Dave on Demand: When stars of sitcoms masterfully took a backseat

In his sitcoms, Andy Griffith gave the great punch lines to secondary characters.
In his sitcoms, Andy Griffith gave the great punch lines to secondary characters.
Posted: July 07, 2012

When Andy Griffith died this week, I went back to look at clips from his old show, just for nostalgia's sake. And what I discovered is that Mayberry's sheriff wasn't all that vigilant. Time after time, secondary characters like Gomer and Otis and Barney were blatantly stealing scenes right from under Andy's nose.

Andy Griffith may have been the star and had his name up on the marquee, but he was playing the straight man on his own comedy.

Back in the early days of television, this wasn't an unusual situation. Think, for instance, of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. The program might carry your name, but you could still play a passive role. It's a tradition that carried through The Dick Van Dyke Show to TV's (and perhaps comedy's) most adept straight man, Bob Newhart, who sprinkled his magic and his name over a number of sitcoms.

There were exceptions of course, glory hounds like Lucille Ball and Phil Silvers, who grabbed the title and all the punch lines. But generally speaking, if a TV comedy carried your name, you rode in the backseat.

That changed over the decades as comics were less willing to accept a humble role. Drew Carey, Bernie Mac, and even Bill Cosby were formulaically designed to be the foils of their eponymous sitcoms, but they insisted on getting the choicest punch lines in each episode (which, despite their expert delivery, threw the balance off).

Jerry Seinfeld and now Louis C.K. accept the submissive tradition in their own shows, but both wedge standup bits into the episodes, just so you don't forget who's the really funny one around here.

We seem to be losing sight of the fact that often in sitcoms, it is better to receive than to give.

Now you don't. Now we see why NBC was in such a hurry to install Savannah Guthrie: The network wanted to get the new Today team up and running smoothly.

So, we tuned in this week to find … Willie Geist and Natalie Morales hosting? After all that, Matt Lauer and Guthrie took the week off? Cowards. Even Al Roker was missing. Willard Scott was handling the weather and his usual century-plus birthday mentions.

Just curious: Scott is on so sporadically these days, what happens to all those centennial celebrations during his dormant months?

Time considerations. Russell Brand's new late-night rant show, Brand X, began on FX this week, and it was surprisingly lively fun. But did you have to launch, Russell, on the same day that the movie about your ex Katy Perry hit the theaters? That just seemed churlish.

Amazing praise. There's this crazy hype amplification that goes on in the media. Someone makes a ridiculously exaggerated statement about a marginal performer in print. Someone else reading that thinks: "I never thought the guy was all that talented, but maybe I'm missing something. I better write something really complimentary."

And this crazy bandwagon starts rolling where no one wants to appear unhip, so they all start trying to outdo one another in heaping praise on a performer that, truth be told, they don't like all that much.

And that's how you end up with Louis C.K., star of the FX sitcom Louie, described on the cover of a national magazine this week as "the world's greatest comedian." He's a guy who is not afraid to lay out the uglier sides of his psyche. Which is brave. And occasionally funny. But just as often squeamish.

World's greatest comedian? Not. Even. Close.

One for the road. At the end of this week's True Blood, Sookie started getting it on with Alcide. I'm not sure if the poor girl knew what she was doing. She was already drunk enough to be singing along to Rupert Holmes "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)" when she started whipping up Orange Marzipans. That's one part triple sec, one part Amaretto, one part Bailey's Irish cream, and all kinds of disgusting.

But I'll tell you what — I could drink a whole vat of Orange Marzipans and still not find Louis C.K. attractive. I mention that only because one reputable website this week named him "the sexiest man on TV.".

You people really need to get a grip.

Contact David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or dhiltbrand@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @daveondemand_tv. Read his blog, "Dave on Demand," at www.philly.com/dod.

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