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You’re so vain: TV vanity cards

For some of the ego-driven television business, it's the most important two seconds on the air. By Wendell Wittler
/ Source: contributor

For some of the ego-driven television business, it's the most important two seconds on the air.

That moment, usually at the end of the closing credits, when the personal logo of the creative force behind a show has equal standing to the corporate forces of the network, studio and/or big-name production company.

While usually just saying "Look at Me!" in large type, some of these tiny bites of broadcast time have provided enticing glimpses into the imaginations and personalities of the business's brightest lights, from old family pictures to wicked little pranks.

I Love Lucy's LogoThe oldest well-known TV logo not belonging to a network or movie studio is the scripted Desilu that wrote itself out at the end of "I Love Lucy," making it clear that Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball weren't just the stars of that seminal sitcom, they were also the bosses. As Desilu grew into a mini-studio of its own, the signature appeared on shows raging from "December Bride" to the original "Untouchables." But by the mid-60s, the logo had shrunk to a small part-screen credit pasted over the face of a scary alien on "Star Trek" before it disappeared altogether when Lucy and Desi sold their company to Paramount.

The Hammer (and Chisel) of JusticeWhen Universal Studios packaged TV shows in the '60s and '70s, few producers had the clout to get their own logos on the air with the Universal globe, and Jack Webb, of "Dragnet" fame, was one of them. And what a logo it was! Large muscular hands with a hammer and chisel pounded the Roman numeral "VII" into a marble wall for Webb's Mark VII Ltd. (named after a car Webb had once owned), and it rapidly became one of the most-copied (and parodied) images in TV history.

Lions and KittensThe all-time favorite parody logo has to belong to MTM Enterprises, which took sound-alike studio MGM's roaring lion and substituted a meowing kitten. As Mary Tyler Moore and then-husband Grant Tinker built MTM into a major production company, variations on the kitten popped up: it was seen dribbling an animated basketball for "The White Shadow," with a Sherlock Holmes-ian cap and pipe for "Remington Steele," and wearing surgical scrubs for "St. Elsewhere". And on "Newhart," yes that was Bob Newhart's voice saying "meow".

My Big Fat Fictitious BossWhen James L. Brooks, Stan Daniels, David Davis and Ed. Weinberger partnered to create the series "Taxi," they couldn't work out a company name that included all of their names ("BroDanDavWein"?), so they invented a fictional fifth partner with none of their names. The closing credit for John Charles Walters Productions showed the back of the departing boss (reportedly portrayed by Mr. Weinberger's back) as a secretary said "Good night, Mr. Walters."

The Writer's Stuff
Starting his own independent company after the success of "The Rockford Files", Stephen J. Cannell had a personal point to make — that even action shows like "the A-Team" and "21 Jump Street" always start with the writing. So, for his logo, viewers saw Cannell himself as he typed furiously at an old manual typewriter, pulled out a page and tossed it into the air where it turned animated and settled onto a stack of papers shaped (not folded) like the producer's initials. Not exactly subtle, but neither was "A-Team."

It's a Wonderful So-Called LifeMarshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick's The Bedford Falls Company was an unsubtle homage to "It's a Wonderful Life", with a logo showing an aerial view of the Bailey house with snow and a film-sprocketed frame while the audio track sang "...and danced by the light of the moon." It's a seemingly incongruous choice for shows like "thirtysomething" and "My So-Called Life" until you realize that George Bailey was one of the most angst-ridden characters in the history of the movies.

Father With FiddleMany producers have used pictures of members of their family in their logos, but probably the most beautifully done and least cheesy has to be for Steven Bochco Productions, with a snippet of film showing Bochco's father, a concert violinist, performing in profile.

The Laughing UltrasoundBruce Helford, co-creator of successful sitcoms for Drew Carey and George Lopez (and unsuccessful ones for Norm MacDonald and Wanda Sykes), put one of the most surprising and bizarre images on the two-second vanity video for his Mohawk Productions: a sonogram, reportedly of his first child. The voiceover features a baby giggling (quite an accomplishment prior to birth).

An Airline Gone SouthTrey Parker and Matt Stone would never do anything normal on "South Park". So when they got the opportunity to put a vanity card at the end of the show, they used a piece of found video, the final tag for a commercial for a long-defunct airline, showing the nose of a Boeing 707 with the title: Braniff: Believe It!

TV Dinner
Phil Rosenthal, co-creator of "Everybody Loves Raymond," publicly admits that lunch is his favorite part of the workday, so he named his company Where's Lunch. Its vanity card is a placemat over which a different dish is placed every week (except for a duplicated peanut butter sandwich in the first season that he blamed on the network). The list of over-200 dishes started with a lobster on "Raymond's" pilot episode (they do eat well in Hollywood), and has included steaks, pastas, salads, sandwiches, soups, pizza, sushi, bagels, a pot pie, oysters, roast chicken, nachos, cheesecake, pork chops with applesauce, celery and carrot sticks, and some odder entrees such as a TV dinner in an old-style metal tray, a bowl of spaghettios, a sack lunch (contents unknown) and a rubber chicken. Don't look for any pattern or connection with the preceding show: at the end of the episode about Marie's meatball recipe, the 'lunch' was a small glass of juice.

The Media Is a Message
When he did the pilot for "Dharma and Greg", veteran writer and producer Chuck Lorre made up a vanity card with Chuck Lorre Productions barely readable at the top and a large block of small text below... impossible to read in the brief moment it appeared on screen.

But if you videotaped the show and freeze-framed the card, you could read: "Thank you for videotaping "Dharma & Greg" and freeze-framing on my vanity card. I'd like to take this opportunity to share with you some of my personal beliefs..." and he did, filling that card, and another one for the second episode, and on, and on, until he ran out of personal philosphy and started writing other stuff.

Lorre told personal stories, created characters for unwritten novels, campaigned for himself to replace Michael Eisner as Chairman of Disney (yeah, sure), and complained about how hard it was to write a new vanity card every week. But he kept writing them, and is still writing them for his current series "Two and a Half Men" (except for one week when he had his co-creator Lee Aronsohn write one). Although not always worth the trouble of freeze-framing (he also ), it's still a better tribute to the television writer than Stephen J. Cannell's.

The vanity card is a television institution. And with the two top rated sitcoms both doing new versions every week, you can expect more producers to put more and more effort into them. And hopefully, we'll see less like Gary David Goldberg's much-derided tribute to his dog Ubu. "Sit, Ubu, Sit?" Of course he's sitting, he's a still picture.

is the online alias of a writer from Southern California.