Saturday, December 01, 2007

Central Characters In Comedies

Working on my spec pilot script during the strike, I've had occasion to think about the structure of various sitcoms, and I found myself pondering an issue similar to the one TV blogger Jamie Weinman discusses here. I had intended to blog about it, but never quite found the initiative. Ironically, it had even occurred to me that it was the sort of topic that Jamie, if he still reads this blog, would find interesting, so it was fitting, if still surprisingly coincidental, to see him post on practically the same topic.

Jamie's post is about how 30 Rock falls into the mold of shows with a weak central character. That is, a central character without a strong drive who doesn't seem to anchor the show. He draws a parallel to Arrested Development, and how Michael Bluth also failed to anchor that show, theorizing how this may be a factor in why both shows have had difficulty finding a large audience.

I wouldn't put it in quite those terms. As I see it, Michael Bluth and now Liz Lemon are characters who function exactly as they should. Both of them are characters who largely play the straight man and sarcastic commentator to the parade of eccentrics who surround them. However, I do start to wonder whether this cast dynamic is inherently one that creates cult favorites as opposed to breakout hits. Newsradio, whose lead, Dave Foley, struggled to keep a crazy staff under control, was another brilliant show that hovered near hit status for years without ever breaking out.

Since so many of my favorite shows have been built on this dynamic, I think it's safe to say that I enjoy it a great deal. But it seems like many hit shows are built around a central character who is the source of the show's zaniness. Take Homer Simpson of The Simpsons or Michael Scott of The Office. Or even Weinman's example, Charlie of Two and a Half Men. I argue that what sets these characters apart from the likes of Michael Bluth and Liz Lemon is not that they are stronger characters or have clearer agendas, but that they are each the main comic engines of their respective shows. Michael Scott and Homer Simpson are idiots whose stupid decisions actually create story and generate jokes. Charlie is a boozehound sexaholic who always follows his worst instincts. These characters are the joke, whereas Michael Bluth and Liz Lemon are reacting to the joke. (Interestingly, The Office has a character, Jim, who fulfills this very role, and perhaps succeeds by wisely not making Jim the central character.)

Are there any hit shows in which the central character plays sarcastic observer? Bob Newhart's shows were successful and from what I've seen, they seem to fit this mold. The one that comes to my mind is Seinfeld, which itself took years to win an audience. But that show's cast was small enough that the other, bigger characters regularly carried their own stories. Also, unlike the perpetually aggravated Liz Lemon, Michael Bluth or Newsradio's Dave Nelson, Jerry seldom seemed to be at the mercy of the other characters.

Is there something about the format of a show hinging on a central wacky character that makes it more broadly appealing than a show in which a central character plays straight man to a large cast of wacky characters?

First, obviously, a show built around one wacky character is easier to understand. It's easier to "get" that The Office is a show about a clueless boss, or Two and a Half Men is a show about a sleazy guy, and pick up the rest of the nuances of the show as you go along, than to have to learn the specific quirks of many different people who are all funny for different reasons (though The Office does include this element as well).

Second, I think some people find it unpleasant to watch the one sympathetic character on a show beset by others who make that character's life difficult through no real fault of their own -- that was a complaint I heard at least once by a first time viewer of Arrested Development.

But why does the 30 Rock/Arrested Development/Newsradio model seem to yield cult hits? Perhaps it's a certain type of person who can relate to it. Everybody can feel superior to Homer Simpson and laugh, but if you like Michael Bluth, does that mean that you consider yourself to be an island of sanity fending off the weirdoes who surround you? Is there something about these shows that appeals to people who are smart, or think they are smarter than others, or, intelligence aside, simply identify themselves as not fitting in with other people? Perhaps. But then again, surely most people consider themselves the straight man in their own lives.

Can anyone think of more examples of each type of show to either bolster my point or refute it? The straight man as the lead, surrounded by wacky types, versus the comic/idiot character as the lead? Obviously the examples that spring to my mind are culled from my own favorites.

And in case you're wondering which model I'm using in my pilot? It's the straight man as lead. But after giving this topic some thought, perhaps next time it won't be.



Jaime J. Weinman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jaime J. Weinman said...

I think there are definitely a lot of sitcoms where you have the relatively normal person as the star. Andy Griffith was like that; in the episode of The Danny Thomas Show that spun off The Andy Griffith Show, Andy was a broader character, but on the series, he let himself be the straight man to Don Knotts and the other eccentrics. Mary on Mary Tyler Moore was a little wackier but still often played straight woman to Lou or Ted or Phyllis. And Barney on Barney Miller was the straight man.

Of course, a lot of these actors were famous enough, or had enough of that intangible star quality, that they were able to anchor the show without having to be the funniest character. (The prototype for this, of course, is Jack Benny, who famously became America's most popular comedian by giving all the other performers the punchlines. He was so assured of his star status that he could afford to do that.) Or else the character was clearly able to assert his authority over the others, like Barney on Barney Miller, so you always know he's in charge even though he's the straight man.

But I don't think the straight-man among crazies format is a show killer in and of itself; it just means the show needs a really strong personality in the straight man role (and not a Josh Radnor or a Gary Sandy or other less-than-authoritative straight men from beloved cult sitcoms).

One thing that occurs to me after reading your examples is that another thing that a lot of the cult hits (as opposed to hits) have in common is that the straight man among eccentrics is, or soon becomes, really as crazy as the others. Dave Nelson, Michael Bluth, Liz Lemon all kind of started out as the voice of sanity but very soon became exposed as neurotic and messed-up. From that point of view, maybe the danger is in casting someone who's too funny in this kind of part -- Dave couldn't be the straight man and anchor of the show because no one could resist the temptation to give Dave Foley crazy stuff to do.

Rodimus Prime said...

Second, I think some people find it unpleasant to watch the one sympathetic character on a show beset by others who make that character's life difficult through no real fault of their own -- that was a complaint I heard at least once by a first time viewer of Arrested Development.

That was my big problem every time I watched Arrested Development and I kept wondering why Michael even bothered to stay with his family because they all seemed to be crazy and he always got the short end of the stick. I get that that was the appeal of the show/characters as well but for me I can only take so much of stupid characters causing problems for others and getting away with it, which is also why I've largely stopped watching The Simpsons. It was one thing when the focus of the show was on Bart (as he was the break out character in the beginning) and then it turned to Homer and all his stupid antics and it wasn't so appealing anymore.

crystal said...

this is going to out me as more of a loser that you ever thought (well, you probably considered it) but the show REBA follows the same straight man as a main character model. this may be evidence in favor of that model being crappy though.

on wkrp in cincinnati (one of the best shows ever) there are wacky people and two straight man characters (andy and bailey)- but no one is the star. news radio has dave as the straight man, which is a good example i suppose.

though i love arrested development and news radio etc... thinking of things after reading this made me realize that many of my favorite shows just had lots of characters. like laverne and shirley and degrassi and cheers and the golden girls (unless you consider bea arthur the straight man there...i'm not sure). oh yeah, i have great taste.

Todd said...

Just stopping by on my weekly check of your blog and was pleased to see you had something to say that related to something I and a writing partner are struggling with -- how straight is your straight man (well, our straight man is gay, but never mind that) and how central is he to the process?

For our purposes, we're looking at Everybody Loves Raymond, of all things, a show where the central character starts out as a fairly typical everyday guy and is only GRADUALLY revealed to be just as nutty as everyone around him -- the same was true for the other lead, Debra.

Kenny said...

Well, my straight man is a woman, and she's pretty central. But I'm also making her the put-upon straight man, which is perhaps even riskier. I'm trying to give her enough quirks and flaws that she is a funny character in her own right. Based on the exchange with Jamie, t seems that the thing that made the straight man model work in older shows was casting someone with a clear comic persona. Ray Romano imported one with his stand-up persona, as did Jerry Seinfeld and Bob Newhart before him. I don't know if the fact that he gradually became nuttier was an intentional characterization choice so much as the tendency of all shows to make all characters crazier as the seasons progress.

The big danger I'm finding in the straight man lead format, especially when she's put-upon, is that it becomes very easy for the character to be passive, and just sit there while other characters impose on them. The trick, I think, is to give the lead a clear comic point of view and to make sure they continue to drive the story despite the strong drives of the characters around them.