Monday, December 30, 2013

More Than a Second Banana: My 25 Most Memorable Comedy Supporting Players on TV

Before embarking on the latest installment, let me tackle the parade of "WTF" elephants that's primed to march through the room.

#1. Animated Characters will not be featured on these lists.
It sounds like I'm one of those pricks from the Emmy nominating committee, and maybe I'm leaning on such precedents to help bolster that decision. There's a slight chance I may do another blog down the road that's focused exclusively on the animated world, but the residents of Springfield and South Park will have to wait until then to plead their cases. And yes, that means Homer won't be around to be crowned king in the final list (which will cover comedic lead characters).

#2. Many icons didn't make the cut.
Some of the best known comedic characters didn't make the list. In some instances, it's because I just didn't think they were all that funny or well written, hence no appearance from the Fonz, residents or employees of the Brady household or castaways from any three-hour tour. Others came close, but just didn't crack my top 25, so no Colonel Klink, no employees of the Alan Brady show nor any tenants of creepy, spooky or magic-infested homes from the sixties. 

And…even with as much TV viewing as I've racked up over the years, there are STILL a few shows I never watched -- or really never liked. So Barney Fife's absence is actually due to the startling revelation of my never having watched a full episode of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW. And you won't see anyone by the name of Mertz or Ricardo on this or future lists -- I really DON'T love Lucy.

#3. With all this cheating, I'm NEVER getting into the Hall of Fame.
The previous blog featured a "duo" that I simply didn't have the heart to break up, and *surprise surprise* that is going to recur on all four lists. There's also a "trio" that will show up today, but I don't think that could be avoided. Finally, there's an entry on this list who I confess is truly more a lead character, but I bent the rules a bit to accommodate that special spouse. I almost did that for another person, but then decided to opt for one of that family's kids instead.

In the passages that follow each person, if there were other contenders from that same show (and in several instances, a very tough decision had to be made), I'll discuss them there. Comedy is so terribly subjective, and what may make one viewer dissolve into fits of laughter can leave the next as stony-faced as Mount Rushmore. Something to keep in mind whether you're nodding in agreement or shaking your head in disgust over the next few minutes… 

Now let's get this party started

More Than a Second Banana: My 25 Most Memorable Comedy Supporting Players on TV


If you're seeking a little heart in the otherwise dark and narcissistic world of IASIP, then look no further than this rat-hunting, kitten-mitten inventing, green-bodysuit wearing illiterate. His perpetual innocence is a nice counter-balance to the creepy deviance of Dennis, and one can feel a tad sorry for Charlie as his unrequited love (the forever unnamed Waitress, played by Charlie Day's actual wife) seems to sleep with everybody but Charlie.


This was the first of many exceedingly difficult choices. There were several colorful employees at that little radio station in Cincinnati: Les Nessman, Herb Tarlek, Venus Flytrap, Jennifer Marlowe. But no one greater symbolized the fateful day when WKRP's format changed and Johnny Caravella became Dr. Johnny Fever, ripping the stodgy elevator music records off the turntables and proceeding to rock out…

...while stopping to say "Booger!"


If you've watched the Emmys over the past few years, you've noticed that the Supporting Actor and Actress in a Comedy Series categories are practically wall-to-wall cast members of MODERN FAMILY. And in that Murderer's Row of Mirth, the MVP is often Ty Burrell as Phil Dunphy. He brings a unique mix of physical comedy and hapless expressions, as if fusing together the disparate styles of Jerry Lewis and Jack Benny. Whether he's vying for his father-in-law's approval, his children's respect or his wife's tolerance -- Phil always means well…and he always brings the funny.


In many ways, Barney Stinson is a bit of a throwback to earlier sitcoms. He relies on an overabundance of catchphrases ("Suit up!", "It's gonna be Legen -- wait for it -- dary!", "Challenge accepted." and dozens of variations of high-fives and slang with the prefix "Bro-"), and for the first several seasons, his main focus in life was having sex with as many attractive women as possible. That, and maybe laser tag. But Neil Patrick Harris infused this man-slut with a certain sweetness that belied his immoral ways, and Barney brings a much needed spark to hundreds of scenes that would have been lifeless otherwise. Ask most HIMYM fans why they continue to watch the show after so many years, and Barney Stinson will often be the reason given. True story…


First off, let me reassure you that as of this writing, Brooklyn born Abe Vigoda is indeed still alive and should be celebrating his 93rd birthday this coming February. Situated in the center of the 12th Precinct squad room, Detective Fish probably spent more time in the bathroom than he did catching crooks. As curmudgeonly as they come, Vigoda's ever-weary Fish was an altogether unique character on a cop show or any show for that matter, which is probably why he later got his own short-lived spinoff series.


Choosing one of the FRIENDS came down to a coin flip between Joey Tribbiani and Phoebe Buffay, and a misguided plot turn during the twilight of the series helped break the deadlock. The Joey/Rachel storyline was one of the worst things to ever happen to the series (along with the shrill caricature that Monica became). But Phoebe was a quirkily consistent breath of fresh air, even when she sang about a smelly cat. She truly cemented her place here with her sexy showdown with Chandler in "The One Where Everybody Finds Out". Because they don't know that we know they know we know…y'know?


If the Great War of Pillows and Blankets couldn't drive a permanent wedge between these two study group buddies, who am I to separate them? WIth a mutual fascination of all things geeky coupled with a childlike sense of wonder and enthusiasm, the Troy and Abed combo is the best bromance on any current comedy series (sorry Howard and Raj). Although Dean Pelton would probably claim he shares a deeper bond with Winger...


In this dreamy unnamed town in Vermont (and I use the word "dreamy" most deliberately -- which may be why the town was nameless), there were all sorts of odd residents. But none were quite as bizarre as the three woodsmen known as Larry, Darryl, and Darryl. They garnered their own little sliver of the pop culture zeitgeist with their oft-repeated introduction "Hi, I'm Larry; this is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl." William Sanderson displayed keen deadpan comedic prowess as Larry, and deadpan doesn't begin to cover his two silent brothers. Quick trivia question: Darryl and Darryl do finally speak in the finale -- but what do they say? "Shut up!"


There were few characters we saw grow up as believably and amusingly as Darlene Conner. Not cookie-cutter cute or annoyingly precocious, Darlene was very much a chip off the old block, as the edgy sarcastic side of her mom clearly did not skip a generation -- it just was totally channeled into one of her three children. Darlene represented the life and road not taken by Roseanne herself, which is probably why the stories that yielded the most potent laughs and tears revolved around that relationship.


After ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT and FRASIER, Raymond and Robert Barone are probably the next funniest male siblings on any comedy series. Although twice his size, Robert spends his whole life believing he lives in his younger brother's shadow. The glee he takes when things invariably go horribly wrong for Raymond is palpable and giggle-inducing…but the episode where Robert finally cracks while demonstrating his ventriloquist skills is one of the best sitcom moments ever.


Here we have the quintessential sitcom comic foil. Much like Louie De Palma or Dwight Schrute, Dan Fielding is set up as the "soft antagonist" on NIGHT COURT, displaying behavior and an attitude that runs contrary to everyone else, and the polar opposite morally and/or ethically speaking compared to the protagonist. In the previous examples -- that would be Alex Reiger and Jim Halpert, and here it is almost painfully earnest Judge Harry Stone. Sure, Dan's obsessed with money and sex. Isn't that why we have places like Las Vegas? But every once in a while, we also get a glimpse of the human side of these hysterically horrible people, and it's those moments that won John Larroquette four Emmys for this role.


No one does long speeches fueled with vindictive fury and laced with razor-sharp wit the way Dr. Cox can. He was the eternally reluctant mentor, and as sappy a dork as JD always was, we all secretly wanted Cox to relent and give him that hug just once. And then call him an all-new girl's name.

…just look what he can do with the word "No."


SOAP was a series that was way ahead of its time, and no one took as insane a journey as Richard Mulligan's Burt Campbell. He was a contractor who became sheriff, had a mental breakdown after accidentally murdering his wife's first husband and thereafter believed he could turn invisible by waving his arms and snapping his fingers. He was later taken aboard a flying saucer and replaced by an alien clone. Burt eventually escapes, returns to Earth and runs for political office. With a resume like that, I simply couldn't keep him off the list.


Dwight Schrute was a modern day Frank Burns, only with far greater intelligence. The assistant to the regional manager, his clear lack of social skills made him painfully awkward to everyone other than himself. His ever-escalating prank wars with Jim Halpert and his toadying up to Michael Scott were among the highlights of the early years of the American version of THE OFFICE, but unlike Frank Burns, our time with Dwight lasted considerably longer, so we occasionally did get a peek at the human side of Dwight, especially regarding his relationship with Angela.


How does one choose between Tobias Funke, Buster Bluth and his brother Gob? Each one could compile a fantastic sizzle reel of their finest comic moments. But after consulting with the Alliance of Magicians, I went with Gob. The sibling rivalry between Gob and Michael was one of the core relationships on the show (the others being the father-son ties between Michael and both his son and father). And when Netflix released the 4th season of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, it was Gob who held up the best as the focal point of a few episodes. Even if Will Arnett went on to do this schtick in several roles since AD, it's here where he does it to perfection.  

I mean, come on!


I came very close to picking Fraiser Crane instead of Woody Boyd. I had several strong reasons to choose Dr. Crane, but I ultimately swayed back to the farm boy who sauntered into the bar at the beginning of the fourth season. Woody wasn't just an adequate replacement for Coach, he quickly became a fan favorite. The audience's adoration was based largely on his innate innocence and charm, as well as tiny peeks into an Indiana childhood that sounded far stranger than one would ever suspect (I think this idea was taken to a far more extreme level on 30 ROCK with the Kenneth the Page character). Funny, goofy, well-meaning, lovable…that was how audiences thought of Woody Harrelson over the course of eight years. And then came NATURAL BORN KILLERS...


Hey now! Watching Jeffrey Tambor's Hank Kingsley would lead to equal doses of chuckling and cringing. Years before Ricky Gervais's THE OFFICE or Larry David's CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW led the way with awkward delights built around characters that were not necessarily the most likable of folks (one could say this was also done on SEINFELD, but with a softer touch). Hank was the ultimate punchline, respected by no one, alternately self-deluded and self-loathing. The light barbs tossed his way on the talk show (much like Carson and McMahon) all carried a certain sting with them, because Larry simply never gave a damn about him. And just when we might feel some sympathy for the man -- he would proceed to do or say something that proved Larry was right to distance himself from the train wreck that was Hank Kingsley.


The ultimate sitcom antagonist, Major Frank Burns was probably a bigger threat to the 4077th than the exploding shells that would rain down time to time. The original bible-thumping character from the book and film was toned down for television, but made far funnier by the inspired ineptitude and wrong-headed righteousness that Larry Linville played so well. The Lipless Wonder was the best foil possible for the likes of Hawkeye and Trapper (and later B.J., but the less said about him the better), and while Charles Winchester was actually a more fully developed and even eventually likable character -- M*A*S*H never quite filled the void that was left when Frank Burns went AWOL for good.


Pompous, arrogant, bombastic and a constant irritant to his boss, Bill McNeal was the biggest star at radio station WNYX, and he sure knew it. Whether he was getting under the skin of Dave Nelson by constantly disregarding any rules or admonishments (such as no smoking in the office) or his ongoing torture of Matthew the man-child doofus, Bill's smooth and smug ways were a major source of humor on the series, especially when they didn't work on the lobby security staff of the building. 

And no one handled an interview quite like Bill McNeal -- eat your heart out, Anderson Cooper!


Pompous, arrogant, bombastic and a constant irritant to his boss -- wait, didn't I just say that? Probably because Ted Baxter was the ultimate template for newsroom comedy, a precursor to every goofball news personality on later programs such as MURPHY BROWN, NEWSRADIO and HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER to films like ANCHORMAN and BRUCE ALMIGHTY. Ted Knight brought a true soul to this image-conscious money-grubbing news reader, and the depth he brought right away to the character led to later story lines centered around Ted meeting the love of his life, Georgette. 

…not to mention a new found love of knock-knock jokes!


Niles Crane defied typical sitcom convention. Generally speaking, when you have two siblings, you do your utmost to make them night and day, from lifestyles to occupations to personalities. But Niles and Frasier were both cut from the same cloth, which is more surprising considering how different they both were from their father. But similarities can lead to rivalries just like differences can, and there was always some jealousy on Niles' part due to Frasier's celebrity status (something that influenced the brother relationship on EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND a few years later). David Hyde Pierce showed he was more than a match for Kelsey Grammar when it came to delivering a witty retort…

…and as for physical comedy, well, just watch this.


Here's where that rule-bending comes into play, as Edith Bunker is really a lead character. But it felt right to place her here, because there was no bigger support mechanism in the Bunker household than Edith. She was the voice of wisdom and reason in a contentious household, and even if she wasn't necessarily the smartest person in the room, she was usually the most understanding. 

Like Archie, she also came from a different generation where certain conservative and even bigoted thoughts were commonplace and acceptable. The difference was whenever she was confronted with these notions and views, she invariably accepted and even embraced that which might have been alien to her growing up, whether it be issues of race or sexual preference.

There are very few performances in the history of the medium -- be it comedy or even drama -- that can compare to what Jean Stapleton did with this role. I chose not to "pair" her with Archie in a later list, as I truly wanted Mrs. Bunker to stand on her own. For a generation of TV viewers, Archie may have been our embarrassing uncle, but Edith will always be our favorite aunt.


We've now reached one of the two decisions that proved to be the most gut wrenching for me. It came down to Reverend Jim Ignatowski and Louie De Palma. Both have a plethora of classic scenes and story lines devoted to their characters. Both were played by former residents of "the Cuckoo's Nest" who went on to even greater acclaim afterwards. And both were as unique and unconventional as any character one had ever seen on television at that time.

I chose Louie due to one simple reason: if Rev. Jim had never joined the Sunshine Cab Company, would TAXI still have been worth watching? Yes. Maybe it would've ended up a bit bland at times, but there was always enough "flavor" to go around at that grungy taxi depot in the city. But could there have been a show without Louie De Palma? I'm going to have to say no. He was often the antagonist, the opposing force, the biggest obstacle (for such a little guy) for Alex and the rest of the cabbies to overcome. You lose Louie, you lose the show. And THAT's why I picked Louie.

Also, while the "What does a yellow light mean" scene is a classic -- THIS is actually my all-time favorite moment from TAXI...


And here we have "Seinfeld's Choice", where one could make a case for Elaine, Kramer, or George. They each have their moments, from Elaine's jerky-jerky dance moves to Kramer's Merv Griffin Show decor.  But out of all Jerry's friends, and perhaps even more than Jerry himself, George is the engine that drives the funny train. He kicks off the "Master of Your Domain" contest (and supposedly wins); he's co-writes "Jerry" with Jerry; he deals with "shrinkage"; he pops the Bubble Boy's bubble; he has the greatest answering machine message since Jim Rockford; he beats Saul Goodman by almost 20 years when HE says "It's not a lie if you believe it"; and he saves a whale by removing a golf ball from its blowhole.

Here's a sparkling collection of his greatest hits. When you watch these all together, you'll see why George tops Elaine and Kramer. You still might disagree, not that there's anything wrong with that...


When I started putting this blog together, I had a list of sixty-seven names that I had to whittle down to fill twenty-five slots. I weighed several factors to rank them. Importance to the show, lasting impact on pop culture, quality of writing and performances…and the biggest one of all -- just how truly funny the character was. So shifting names between slots #25 and #2 took a little while…but the very first thing I did, the biggest no-brainer of them all, and remained that way even after submersing myself in photos and clips of practically everyone else -- was type #1 next to the name ED NORTON.

Sixty years later, the most famous sewer worker in America is still the platinum standard for sitcom excellence. So many wonderful and oft-quoted lines, so many graceful moves whether he was learning to dance, teaching a golf swing, sleepwalking or just eating a pizza. It's a credit to Jackie Gleason, himself a talent of immense proportions both figuratively and literally, that he always allowed ample room for Art Carney to shine and essentially steal almost every scene he was in.

On this list, the applicant is not a bum…he's the greatest "second banana" in TV comedy history

Here's a pair of classic moments to showcase why...

*     *     *     *     *

Whether you were revisiting fond memories of sitcoms past or learning about characters unbeknownst to you before now, I hope you enjoyed the first of two journeys through the history of television comedy. 

The next installment will snap back to drama, as I stack up the 25 Most Memorable Dramatic Leads of All Time, and the series will end with the Most Memorable Comedy Leads sometime after that.

This will be my 40th and final blog of 2013. For those of you who have read most, some, or just a few of them -- thanks making this more than just me rambling to myself. Have a happy new year! 

Till next time, keep your feet on the couch -- and keep reaching for the remote!

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