Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Stupid characters

Wow, you guys love CHEERS topics. Here’s another one before moving on to something else.

Got into a discussion recently on the value of “stupid” characters on TV. And by that I mean in sitcoms, not our President. My contention was these characters worked because they had their own internal logic, usually taking things too literally. Think Gracie Allen, the Coach & Woody, Reverend Jim, etc. (In the case of our President the internal logic is “But if I go to New Orleans to inspect the flood damage I’ll miss the Padres game”.)

“Stupid” characters also provide a great way to impart exposition to the audience. When Sam explains what’s going on to the Coach he’s also explaining it to the viewers.

So the trick is to find that line that is dumb but you understand why the character would arrive at it. Sometimes it’s a fine line. In the case of the Coach on CHEERS we had a contest in a writers room to see who could pitch the dumbest Coach joke. One day we were faced with the following set-up: Sam is in his office. The Coach comes in to say he’s got a call. Jerry Belson is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. He pitched this:

COACH: Sam, there’s a little black man in the bar who wants to speak to you.

SAM: No Coach, that’s the phone.


But I’d like to offer this:

RUMSFELD: Mr. President, there’s a little black man outside on the desk who wants to speak to you.

BUSH: Send him in.


Anonymous said...

Like the president would say "Send him in." if he thought a black man wanted to see him.

Anonymous said...


I love your cheers stories, keep them coming. Im currently watching season 8 on dvd.

I like to know your opinions on another of my favorite comedies, Seinfeld. I didnt take to it until the second season, i think.

What are your thoughts on the show? i thought seinfeld really revolutionized the genre.

Anonymous said...

Characters with stupid (funny) lines are one thing.

Characters who do stupid things - like the 'stupid' guard who (probably part of an elite force) puts his face next to the the bad guy can strangle him and get the keys...that's just poor writing.

As you say, it's a fine line.

Richard Cooper said...

What about mean characters? Louie De Palma on Taxi was pure genius, as was Carla Tortelli on Cheers.

It seemed like Carla would never be mean to the dumb characters of Coach or Woody, but Louie freely crossed the line on Taxi, which gave him an edginess that few, if any, sitcom characters ever achieved.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous- I like the stuopid guard comment.
What about the stupid villian? The villian who gives a speech before trying to kill the good guy, giving the good guy ample time to come up with a plan or for the good guys buddy to sneak behind the villianous orater and pistol whip him!

Anonymous said...

The "internal logic" theme you mentioned reminded me of my favorite line in any sitcom ever. It's from Cheers, and Cliff has just spouted something ridiculous (once again).

Frasier looks at him, waits a perfect beat, then asks,

"What color is the sky in your world?"

I use that line to this day. Please tell me you wrote that.

By Ken Levine said...

I believe David and I wrote this, but Frasier said it to Cliff.

Anonymous said...

From the first season of Cheers...

I'm going to butcher this because I'm going from memory but..

The bar crowd is really pissed at somebody...

BARFLY: Let's burn him effigy
COACH: Let's just burn him here in Boston instead

Ken- Help a brother out with the scene!

Anonymous said...

what color is the sky in your world?

yeah, i remember that line. It was also used in THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT..samuel jackson, to that guy, (forget his name), but it was right after he leaped out of the burning building with geena davis, was shot at by a dozen bad guys, and rescued by this old dude, who then proceeded to swamp jackson with some revelations about where he hides his guns or something..

Anonymous said...

I love the Cheers stories, it's my favorite series.

One of the important points to make about the stupid character jokes is that they weren't mean, usually. You could laugh at Coach, for example, but with a sense of appreciation.

One of favorites. It was after Diane came back from the funny farm, and figured she was going to leave for good again. She was worried that Sam would hit the bottle again after she left again. She was maybe on the steps when she told Coach, "Stand by him." Naturally, Coach walked over and stood next to Sam. You had to love the guy.

Anonymous said...

No lines but an opinion

I think the bald guy who owned the resataurant upstairs was under used.