandemonium. Scut Farkus.
Let’s take Scut Farkus to begin with. Let Scut Farkus (a name originally from the book In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash) be our text for today. Why is Scut Farkus a funny name?
Look closely at it; stare into the eyes of the name Scut Farkus. Despite how it might sound, there are no dirty words in the name Scut Farkus. But Farkus veers so closely to the word “fart” that it benefits from the comic association. However, Farkus is funnier for being altogether classier. (Scut Fart? Not as funny. Not as plausible.) Does Farkus also sound a little like “Fuck us”? Yes, yes it does. But, because neither “fart” nor “fuck” are in the name, you’re technically not laughing at anything juvenile — though we all know that Bilbo Baggins is funny mainly because it sounds so similar to Dildo Baggins.
Then we have Scut. Obviously no one on Earth is called Scut — as, famously, no one on Earth is called Bort — so the word hits us as a novelty; a surprise. There’s also the fact that the voiceless velar plosives (i.e. the “k” sounds) in both words combine to make a name that feels humorously aggressive and aggressively humorous. Similarly, the repetition of “or” in Orson Fortune is strange enough that you immediately enjoy the thought process the man’s parents must have gone through.
There’s an art to a funny name. Gaylord Focker is not a funny name. Pussy Galore is not a funny name. Any name with the word “dick” in it is not a funny name. A funny name doesn’t say, “Laugh at me, laugh at me!” as Gaylord Focker does. A funny name, like a good clown, wants you to take it seriously but falls at the last hurdle. A funny name conjures up the plausible image of a real person either constantly trying to live down their stupid name or constantly managing to live up to it.
Now, the rules are a little different if the name is one that someone was actually born with. In that case we can all laugh at the way that fate has conspired against them in real life. But I’m talking about movie names. And if a grown adult had had the time to come up with it, the bar has got to be higher than Gaylord Focker. One reason Gaylord Focker isn’t funny is that by changing either the first name or the surname it becomes funnier. Gaylord Johnson is funnier. Ben J. Focker is funnier. Gaylord W. Ramsbatch is funnier. Pussy Galore isn’t funny because if your family name was Galore, it is implausible that you would call your daughter Pussy. The reason Christmas Jones is funny is that if your surname was Jones (as mine is), you might well call your daughter Christmas in a desperate bid to stand out.
Another type of funny name — Jupiter Jones, Ruby Randall — makes use of alliteration. These may be too twee for some — Willy Wonka, for example — but they flow off the tongue so smoothly they earn their place on the list. Clearly, not just any alliteration will do it, but with the right tweaking, an alliterative name is a joy. Liz Lemon. Steve Stifler. Cliff Clavin.
Then, of course, there is the all-important element of rhythm. Jar Jar Binks is a funny (and unforgettable) movie name because it basically follows the comic rule of three: two normal things should be followed by a third, funny thing. Jar Jar Jar is not a funny name. But, having been teed up with two Jars, there’s a satisfaction in hearing and saying Binks. It’s a release of tension. And it helps that, like Farkus, Binks is a made-up word that sounds stupid.
Generally speaking, most funny surnames are two syllables long. Names like Dave Grohl and Mae West are always facing an uphill battle because there is simply less variety, less space in which their name can be funny. Santanico Pandemonium, by contrast — a rare nine-syllable name — takes you on a journey. It is a joy to say that name. And if your surname was Pandemonium, why wouldn’t your first name be Santanico? Similarly, Gino Felino, as well as rhyming, is like a picturesque mountain range for the ears.
A word on single-initial middle names: No one mined this well of comedy better than The Simpsons, whose “D’Oh-In’ In The Wind” episode understood that tied up in a single initial is a great deal of mystery. Because the J in Homer J. Simpson could mean almost anything, it is one of the finest jokes in the show’s history that, after an epic journey, it simply stands for “Jay.” Elsewhere, popping a middle initial into a name is a deliciously pedantic addition — Dr. Worthy A. Pennyworth, for example.
So when he finally does arrive in cinemas, Orson Fortune will be taking his place in a long and distinguished line of Extremely Funny Movie Character Names. Like the best examples, his name will perfectly match his behavior. In his case, he will be a deranged badass with wild parents. We may never know if our names affect how we behave in real life. But the joy of an Extremely Funny Movie Name is, like all writing, watching the glorious life that words can conjure from thin air.
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