Saturday, August 18, 2012

Shane's 50th List Spectacular: The Best of the Best Sitcom Character Tropes

Sometimes I think Five-O-Rama is a lot like school: because you're bound to learn something, and we usually take the entire summer off (ba-dum ching!). But now it's time to get back to business. Today I celebrate delivering my 50th "lesson" much like Cole did, with a giant-ass list. Though, instead of doing fifty things, I've picked five awesome sitcom character archetypes, and then selected the five best examples of each.

5) The Lame Square

Sure it would be nice if everyone on TV were beautiful, clever, and cool, but where's the fun in that? You need to have some characters that are painfully boring and unpopular. It gives something for the other characters to roll their eyes and shake their heads at. You can easily identify these losers by their lame hobbies and interests, being hopelessly out of touch, always being the butt of the other characters' jokes, and the way no one laughs at their humour but themselves (laugh track excluded). It's also a character type dominated by men.

Carlton Banks - Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
I don't think I need to say much beyond "The Carlton Dance", but Carlton is the preppy, intelligent, self-centred son of the Banks family. All of his interests are dated and he is constantly being smacked in the back of the head or mocked for his idiotic remarks, his love of Tom Jones, or just for being short. Even though the house was filled with rich, spoiled characters, Carlton remained the antithesis of his hip cousin, Will.

Hank Hill - King of the Hill
In some ways the entire cast of King of the Hill qualifies for this category, but Hank Hill stands out like a shining beacon of lame. Nearly every character on this show upsets me, but I still appreciate the clever writing. Hank is awkward beyond reason and has a never ending passion for propane and propane accessories. Nearly everything he says makes me gringe, which is a combination of groan and cringe.

Al Borlen - Home Improvement
Al loves to wear flannel, he builds board games in his spare time, and he has an unhealthy obsession with his mother. He is the sidekick to Tim Taylor on the show within a show, Tool Time. If Tim is the manly rock of the show, then Al is the sensitive pudding. He is constantly ridiculed and mocked by Tim and he is also always showing that he is more capable than Tim, and that makes him smarter, and by default, lame.

Alan Harper- Two and a Half Men
Every confident sitcom character needs their lame counterpart: Will had Carlton, Tim had Al, and of course Charlie had his brother Alan. While Charlie Harper is rich, successful, bold, and is never without a beautiful woman, Alan is a constant embarrassment to his family. He's a broke, bumbling failure with unbelievably bad luck.  He is also cheap, obsessive compulsive, and has practically no social life, resorting to hobbies like ventriloquism or building model cars. He's an awkward, gullible, mooch who never earns any respect and ... well, I think you get the point.

Ross Geller - Friends
Here's a fun game, when you imagine Ross from Friends, what is the first word that comes to mind to describe him? Roughly 95% of you will think of the word "dork", while the other 5% will have thought of the word "dorkily". Unfortunately "dorkily" is an adverb, and while it's a good way to describe how Ross behaves in every scene, you're disqualified. Sorry. Anyway, Ross is awkward, nerdy, and once tried to learn the bagpipes. His only friends are a moronic pretty-boy, an attention craving smart-ass, a bossy loudmouth, an eccentric weirdo, and a spoiled bitch ... and still Ross is the least cool member of the group. He achieves astounding levels of lame.

4) The Wacky Alien

Considering that most sitcoms are based around various family units, you wouldn't think that aliens would appear as often as they do. However, comedy is often derived from a character being placed in an unfamiliar environment and then acting stupid or silly (eg. Balki from Perfect Strangers), so an alien living with humans is an ideal exaggeration of that idea.

Roger Smith - American Dad
Roger looks kind of like a cross between a lightbulb and a grey sock. He's got a bulbous head and stubby E.T. legs, and (like all Seth MacFarlane characters) a vast knowledge of popular culture.  Since he's an alien fugitive from Area 51 living with a human family, you'd think he'd be the weirdest member, but no ... there's also a talking fish implanted with the brain of an East German ski jumper.

Mork - Mork and Mindy
Okay, I'm going to admit it. I've never actually seen an episode of Mork and Mindy. But it's a sitcom about an alien named Mork from a planet called Ork (great writing) and he's played by Robin effin' Williams. I'd be a fool not to include this. The rainbow suspenders may be weird, the egg spaceship might be weirder, but the fact that this is a spin off from Happy Days is weirdest of all.

Dr. Zoidberg - Futurama
Definitely one of the funniest characters in Futurama, the good doctor for Planet Express is a Jewish lobster in a lab coat. Like any good sitcom alien he is usually confused by human customs and desperate for attention. Even though he's a terrible doctor, and an emotional loner, you can't help but love this guy.

The Solomons - 3rd Rock From the Sun
What's better than an alien living on Earth to observe human life? How about FOUR aliens living on Earth. Yep, the Solomons aren't just your average Tom, Dick, and Harry...  and Sally, they are actually an extraterrestrial research expedition disguised as an American family. 3rd Rock is definitely one of my favourite sitcoms ever. The dynamic between the characters is hilarious as they experience everything for the first time, from sneezing to sex. It's worth watching for John Lithgow, the High Commander and now physics professor, doing what he does best ... yelling and being dramatic.

One day a spaceship crashed into the garage of The Tanners and immediately a family was burdened with keeping an alien named Gordon Shumway a secret in their home. Gordon, nicknamed ALF (which stands for Extra-Terrestrial, I believe), is an obnoxious, sarcastic, gluttonous troublemaker who is constantly putting the Tanners at risk of being invaded by the US military. And you know what? He doesn't give a shit. Not one single shit. He just wants to laugh, belch, and eat a box of kittens in front of your kids.

3) The Wisecracking Butler or Maid
The sarcastic servant character is a classic in movie and television history. From The Jetsons to Arthur, there's just nothing better than a butler or maid who mouths off when you'd expect them to be silent and obedient. That's essentially why it works so well in comedy. Take an expectation and flip it upside-down. Here are some great examples of the servant class being lippy with their employers.

Berta - Two and a Half Men
While many sarcastic maids and butlers might make a sly remark under their breath, Berta has no restraint. She will make shockingly rude and insulting comments right to your face and then threaten to pummel you. As a housekeeper, she kind of sucks. She'll show up late, get high on the job, or you may find her passed out on the sofa with a hangover. But she'll never get fired because she's an intimidating bully. It's the perfect system.

Niles - The Nanny
This guy always cracked me up. Niles is a sarcastic, manipulative, but loyal butler for the Sheffield household. Being the eyes and ears on the home, Niles is constantly gathering information he can use to help Fran, or torment the "villain" of the show, C.C.. The best part of any episode was when Niles faced off with C.C. as they tore each other new ones. Goddamn, they hated each other ... or did they?

Florence Johnston - The Jeffersons 
An important element of this character trope is sass, and Florence had sass. Much like Berta, Florence will speak her mind openly even though she's doing a half-assed job as a maid. She has no trouble talking back to her boss, and since that's what we all dream of in life, she naturally became a fan favourite of the show.

Tony Micelli - Who's the Boss? 
Wait a minute, let me get this straight. Angela is a career woman who hired Tony to be her live-in housekeeper? A dude is a maid for a woman? What kind of bizarro world shit is this? This is what millions of viewers screamed at their televisions back in primitive 1984. Everybody desperately wanted to know who the boss was and why. Anyway, Tony was always cracking wise at home. I suspect it was mostly nervous tension over being sexually attracted to his boss/roommate.

Geoffrey - Fresh Prince of Belair
When I think of butlers making sly remarks, I think Geoffrey. He would always carry himself with an air of dignity as he went about his duties, but no one was safe from his scathing wit. He had one-liners for any and every situation. If you were overweight, spoiled, or stupid Geoffrey could put you in your place, and sarcasm is always more potent when delivered with an English accent.

2) The Weird Neighbour

What sitcom would be complete without a neighbour popping in unannounced time and time again? Sometimes they are there to be a comedic annoyance, other times just to be strange. These characters often have a signature catchphrase or entrance.

Ned Flanders - The Simpsons
Ned is actually a great combination of "The Weird Neighbour" and "The Lame Square", but I figured he'd be better suited to this section because he's so iconic as the annoying neighbour to the Simpsons. He's highly religious and moral, a devoted husband and father, and excessively good-natured and kind. In a strange way, it makes more sense to see Homer as "The Weird Neighbour" to Ned. In any other sitcom Ned would be the straight-laced guy being driven crazy by his scheming idiot friend next door. Instead, Ned is loathed by Homer for being so different. Since Ned is one of the only "normal" guys in a town overflowing with odd characters, he's in the minority and branded as "weird".

Wilson - Home Improvement
Wilson is a strange neighbour for several reasons: he has roughly a hundred thousand hobbies and only participates in each one once, he has nearly unlimited knowledge of obscure history and cultures, and he may or may not have a face. Many sitcoms fall into predictable patterns.  Every episode of Full House will have "the serious discussion moment" and every episode of Home Improvement will have Tim heading out into the backyard and getting advice from Wilson through a fence. It's comforting to know that no matter how difficult family life can get, you can always count on some sage advice from an old guy doing ancient Aztec bean dances in his backyard, who will relate the dance to how you need to stop being so fucking selfish around your wife.

Rose - Two and a Half Men
What? Another character from Two and a Half Men? That show isn't even that good. I agree, it's crass and stupid, but it is also a treasure trove of stereotypical sitcom character types. I swear everyone on the show fits into a mould you've seen a million times before. Besides the ones I've already mentioned it has "The Bitchy Ex", "The Stress-inducing Mother", and "The Brainless Hungry Teenager" who used to be the "Adorable Smart Aleck Child".

Rose made the list because she's deranged. After a one night stand with Charlie she became obsessed with him and stalked him constantly. She is always lurking around his home, sneaking in, and trying to implant herself within the family. There is a love/hate relationship between Rose and Charlie, though mostly Charlie's love seems to be the result of her manipulation. Sometimes she reveals herself as being highly intelligent and caring. Other times she's a dangerous weirdo who may steal from, or cause physical harm to those around her. Ultimately she's a complete psycho, since it's essentially understood that Rose killed Charlie by shoving him in front of a train.

Steve Urkel - Family Matters
Ah, the Urk Man. There's no possible way to make a list like this and not mention his name. He's got several catchphrases, his own dance, and he's a constant annoyance to the Winslows. It seems to be Steve's personal mission to give Carl Winslow a mental breakdown. Not only has he caused severe damage to Carl's home and peace of mind with his endless buffoonery, Steve is also obsessed with Carl's daughter, Laura. But Carl doesn't need this shit, not after Nakatomi Plaza.

In later seasons Family Matters turned into Urkel's Screwy Invention Hour, with more and more ludicrous stories with Steve inventing personality altering machines, robots, time machines, and all sorts of crazy shit. In the end he was better suited as just the annoying nerdy kid you couldn't keep out of your home.

Cosmo Kramer - Seinfeld
Look no further, this is the quintessential weird neighbour. Kramer has the whole package. Strange, goofy appearance? Check. Constantly barging in uninvited? Check. Always involved in one stupid scheme after another? Check. Clumsy? Annoying? Tactless? Check, check, and check. Kramer is known for his trademark entrances and hair that looks like he jammed his tongue in an outlet. His three "friends" are all selfish social rejects in their own right, but still Cosmo takes the cake. If you ever needed someone to eat your food and borrow your stuff without asking, or say the worst thing at the worst moment, or give you awful advice, just check across the hall.

1) The Fat / Ignorant Husband and The Wife with an Annoying Voice

To cap off this mega-list, I present to you one of the most common sitcom character combos: a bloated dolt of a husband and a screechy wife. It's been around since the beginning of television with shows like The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy, and it's continued ever since. Yes, the public can't get enough of spouses bombarding each other with stupidity and high pitched nagging.

Al and Peggy Bundy - Married... with Children
The Bundy's are a classic dysfunctional sitcom family. Al is a dopey slob of a husband who loves to laze about on the couch with his hand tucked in this pants, and Peggy is a whiny nag of a wife who just wants to buy shit and insult her husband. Everything about the show is exaggerated and cartoonish, from Al's behaviour to Peggy's hair. If you don't remember the show well, say the word "duh" in a drawn out dim-witted voice and you'll have captured the essence of Al Bundy. Then listen to Leela from any episode of Futurama, and now you know the voice for Peggy.

Peter and Lois Griffin - Family Guy
This show owes a lot to the other entries in the list, since it's essentially an extreme exaggeration of, and tribute to, famous sitcom characters that have come before. Peter is an obese moron devoid of common sense. His wife, Lois, is a nagging wife, but she has every right to be since her husband is an obnoxious ass. The show has compared her voice to Fran Drescher and I'd say that's pretty accurate.

So the family is made up of a fat, stupid husband married to a beautiful wife with an unfortunate voice. They have three kids and a dog. The oldest child is a son, the second is an unpopular daughter, and finally an intelligent baby. Now that I think about it, that type of family sounds familiar. I can't think of where I've seen something like it before, but I'm sure it will come to me...

Dan and Roseanne Conner - Roseanne
Whenever I think of the stereotypical American family, I think of the Connors. An obese working-class family with lots of kids, living from paycheque to paycheque. Roseanne was the bossy nasal voice of the family, with her big-boned schlub of a husband, Dan, at her side.

What made the show successful was that it was relatable and it didn't shy away from difficult subjects. In fact, the show's final episode is one of the darkest finales I've ever seen. Unlike the Bundy's and others like them, the Conners felt like a real family struggling with real problems. Dan and Roseanne may have been flawed characters -  overweight, annoying, and foolish at times - but they were grounded in a reality the viewer could appreciate.

Homer and Marge Simpson - The Simpsons
I don't really know what I can say about characters this famous and so ingrained in our culture, that you don't already have burned into your brains. The Simpsons have been on the air since the late 80's for crying out loud and they still make new episodes. But in case you've been on Mars for the last 23 years, in a cave, with your eyes shut and your fingers in your ears, I'll explain.

Homer is the buffoonish and gluttonous father. He's lazy, careless, and dumb. Marge is the nagging, overly concerned mother. Her voice sounds like Kathleen Turner after gargling hot coals. Together they make the perfect couple. Homer does something stupid, and Marge growls at him in a displeased manner. If you're still confused, just imagine a slightly toned down version of Family Guy with less cutaways.

Archie and Edith Bunker - All in the Family
These two are iconic sitcom figures. Hell, even their chairs are recognizable. Archie is the loud stubborn head of the household with strong opinions about everything. He's a bigot, a racist, and basically prejudiced against anything outside himself, and all these things are fuelled by ignorance. By contrast, Edith is kind and open-minded, and a very obedient, hardworking wife and mother. Her voice ... how can I put this? ... is earsplitting. She makes Monty Python's female characters sound like Norah Jones.

What makes the characters special is that they are still likeable even with the unfounded hate and high pitched tones that put dogs into comas. The best moments are when Archie and Edith have revelations. Many times in the heat of a rant, Archie would suddenly realize the hypocrisy of the point he was making and be at a loss for words. In other moments when Edith takes a stand on a issue she'll speak in a more controlled, serious tone and has some of the wisest things to say. In these moments we feel there is hope for the characters, as we see them become stronger and smarter.

Archie and Edith may be familiar archetypes we've seen on televisions for decades, but they stand out for having more substance to their personalities. The immediate impression is that he's an ignorant and hateful husband, and she's a shrill and naive wife. However, the more you watch, the more you see their true personalities shine through, and that makes for a compelling and entertaining show.


cole d'arc said...

Great stuff! And the perfect list to shake us out of our doldrums. Kudos for keeping things going while ive goofed off.

So much to address here:

I'd forgotten all about Niles on The Nanny! He was the entire reason i ever watched that show.

Some of Hank's lame lines on KOTH are legendary for sure.

You got something wrong with Family Guy - Meg is in fact, the oldest child, not Chris, which conforms to the same dynamic as the superior (in my opinion) American Dad - You've got the buffoonish husband, the attractive wife who's with him for some strange reason, the oldest daughter, who mostly doesn't like him, the awkward, painfully geeky son, and an alien and fish filling in for dog and baby.

It's funny (and a little sad) that Two and Half Men skyrocketed to such success simply by employing nearly every sitcom trope to the max. Who needs fresh ideas anyway?

cole d'arc said...

Oh now i remember the other thing! Do you know what happens in the final episode of Alf? The government actually does finally track him down and takes him away, presumably to subject him to years of abusive experimentation. I'm totally serious.

Shane said...

Damn it, I can't believe I made such an obvious mistake about Family Guy. Oh well, I usually just associate the largest characters as being the oldest. lol

It's true that Two and Half Men's winning formula was simply throwing together a ton of well known character types and adding a dash of cleavage. Well, more like a shovelful of cleavage.

As for the final episode of Alf, I never saw it, but I've heard tell that's how it ends. Actually there's a made for TV movie from the 90's called "Project ALF" which continues from the series finale. I have it taped on VHS somewhere, and you know what? It's hilarious. The first portion of the film is a riot while ALF is being experimented on by the government. I'm not joking, go watch it. Now.