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I finally saw Licorice Pizza (in an actual movie theater!) and my spouse had a burning question as the credits rolled: Why the heck was it called Licorice Pizza?

Fair query. The Paul Thomas Anderson comedy with the SoCal vibe and mildly problematic May/December romance features absolutely no licorice and, in this viewer’s memory, little to zero actual pizza. 

To make matters even more puzzling, Licorice Pizza wasn’t even the movie’s original title. That would be Soggy Bottom, a title that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on a late 1970s teen sex romp. But at least Soggy Bottom would make sense after seeing the movie -- Soggy Bottom was the original name of the waterbed company started by Gary Valentine, the film’s hustling, 15-year-old entrepreneur. 

Movie poster

Lisa-Film

Tell us this movie couldn't have been named Soggy Bottom.

(Even that name gets changed in the film to Fat Bernie’s Waterbeds. So … who is Fat Bernie? Many of fictional Gary’s adventures are based on PTA’s friend Gary Goetzman, who as an 18-year-old, opened Fat Bernie’s Environmental Living in the Valley and yep, he sold waterbeds. There doesn’t appear to have been an actual Bernie, fat or otherwise.)

PTA pulled a last-minute switcheroo and changed Soggy Bottom to Licorice Pizza, the name of a chain of record stores that operated in 1970s Southern California. And where did those vinyl vendors get the name? Probably from an old Abbott and Costello comedy routine. The two comics failed at selling records, lamenting, “Well, we could sprinkle cornstarch on the bottom and sell them as licorice pizzas.”

OK, that answers the question “What’s a licorice pizza?” But still unsolved: Why Licorice Pizza?

“After many months of banging my head against the wall trying to figure out what to name this film, I concluded that these two words shoved together reminded me the most of my childhood,” PTA told Variety

Anderson grew up in the Valley, and the record-store chain brought back all the sun-soaked adolescent vibes he was trying to recapture. “It seemed like a catch-all for the feeling of the film. I suppose if you have no reference to the store, it’s two great words that go well together and maybe capture a mood. Maybe it just looks good on a poster?” 

Licorice Pizza movie poster

Focus Features

By golly, it DOES look good on a poster.

And if you’ve been around long enough to remember Licorice Pizza: The Store? It sounds like you’d get what PTA was after. 

“It was a great vibe, and it was a total hangout,” says Kurt Peterson, who sold vinyl back at one of the chain’s 34 branches back in the day. "We'd hang out and talk music and argue who was better.” The stores had a reputation as a great hang -- employees who worked there reportedly spent their days off there, debating the relative merits of King Crimson and the New York Dolls.

“We called it Alana and Gary for the longest time, but I thought I’d had my fill of two given names for titles,” confesses Anderson. “I’m happy with it now. It feels good. You think of titles like American Graffiti. Fast Times. Licorice Pizza. Good. All right, let’s stick with that company. Those are films that I thought about so much when I was making it.”

While some (like members of my immediate family) are confused by the name, PTA could have done worse.

“In the long run, I couldn’t live with naming a film Soggy Bottom.”

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Top image: Focus Features

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