No self-respecting blog can continue for long without some kind of list. You can tell when reading this that I am a much bigger fan of comedy than drama. When I was a kid, I saw dramas as boring. Besides, they were generally geared toward an adult audience, and I just wasn’t there yet.
10. Professor Roy Hinkley (Gilligan’s Island) “Do you realize I could have my own nuclear reactor?”
Superfans of Gilligan’s Island know that the Professor’s and Skipper’s real names are mentioned in the first episode and never again. It’s great that the Professor is called that throughout the life of the show and its made-for-TV movies of the late ’70s and early ’80s (Rescue from Gilligan’s Island, The Castaways on Gilligan’s Island, and The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island). You’d think that at some point, he would say, “Please, call me Roy.” Or did he insist on being called this? If so, it would make him far more egotistical than his character seems. Or did the others afford him a level of respect by calling him that? If so, wouldn’t they call him doctor (we can only assume he has a Ph.D—but could he be as brilliant as he is and not have a doctorate?) instead? By the way, I don’t think we ever know exactly what the Professor is a professor of. Most likely some kind of science given the above quotation. I doubt an English literature professor would be interested in having a nuclear reactor.
Anyway, I don’t know what it is about him that endears the character to me. I just crack up whenever I see Russell Johnson.
9. Rev. Jim Ignatowski (Taxi) “What does a yellow light mean?”
Johnny ‘Dr. Fever’ Caravella (WKRP in Cincinnati) “Boogerrrrrr!”
Okay, I’m cheating by lumping these two characters together. I’m doing it because (a) they both play aging hippies who had a little too much fun in their youth and are now paying a price for it, and (b) it was the only way to also include my number ten pick.
I am a big fan of non-sequitur humor, and often the only way you can deliver such a thing in a comedy based on realistic characters, is to have a character like Rev. Jim or Dr. Fever. Sometimes shows have a dumb character (like Ted Baxter in The
Mary Tyler Moore Show or Gilligan in Gilligan’s Island) who can deliver goofy lines because they’re clueless, or in the case of Coach in Cheers, had one too many baseballs to the head. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, however, you had a new breed of character—the stoned guy. He could be clueless, but he could also just be in a whole other universe for a while, which could bring a new set of reactions to the story. Tommy Chong played a similar role in That ’70s Show, which takes place at the same time, though it was produced decades later.
Only Dr. Fever could get faster reaction times as he got drunker. Only Rev. Jim could pause while playing a beautiful classical piano piece to say, “I must have had music lessons.” The typical dumb guy character wasn’t able to do this because he was dumb.
8. Det. Lt. Columbo (Columbo) “Just one more thing…”
The thing I like about Columbo is that he’s a brilliant detective, but he’s an expert at playing dumb. He looks like a schlub, and he acts like one too, but he’s the smartest guy in the room. He is always able to trick the suspect into sharing a piece of information that closes the book on the case. This is something I have always aspired to. I found other people are more forthcoming if they think you’re ignorant of the facts. If they think you have an idea of what’s going on, they are more inclined to justify their behavior instead of just telling you what they think. Maybe I shouldn’t have admitted that.
7. Col. (later Gen.) Jack O’Neill (Stargate SG-1) “So it’s possible there’s an alternate version of myself out there that actually understands what the hell you’re talkin’ about?” “Hey, Rigar. You know that ‘we come in peace’ business? Bite me.”
In a science fiction show where the bad guys think they’re gods, and the good guys are military people trying to save the earth, the character of Col. Jack O’Neill is a breath of fresh air. While everyone else is taking themselves dreadfully seriously, O’Neill keeps things light, which is a key to the success of this show (the longest-running sci-fi show ever with 10 seasons). Without Richard Dean Anderson’s take on the character as one who can’t help but point out the outrageousness of some of the characters or plots, the show would have died early as many other sci-fi shows have. When you look at how the aliens dress or at the technobabble other characters spout, how can you not see this as somewhat ridiculous? Anderson’s O’Neill pokes fun at these things while still performing within the conceit. He’s almost like Groucho Marx breaking the fourth wall but still remaining in the action of the moment. Not an easy task to pull off successfully, which he does.
6. Bob Hartley, Ph.D. (The Bob Newhart Show) “Are you calling me from a game—I hear a lot of screaming in the background…Oh, acupuncture class.”
I love Bob Newhart. First, he always reminded me of my dad—in both looks and demeanor. In fact, when I try to imitate Newhart, it ends up sounding more like my dad. Second, Bob Newhart is just a funny guy. When he and his producers tried coming up with a sitcom premise for him, they decided on him playing a psychologist because he would get to sit and react to his patients instead of carrying most of the dialog. One of his patients might say something outlandish, and as a psychologist, he has to under-react to it—he can’t jump out of his seat and say, “are you crazy?” This is perfect for Newhart’s stammering, understated, deadpan delivery. (Once, a producer asked him if he could stop stammering so much because it took up time, and the story had to be told in the time allotted. Newhart declined saying, “That stammer bought me a house in Beverly Hills.”)
5. Oscar Madison (The Odd Couple) “Will ya?”
The key to the greatness of The Odd Couple, to me, is the greatness of Jack Klugman as an actor. While he played in both comedies and dramas throughout the 1950s and ’60s, he spent a great deal of his time
working as a character actor in some of the great, or little-remembered, television playhouse theaters, which produced play adaptations or original works of drama. These were done in the days when the studio executives behind the medium still thought of TV as a way to bring art museums into the homes of everyday people. Klugman worked on such shows as The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, The United States Steel Hour, Studio One in Hollywood, Kraft Theatre,
Playhouse 90, The Alcoa Hour, and Twilight Zone. In film he is best known for his role in 12 Angry Men.
This man was (and still is) a serious actor. He plays Oscar Madison as a real person—not a caricature as many comedy actors do it today. You thought Klugman was Oscar Madison—a typical angry New Yorker who also wants to kill his best friend. Just watch his expression as Felix wakes him up in his bedroom or nags him to pick up after himself. That’s hate. Now look at Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer in Two and a Half Men. In this case, they’re brothers, but the dynamic between the two characters is very similar. Do you see that kind of verisimilitude with those actors? I can’t. Sheen and Cryer can deliver lines fine, but they still look like they’re delivering lines. If Sheen’s character is believable, it’s due to the character being based on Sheen. Klugman, however, embodied a character that was nothing like himself, but most people, to this day, think that Jack Klugman is a slob, and they’re disappointed when he tells them that he’s not. Now, that’s acting.
Stay tuned for entries four through one.