Monday, June 23, 2014

Getting the Last Laugh Part 1: My Most Memorable TV Comedy Leads #25 through #11

Welcome to the LONG delayed (if not exactly long awaited) final installment of my four-part series devoted to the most memorable characters in TV history. My previous blog covered my "Poor me" procrastination as well as those who missed the cut. 

If you’re curious but haven’t read it yet, take a couple minutes now:

- A series can only get one slot on the list. This was more of an issue when determining the most memorable Supporting Players. The Leads, eh, not so much.

- Animated characters are ineligible for consideration. So Cartman, Homer and Archer will have to draw up their own list some day.

- Someone's missing from both the also-ran list and the one you're about to skim through? Chalk it up to the fact that I haven’t seen EVERY show over the past sixty years, nor will I always LIKE a show that is popular with many others. Or maybe some just fell into the yawning chasm in-between...

Yadda yadda yadda...without further delay, I give you...


Monk is a former homicide detective, plagued by various phobias and an almost crippling obsessive-compulsive disorder. The only thing more important to him than his fastidious cleanliness is the unsolved murder of his wife. Sure sounds like a chuckle-fest, no? Well, here’s the thing: in addition to the considerable amount of quirkiness and pathos Tony Shaloub infuses into Adrian Monk, there are countless laugh-out-loud Monk moments to be found in every episode. It’s no surprise that Shaloub racked up three Emmy wins for his portrayal of the ultimate perfectionist.


Before the likes of Archer and Austin Powers, the super-spy of silly was Agent 86. Created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, the genesis of Maxwell Smart seemed downright elementary: the fusion of James Bond and Inspector Clouseau. But no one foresaw just how much Don Addams would add to that mix, helping to elevate the character to iconic status. From his trademark shoe phone to a litany of catch phrases, you’d have to be an idiot not to GET SMART.


At the Sunshine Cab Company, there was one true cabbie, and that was Alex Reiger. But he was also a mentor, an advisor, a defender and any number of other roles that led to him championing the cause of his friends. On a series populated by colorful personalities like Latka Gravas, Jim Ignatowski and Louie DePalma…Alex Reiger still garnered his share of the laughs. 

Notable Moment: Although Alex's inability to fantasize in "Fantasy Borough Part 2" is hysterical...and how he loses his previous job in "The Road Not Taken Part 2" is quite's Hirsch's work opposite Carol Kane's Simka in "Scenskees From a Marriage Part 2" that truly stands out.


As earnest and goofy as they come, John Dorian didn’t just survive the constant bullying of “the Janitor” and berating by Dr. Cox – he actually flourished. On a show built around relationships and couples trying to withstand the pressures of family and work, there was no stronger duo than the bromance between JD and Turk. They were also quite the musical duo, whether it was kicking out the jams with the SANFORD & SON theme or just singing a song about poo.


Over a decade after THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW shuffled off to Tipperary, MURPHY BROWN was a clear descendant of those folks at WJM in Minneapolis. Murphy was a little Mary Richards and a whole lotta Lou Grant. But she was also an anomaly in television: a highly driven professional woman who was very successful and smart, but still had certain misanthropic tendencies – not to mention being a recovering alcoholic. In an era dominated by lowbrow comedies, Murphy was a welcome breath of slyly sarcastic air.

With 10 seasons/247 episodes – MB ranks third behind THE DONNA REED SHOW (8 seasons/275 episodes) and BEWITCHED (8 seasons/254 episodes) as being the longest running female-led sitcom of all time. From the ultra-rare appearance on another network’s series (a classic SEINFELD moment when Kramer is cast as Murphy Brown’s latest secretary) to becoming headline news when cited disparagingly by then Vice-President Quayle, Murphy Brown was definitely more than a blip on the pop culture zeitgeist. 


Sam was more than just a dumb jock who ran a bar. He was a hero with feet of clay -- a recovering alcoholic. It was a side to the character that was especially prevalent and poignant in the earlier seasons of CHEERS, and while there were any number of funny Malone Moments…I’ll always remember his obsession with his lucky bottle cap – the cap from the last bottle of beer he ever drank.

Notable moment: The biggest reason why Sam Malone made my list was for one of the sitcom moments that always makes me tear up (much like the death of Henry Blake on M*A*S*H, the Ross Geller prom video on FRIENDS and Archie dealing with the death of Edith on ARCHIE BUNKER'S PLACE). In the Season Five finale of Cheers ("I Do, Adieu"), Sam once again tells the already departed Diane to "have a good life." We then dissolve to a vision of Sam and Diane as an elderly couple sharing one last dance -- darn thing gets me very time. 


Years before Ricky Gervais and Larry David made a cottage industry of barely likable characters in increasingly awkward situations – THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW was the pioneer of such storytelling. A rare respite from laugh tracks and the familiar multi-camera set-up, TLSS broke down all such walls while exposing the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of a late night talk show with deadly wit and darkly amusing precision. The character of Larry Sanders was an amalgam of Carson, Letterman and Shandling himself – and airing on HBO meant Shandling could risk playing a character who was all too often a total bastard. Whether he was putting down his buffoonish sidekick Hank Kingsley, deflecting not-so subtle advances from the likes of David Duchovny or just obsessing over the size of his ass – the applause sign was always on whenever Larry took center stage.


NEWSRADIO was essentially WKRP with more consistent writing and an even odder assortment of characters working at a radio station. One clear advantage WNYX had over WKRP: while program director Andy Travis was a pleasant enough fella, he was never all that funny and was easily the most forgettable employee at WKRP. The same cannot be said of WNYX’s news director Dave Nelson. 

Although the setup of the series had Dave slotted as the straight man – he had his share of odd quirky abilities that would be unearthed at the most inopportune times (such as tap dancing, ventriloquism, and a cappella group singing). The Canadian born and Wisconsin-bred geek had his hands full with the dysfunctional staff and management at WNYX, and one of the joys of watching Dave Foley's work on NEWSRADIO was his constant state of utter exasperation.


No other character in TV history better epitomizes the “straight guy surrounded by zanies” more than Michael Bluth. Shouldering the responsibilities of both the Bluth name and business, Michael’s biggest obstacles were always his own family. One could easily be shown up or overshadowed by the likes of Wil Arnett, Jessica Walter, David Cross, Tony Hale or Jeffrey Tambor – but it’s a credit to both the writing and acting that Michael Bluth still managed to stand out from that narcissistic clan – and deliver more drily funny lines than any of them. Jason Bateman may have grown up in the world of sitcoms, but it was his role on AD that helped pave his way to genuine movie star status.


We’ve all known a boss like Michael Scott at some point in our lives. The manager who just wants to be your buddy, but his lack of self-awareness and off-putting social skills are only matched by his apparent ineffectuality at his job. So we pigeonhole, neatly categorize and then dismiss the poor schmuck – but unlike real life, over the years we grew to discover that not only was Michael Scott a worthy friend – he actually wasn’t such a bad boss after all. Steve Carell’s work is wonderfully wince-inducing and side-splitting all at once, taking a role than initially seemed like a thankless challenge and then definitively separating Michael Scott from the character that inspired him…


…and that character would be David Brent. David Brent could often be either a desperate sad sack or simply a self-deluded jerk. He was the epitome of a horrible boss, yet by the second season, you found yourself rooting for this one time douche while cringing at his penchant for awkward and inappropriate behavior.

Notable moment: Instead of citing David Brent's uproarious stint as a motivational speaker ("Motivation") or his infamous dance routine ("Charity")...I'm picking his brief but shining moment of triumph in "Christmas Special, Part 2" when he finally stands up to the increasingly annoying and cruel Finchy.


One can imagine at some point early in Larry David’s life, some corny and cliche-ridden schnook said, “Hey Larry, you’re quite the character!” And while much of SEINFELD’s George Costanza was obviously infused with the Tao of Larry, it wasn’t until he starred in his own series that we got to enjoy an ever-so slightly heightened version of the man himself. The king of situations both painfully awkward and achingly funny, whether he was belittling the idea of small talk or championing against the pervasive discrimination against bald people, Larry David could be counted on to be prett-ay, prett-ay, prett-ay, pretty good.


Redd Foxx was already a comedy legend for many years before the debut of SANFORD AND SON in 1972. Known for working extremely blue, this was a comic who once shared a marquee with Elvis Presley and was also a major influence on the likes of Richard Pryor (as well as later generations such as Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock and Jamie Foxx – who took his stage surname from the man). But it was his role as Fred G. Sanford that catapulted him further still, while also proving he could be the funniest guy on the planet without uttering a single curse word. Even a big dummy couldn’t argue with this cantankerous junk man making my list.


THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW was one of those classic series that deftly struck a balance between a workplace comedy and a family sitcom. And the man walking that tightrope was Rob Petrie. Rubber faced and loose-limbed, Van Dyke was a splendid physical comedian – his little pratfall over the living room ottoman is one of the most iconic opening credits gags in TV history. But it was his wit and warmth that made him a great husband and father as well as the head writer for The Alan Brady Show – and it was that combination that made him so appealing to audiences everywhere.

Notable moment: While there may be better episodes, Van Dyke was never funnier than when Rob Petrie was placed under a post-hypnotic suggestion that caused him to act like a raging boozehound in "My Husband Is Not a Drunk".


Looking back at THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, we may not realize just how big a deal it was to see a married couple sharing the same well as remain childless for the duration of the series. One might not necessarily connect the deadpan genius of Bob Newhart with the sexual revolution, but that show was as significant as any in the Seventies. 

Newhart brought his trademark stammering style (not to mention his classic one-sided telephone conversation gag) to television while playing the occasionally beleaguered psychologist Dr. Robert Hartley. Of course, no one ever called him Robert; it was always "Hi Bob!"  (take a shot)

I'll bring this to a close here. As I leave you dangling on the precipice of the Top Ten to follow, feel free to speculate upon who may be filling those final ten spots. I already know. And before too long, so will you.

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