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Ten super sitcom sidekicks

by Allison Waldman, posted Apr 4th 2008 11:04AM
tenAOL Television has compiled a list of the 50 Best TV Comedies -- Ever, this week revealing numbers 50-41. Inspired by what they did, I've decided to list my favorite sitcom sidekicks, those funny foils that oftentimes make the star shine even brighter than you might have thought. Coming up with just a ten-pack hasn't been so easy. Many times, I'd look at a show and think, "No, it's more of an ensemble. There isn't one sidekick." Falling into that category were B.J. and Trapper John on M*A*S*H. Neither were Hawkeye's sidekick, really (any more than Radar was). Same thing with Friends -- they were all each other's sidekicks. Also, on The Odd Couple, Oscar and Felix were equal; neither was a sidekick. Ditto Two and a Half Men and Laverne & Shirley. Also, because it's my list, I decided not to include married couples -- sorry Rob and Laura, Ricky and Lucy, Archie and Edith.

Whew, after all that, here, in alphabetical order, are the ten I love -- within my own parameters! Feel free to comment with your choices, if your favorite isn't on my list.

Artie, the producer on The Larry Sanders Show - Larry Sanders was such an asshole. A funny, brilliant and unforgettable impression of a talk show host, and Garry Shandling was wonderful in the role. But without Rip Torn as Artie, his producer and sidekick par excellance, he wouldn't have been as good. Yes, Jeffrey Tambor, 'Hey Now' Hank, was also a huge part of the mix, but Artie wasn't the butt of the joke. He was Larry's collaborator. He gets the nod from me. (BTW, I could not find a last name for Artie. Anyone out there know it?)

Robert Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond - This is a classic case of the perfect sidekick. Ray Romano was a stand-up comic and needed a great team around him to make Everybody Loves Raymond really take off. As the forever envious, disgruntled but lovable older brother, Brad Garrett hit all the right notes. He's much better as a supporting player, a sidekick, than he is a star (sorry, Brad, but 'Til Death is not to die for, it's deadly bad).

Niles Crane on Frasier - I'll never forget hearing that they were spinning off a series from Cheers about the character of Frasier Crane. I thought the producers were nuts. Well, they were smarter than I was, because sending Frasier to Seattle to care for his father and start a radio show was a savvy move. But if they had not created the reflective character of Niles, Frasier's prissy, intellectual little brother and partner in all things effete and snooty, the show would never have been as superb. And they struck gold when they cast David Hyde Pierce in the role.

Dan Fielding on Night Court - Okay, you can call this one grand theft acting. As D.A. Dan Fielding, comic twit and sleazy attorney, John Larroquette stole this show from Harry Anderson and every other performer in the cast. It wasn't just that the character was well-written and got the best jokes, it was Larroquette's over the top interpretation. He really made you despise lawyers -- more than you already had.

Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show - It was called The Andy Griffith Show, but it became the Don Knotts Comedy Half-Hour. His comic quirks, the bug-eyes and nervous energy are now well-known and even considered old-hat. It's not. The smartest thing Andy Griffith did was sit back and let Don do his thing. The Barney Fife bits are as funny now as they were then, and will be for years to come. He personified the term "sidekick."

Jeff Greene on Curb Your Enthusiasm - Jeff Garlin's playing a version of himself, just like Larry David is doing the same on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Their comic improvisations -- within the framework of the script -- are so natural and crude and funny that you can't help but cackle. Larry really needs a character like Jeff to play off of and Garlin is a good comic foil for him. The chemistry doesn't feel like chemistry; it feels like friendship (which is what it is).

Jackie Harris on Roseanne - In the years since Roseanne was the top show in the country, Laurie Metcalf has done dozens of shows and episodes (great on Desperate Housewives as a crazed woman with a gun). But remember how good she was on Roseanne? She really gave Roseanne some gravity and truth. Roseanne was a comic, not an actress. Laurie Metcalf was the actress and she kept the relationship with Roseanne grounded in reality. They could only stand each other because they were sisters, that was the impression. She was a sidekick with substance.

Ethel Mertz on I Love Lucy - All praise Vivian Vance! Lucille Ball may be the Queen of Comedy (I think they even gave her a crown!), then it may be because she's standing on the shoulders of Vivian Vance. Ethel was the ultimate sidekick, Lucy's partner in every scheme, scam and hare-brained antic. You cannot laud Lucy without also acknowledging the sheer genius of Viv as her other other half (after Ricky naturally).

Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show - Here's a case where the entire cast is an ensemble. Every actor on that show, Gavin McLeod, Ted Knight, Ed Asner, Cloris Leachman, Betty White, Georgia Engle, they all were Mary's support. However, Valerie Harper stands out as Rhoda and she was a sidekick -- an almost equal half. The yin to Mary's yang. What made Rhoda and Mary so great together was that they were different types -- midwest vs. New York, classy vs. earthy -- and yet they were the same -- single, smart, funny. Mary was never really the same once Rhoda moved back home to New York and her own show. But at least Valerie found her own great sidekick, Julie Kavner as Rhoda's little sister, Brenda.

Ed Norton on The Honeymooners - This list cannot exclude Art Carney as Ed Norton. Jackie Gleason's The Honeymooners cannot exist without Ed Norton. He was simply Gleason's equal in comedy. Just close your eyes and remember the scene, "Address the ball. ...Hello, ball." Art Carney was an actor who took the character of Ed Norton and found within him every ounce of eccentricity and goofy charm. His sidekick worthiness is unmatched.

Barney Rubble on The Flintstones - He may have only been two-dimensional, but Barney Rubble was a full-fledged, multi-dimensional comic sidekick to Fred Flintstone. They worked together, played together, hung together and in Fred's cockeyed universe, Barney -- yeah, Barney -- was the voice of reason. Of course, he usually shrugged his shoulders, laughed and went along with whatever Fred wanted to do, but at least he paused for a moment to think about it. With Mel Blanc voicing the role, there was a lot of real humanity to Barney. He was precisely what a sidekick needs to be.

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Either your ignorance or forgetfulness is showing in listing Barney Rubble on a list that has to start with Ed Norton -- Barney was a thinly-veiled ripoff of Ed, just as The Flintstones were a suburbanized, stone-aged ripoff of The Honeymooners. Really like The Flintstones, especially the pre-Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm years, but including Barney is just wrong.

Fun piece of trivia: the two most famous/honored/consensus greatest episodes of I Love Lucy ("Lucy Does a TV Commercial") and The Mary Tyler Moore Show ("Chuckles Bites the Dust) included neither classic sidekick. Rhoda was in the second season of her own show, so that's obvious. But in all the Lucy literature I've read -- including the most definitive histories -- I can't find a reason why Vivian Vance doesn't appear.

May 13 2008 at 2:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

On Ken Levine's blog (One of the frasier writers) there is a posting by David Casey (one of the creators and producers) detailing how Niles came to be:

"Niles wasn't in the initial concept for the show. He came about through one of the greatest strokes of luck in tv history. Our assistant casting director at the time, Sheila Guthrie, came into our office one day with and 8x10 headshot of David Hyde Pierce and said, 'Have you guys thought of Frasier having a brother because this actor really looks like he could be related to Kelsey.' "

Full thing: http://kenlevine.blogspot.com/2006/12/more-frasier.html

April 05 2008 at 7:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Toby OB

My top choice would be Buddy Sorrell on 'The Dick Van Dyke Show' played by Morey Amsterdam. I'd also add in George Utley on 'Newhart', played by Tom Poston....

April 04 2008 at 9:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Sheldon on "Big Bang Theory" is on his way to becoming a new classic sidekick.

April 04 2008 at 7:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What about Peter Scolari as Tom Hanks' sidekick on Bosom Buddies? Too bad that show didnt last longer.

April 04 2008 at 4:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Appropriate credit should be probably given to David Hyde Pierce, who, I was told, came up with the idea of giving Frasier a brother. The story I heard when the show first came out was that they didn't originally plan to have a brother, but Pierce submitted his headshot in case they ever needed a brother because everyone told him that he looked like a young Kelsey Grammer. The producers saw the headshot, liked the idea of Pierce as Frasier's brother, and added the character!

April 04 2008 at 2:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Most of those shows featured ensemble casts and it is hard to call some of those characters sidekicks.

April 04 2008 at 2:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Great piece, Allison, with excellent and thoughtful choices that span all of television history, from "Lucy" through "Curb".

The only one I'm not sure about is Dan Fielding on "Night Court", and that's not because he didn't steal the show--he did!--but because he and Harry weren't friends, and didn't really do things together the way the other sidekicks on your list did with their leading character buddies.

April 04 2008 at 1:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I know this comment wont make me sound all that hip but I think that Brad Garretts role on 'Til Death isn't all that bad... He and Ray are coming to Seattle on Monday and I'll see how he does with stand up.

April 04 2008 at 1:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jeff N.

Barney Fife and Ed Norton were the two best comedy sidekicks ever.

April 04 2008 at 1:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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