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Man: Perhaps you could tell us your name!Man: Your real name.
The Doctor: What does it matter?
The Entity: Then tell us.
The Doctor: ... John Smith.
—'Midnight', Doctor Who
The stereotypical anonymous Plain Name, usually "John Smith". Other examples include "John Doe" (used in legal documents about a person whose name is unknown, or is being concealed, and in American hospitals for unknown dead people) or common names like "Johnson", "Jane" or "Jones".
The success of this trope is supposed to work due to just how common it is. If you take a name like 'Xavier', people will recognise you. 'John Smith' is just so average that you're forgettable, and even if they do recall you, it will be near impossible to track down. Subversions can occur with people either recognising that it's way too common, or a person might try the alias in a time or place where it isn't actually common.
Note: This trope only refers to someone using an obvious pseudonym -- not someone whose name just happens to be Smith, as in the title character of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Anime & Manga
- Kyon from Suzumiya Haruhi used John Smith as an alias. He is a Japanese person in Japan, so it was never intended to be taken seriously. Possibly a reference to Doctor Who, since Kyon was time travelling at the time.
- Gunslinger Girl. John Doe or "Joe The Nameless" is an alleged former CIA agent who teaches child assassin Pinocchio.
- "Mr. Smith" is a common fake name in the spy-filled world of Darker Than Black, which most people in the business treat as "I wish to remain anonymous". November 11 uses it in the first season, while the second season has a character only known by this title.
- Mr. and Mrs. Smith, a movie about a pair of married assassins. There was also a 1996 TV series of the same name about two Undercover As Lovers spies.
- Breaking the Code (1996). MI 5 agent John Smith tells Alan Turing he has an awful time with hotel clerks, as they never believe that's actually his real name.
- Two Fathers' Justice (1985). The mercenary camp the two protagonists join calls all its trainees "Mr Smith" to preserve their anonymity.
- Agent Smith from The Matrix -- in fact all the Agents have common surnames like Brown or Johnson.
- This was intended, at least in the later films, to highlight an important but debatable difference between the Matrix and the outside world; all the agents are white, caucasian men with stereotypically Western surnames, whereas the rebels of Zion are generally far more ethnically diverse, with a majority of African and Caribbean inhabitants.
- In TV and movies a minor character belonging to the FBI or similar Government Agency of Fiction will often be called a common name like Agent Johnson, to highlight the same faceless government operative-trope The Matrix plays on.
- Men in Black got a lot of mileage out of advertising and promotional materials featuring Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith.
- The protagonist in A Fistful of Dollars is actually called 'Joe' in the script, but as his name wasn't spoken on screen Clint Eastwood instead became The Man With No Name.
- The hero of Shoot Em Up. The fact that his name is an obvious pseudonym highlights the fact that he's actually like The Man With No Name from The Western.
- The serial killer in Se7en uses the alias John Doe, as it's his "message" that's supposed to become famous, not himself.
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. When Butch and Sundance decide to give up crime, they tell their employer that their names are Smith and Jones.
- Meet John Doe
- Also played with in An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn where the director wants to take his name off the film but can't, because his name really is Alan Smithee.
- In City Heat (starring Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood) two elderly gentlemen arrive at a brothel. One is greeted by the madam as "Mr Smith", and he introduces his companion who's also called Smith.
Madam: "Come in Mr Smith; we have many of your relatives here today!"
- The a Team: There is a running gag in the movie that whenever Agent Lynch introduces himself to someone (usually someone rather Genre Savvy), they make a point of asking him if he's related to some other Agent Lynch that they knew in a previous operation. Eventually, another CIA agent appears near the end of the film and introduces himself as Agent Lynch.
- Parodied in The Last Remake Of Beau Geste, where every single recruit of the French Foreign Legion introduces himself as "Smith" (including the two brothers). The only exception is a blind man who calls himself "Jones" because Smith was his real name.
- In the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Jack Sparrow gives the harbor master a few shillings so he doesn't have to tell his name. The harbor master thinks about this for a beat, then welcomes "Mr. Smith" to Port Royal.
- Die Hard mocks this by having two Agent Johnsons show up ("No relation."). Amusingly, at one point when one of the agents is making a call to have the power to Nakatomi Plaza cut, he identifies himself as "Agent Johnson. No, the other one."
- In one of the Deathlands After the End novels, Ryan Cawdor secretly returns to the barony from which he was outlawed. One of his companions suggest he use the alias "John Doe", and Ryan is less than amused to be told it's a pre-Apocalypse term for "corpses that have no name".
- In one spy novel (I think it was "Jack Lane's Browning" by David Gethin) a secret agent gripes about trying to track down someone using the name John Smith, and asks why people can't have distinctive James Bond names like Moneypenny or Gotobed.
- This was the original intention behind the name James Bond, but the character became so iconic that the name now immediately makes you think of him.
- Dorothy L. Sayers planned out a series of stories (of which only one, "The Leopard Lady," was ultimately published) in which an organization called "Smith & Smith Removals" (featuring Mr. Smith, Mr. Smythe, Mr. Schmidt, and so on) contracts to murder for profit.
- According to Dave Barry Slept Here, the leader of the Jamestown colony was "'John Smith' (not his real name)." The joke is that it was his real name.
- The Australian picture book Puzzle Worlds features numerous examples - Mr. Smith, Mr. Schmitt, Mr. Smythe, Mr. Smithers...
- Subverted in Stephen King's The Dead Zone. A man buys a rifle in a store under the name "John Smith". The clerk thinks "If I never saw me an alias before in my life, there's one there." However, the man (the protagonist) is actually named John Smith.
- In the TV series, Johnny Smith has constant problems of this nature.
- "Jones" is the last name selected for the title character (a creche-raised clone) of Friday by Robert A. Heinlein, from a list of standard creche names.
- A Piece of Resistance, a novel by Clive Egleton set in a Soviet-occupied Britain. The protagonist takes the cover name of "David Daniel" and his girlfriend comments sardonically that at least it's more original than Smith.
- The Amelia Peabody series has, as a recurring character, a British spymaster who often goes by "Smith," partly because spies use pseudonyms and partly because it's so much easier than coping with his real name of "the Honorable Algernon Bracegirdle-Boisdragon."
- In Foundation, a man, for the sake of conspiracy, introduces himself as Jan Smite.
- In A Song of Ice and Fire:
- When a sellsword who claims to be a knight is asked who knighted him, he says, "Ser Robert... Stone," which is an obviously generic name in Westeros. Robert is the name of the previous king, making it especially common, and "Stone" is a generic surname for bastards in a region of the continent.
- Qyburn calls his Frankenstein's monster of a knight "Ser Robert Strong." Robert, again, for the previous king, and Strong because he's, well, strong.
- John Smith is the pseudonym Daddy Long Legs instructs Judy to use. She dislikes it because it is so bland and calls him "Daddy-Long-Legs" instead. His real name is eventually revealed to be Jervis Pendleton.
- The Agatha Christie novel The Secret Adversary has the mastermind behind a Dirty Communist plot be known only to outsiders and even his own minions as Mr. Brown. It works so well that Tuppence realizes she actually saw a clerk named Mr. Brown at one point, but doesn't remember a thing about him because he had such an ordinary name.
Live Action TV
- One episode of Sliders had our heroes recognize a spy who used this name. However, he had picked because in that world, it's apparently the name of a Greek god.
- Spoofed in The Commish. The coroner slides open a fridge labelled "John Doe" and is outraged to discover an illegally-shot doe the police commissioner is holding for evidence.
- Doctor Who. When the Doctor joins UNIT as their scientific advisor, The Brigadier asks for his name for their files. He is unimpressed when the Doctor comes up with "John Smith". The Doctor still continues to use that alias when required.
- The Doctor first used that alias a little earlier, when Jamie saw the manufacturer's name on a piece of medical equipment. The new series has Retconned the First Doctor as using it as well (on his library card).
- On the whole, it works fairly well as an alias. However, it backfires on him in 'Midnight' as the page quote shows. The people, already suspicious, immediately see it for a Blatant Lies.
- Played for laughs when Martha goes undercover in Torchwood. Ianto gives her the name "Samantha" as part of her cover, followed by, "I thought the 'Jones' would be safe" (Ianto's last name is also "Jones".)
- The episode "General Hospital" of Blackadder Goes Forth featured a man with an amazing german accent in a wartime hospital introducing himself as "Meeester.....Smeeth". Subverted in that he's a british spy, named Brigadier Humphrey Smith, who picked up the accent while undercover in Germany.
- In the TV series John Doe, the title character takes the name because he doesn't remember his own.
- When taking part in Techno Games the Plunderbird team referred to themselves as the Smith brothers.
- A Credits Gag for the South Park episode "Trapped in the Closet" had everybody's name as "John Smith" or "Jane Smith." It's mainly to poke fun at a specific religion's reputation for lawsuits against anyone who pokes fun at them. It is by no means a measure to protect the people who worked on the episode from having disproportionate retribution leveled on them by a sociopathic cult. That would be silly.
- Not a pseudonym, but a similar phenomenon: in season 2 of Lost, Libby died before we could find out her last name. Fans clamored for years for more of Libby's story, including her last name, despite having been told by Word of God that none was forthcoming. Finally, at Comic Con between seasons 5 and 6, a montage of deceased characters finally gave her the name... Smith. It was as if the writers said, "You need her name? OK, it's Smith."
- In Hey Arnold there is a mysterious man named "Smith", that being his only name, who lives in Arnold's boarding home. No one has ever seen or heard him because he only makes contact with people with machinery and cameras. He orders a package one day to be delivered to him.
- On The Vampire Diaries, Elijah takes on "Smith" as his last name. Needless to say, it doesn't go unnoticed.
- In The Prisoner, Number 6 at one point reveals his name as "Peter Smith" - almost certainly a lie.
- The US law enforcement use of "John Doe" for an unknown victim crops up a lot in the CSI universe, unsurprisingly given the number of unidentified bodies they get to deal with in those series.
- Person of Interest. A woman who works as a professional fixer is amused and naturally skeptical when John Reese introduces himself as 'John'. Of course John Reese is simply the name he prefers to use anyway, rather than his real name.
- The 1970s Western Alias Smith and Jones. The show (and its name) were inspired by the Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid example.
- Within Temptation have a song named "Jane Doe".
Video & Tabletop Games
- One of the characters you meet in Another Code R calls himself this while he's performing an investigation of Lake Juliet. His real name is eventually found out.
- Played for laughs in Team Fortress 2 supplementary material: the BLU Soldier's alias (as revealed in the Soldier/Demoman double update teaser comic) is Jane Doe.
- In Shadowrun, the men who give assignments to Shadowrunners are always referred to as "Mr. Johnson", for reasons of deniability ("No, we didn't send people to blow up the manufacturing plants of a rival Mega Corp! They were hired independently by a Mr. Johnson!").
- In Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge Guybrush tries to trick a guard who is on the lookout for him thus:
Guybrush: Who, me? My name is Smith!
Guard: Smith, eh? That's an unusual name.
- Deus Ex Human Revolution has a bunch of The Men in Black showing up in sidequests. Unlike the P-series from the original game, these are human G-men types using this trope as aliases: at one point, one of them slips up and nearly says a colleague's name before switching back to "Mr. Grey".
- Used loosely in Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Justice For All. The classy assassin Shelly DeKiller imitates a butler and uses the name John Doe. No one is Genre Savvy enough to think this guy might be a little suspicious.
- On Hey Arnold, one of the residents at the boarding house is a reclusive man named "John Smith". One episode has Arnold visiting the place where Mr. Smith works in an effort to deliver a package, only to find that nearly everyone who works there is apparently named some variation of "John Smith".
- In a Firesign Theater album, the central character finds himself in the lobby of a motel. The desk clerk gives him a card to fill out, but it's already been written in. He chuckles "Well, I couldn't get you to believe my name is 'Mr. and Mrs. John Smith', could I?" The clerk cheerily replies "Of course you could - nice to have you with us, Mr. and Mrs. Smith!" He goes by 'Mr. and Mrs. John Smith' for the rest of the album.
- In the traditional common law of England, and still today in the various legal systems that are derived from it, there is a standard set of fake names for people involved in a legal case whose real identities are unknown or being kept secret: John/Jane Doe, Richard Roe, Joe Bloggs, etc.